On the afternoon of June 23, in the English town of Chichester, the West Sussex police were called to a polling station. A group of anti-European Union activists were handing out black pens in an effort to prevent pencil-marked ballots from being altered, after it spread rumors that the intelligence agency MI5 was planning to rig the vote on Britain’s EU membership.
As it turned out, the democratic will of the British people was too much even for James Bond and his colleagues. By early next morning, Britain had voted to leave the EU, defying pundits’ expectations.
It is easy to point to these examples as evidence that the UK had made a terrible mistake. Surely, Brexit was the result of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s Euro-skeptic agenda — a toxic cocktail of xenophobic rhetoric and half-truths. Or perhaps it was a problem with turnout — an age divide with younger voters having their opinions ignored.
But these are just excuses: they do not gel with the facts. The British media split evenly on the issue, with Murdoch’s publications, The Sun, backing Leave and The Times backing Remain. The staunchly Eurosceptic paper, The Mail on Sunday, also surprisingly endorsed the Remain campaign.
Moreover, the high turnout of 72.2 percent proved that its result enjoyed a strong mandate. While regions that voted to Leave had a higher turnout than those that voted to Remain, it simply reflected the enthusiasm of Euro-skeptics and the apathy of Remain supporters. Similarly, the majority of young voters were just not persuaded that the issue was worth their vote: only 36 percent of 18–24 year olds bothered to vote. According to the British Election Study, this was the only age group to see a fall in turnout in comparison with the 2015 General Election.
The reality is that Brexit happened because large numbers of voters, who had not voted in a British election for a generation, stormed out of the woodwork and toward a ballot box. Millions of poorer voters from worse-off areas of the country (mainly Northern England) grabbed the opportunity to hit the brakes on a changing world that was leaving them behind.
Because pollsters filter their results according to whether respondents have voted in the past, these groups did not show up in traditional opinion polls. This same group rejected the apocalyptic economic rhetoric about the risks of leaving the EU and the stability the EU provided; in the status quo, they felt neither stable nor economically secure. They worried about the effects that unlimited migration would have on their jobs and their wages. Talk about the effects of Brexit on interest rates, house prices and GDP sounded like a foreign language.
As potential future leaders, Yalies need to pay attention to this phenomenon. Quiet uprisings in populist movements are appearing across the world. Marine le Pen and her far-right party, the National Front, are topping opinion polls in France. Angela Merkel, once the symbol for stability and sound governance in Europe, is grappling with the rise of support for the Alternative for Germany party after she opened Germany’s borders to a million Syrian refugees. Austria is facing a Presidential run-off between a Green Party candidate and a right-wing populist after the country’s constitutional court annulled the initial result because of irregularities in absentee ballots. And in America, Donald Trump last week took a lead in swing state polls, promising he will fix a “rigged system” and “make America great again.”
Furthermore, events have discredited the fear mongering of the elite. All indicators show that Brexit is not the economic disaster its opponents claimed it would be. British unemployment continues to fall, and 12 countries have said they will seek free trade deals with the UK after she leaves the EU. Banks and credit rating agencies have revised projections for the economy, and Theresa May has ably and professionally stepped into David Cameron’s shoes in 10 Downing Street.
The truth is that quiet discontent is beginning to boil over. Voters left out in an increasingly globalized economy are seeking out politicians and causes that strike a chord. Instead of chastising them, they have started to look to for answers. Responsible opinion-makers and leaders must address the causes of the issues that are wedging this silent majority from a system that no longer works for the people it claims to serve.
Ben Mallet is a sophomore in Davenport College. He worked as a political consultant for the British Conservative Party. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .