Brexit ‘a push off a cliff'

In 1995 I was living in Quebec City. I was there as a student at the Universit Laval. Sovereignty was the issue of the day - well it had been the issue for the last few decades but 1995 was a turning point moment. Quebecers were being asked the question: "Do you agree that Qubec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Qubec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"

In the few days before the referendum I remember the sense of certainty that there would be a clear "no" vote... just like in 1980 when Quebeckers were asked a similar question. But in the early hours of the evening, after the polls closed, the "yes" side was clearly winning. Commentators kept saying: "Wait until the big cities come in... things will turn around." But for a few hours I held my breath - and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief only in the wee hours of the morning when the "no" side won.

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Last night was a dj vu... a referendum to ask if the U.K. will leave the European Union. This time the outcome left me breathless.

The impact of the Brexit is not yet known and again I am reminded of the "aftershock" of the Quebec Referendum. With the vote just a squeak away from success (49.42 per cent "Yes" to 50.58 per cent "No") those who had been so certain that it would fail were left uneasy at their ill-preparedness. After the shockingly close call, pundits and politicians started to ask about whether or not a simple majority could put the "yes" vote over the top. What does 51 percent really say? Is it possible that the rules, status and future of an entire group could be based on a margin that simply tips the scale just slightly? Canada had the luxury of "clarifying" this question because the no side won but on that evening in 1995; we were not prepared to answer that question, or any question about the future of our country, should the "yes" vote have won.

Well, good morning world... Britain is now in that very position. As markets tumble, as a prime minister resigns, as immigrant workers wonder about their future, there is no handbook for the next steps. And, the decision to leave is based on only 51.9 per cent of the population in favour; 48.1 per cent of people are aghast at the prospect of political, social and economic turmoil.

This moment is not just a crossroads, it is a push off a cliff.

Sometime ago, I wrote about the points of confluence between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential primary race. There are those, on the left and the right of the political spectrum, who have simply been left behind by the forces of globalization. They are the people who have worked in low skill, high wage position who are now finding their jobs disappearing, their prospects waning and their dreams dashed. Globalization has done many good things but it has not been able to figure out a way to fix the wage / job gap that has been created in its wake between winners and losers. Of course, we all know that globalization is not an agent in itself. Many governments have failed to put in the necessary safe guards that keep a society resilient when the global economic order undergoes such a significant change.

Mark Easton posted a column on the BBC website entitled "A less than United Kingdom" in which he harkens back to the upheaval caused by the industrial revolution and the changes that "transformed [towns like Manchester] from a market town ... to a teeming metropolis..." He argues that: "Those sucked into the gravitational pull of the new manufacturing centres were forced to adapt to urban dominance, but such was the resentment that it lives on to this day... Then, as now, there was bewilderment at how anyone would willingly give up the certainties of age-old structures and customs for the risks of rapid social and economic change. Then, as now, equal bewilderment that anyone would willingly forgo the benefits of progress."

The voting demographic clearly showed that young people were willing to accept progress but older citizens are firmly resistant to change - especially when there is little prospect for actually taking advantage of the promise of progress.

But the promise that the clock can be turned back is a fool's errand. The vote in the UK should be a wakeup call for those who think that Donald Trump will not succeed in November. It is not just the current wage gap (the one per cent) that is the problem... it is the gap between the belief that one has the chance to build a comfortable life and the doubt that there is any real prospect for upward mobility that will determine who wins in November.

And, right now, there are a lot of people who believe that there are no prospects for them in the global economic order.

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