Bitter division has defined the Brexit era in the United Kingdom. Since the referendum was called by nationalists agitating for a secession from the European Union, the government has been in a state of constant duress. Now, another prime minister is in peril, caught among the demands of European counterparts, her party, Parliament members and a population unwilling to compromise. Theresa May can’t please all of them, but the mess of this process has illuminated how empathetic engagement is the antidote to political polarization.
The Brexit process began because English and Welsh citizens outside the metropolis of London felt unheard and unrepresented in Parliament. Their vote in the referendum was a way to demand their representatives prioritize them over a globalism they felt hurt them. In so doing, however, the needs of citizens around the country have been subjugated to the political posturing of partisanship.
Now, the political future of the U.K. hangs in the balance of current power struggles, as does the stability of global markets and the diplomatic power of the European bloc. While it is uncertain what relationship the state will have with the EU, if any, what is certain is that whoever governs the country’s future will face the uniquely challenging task of unifying the country, reconciling embattled European counterparts and compromising across benches in Parliament.
Some might say that’s asking the impossible. Critics would be right to assert the path ahead is challenging — either May or the next prime minister will struggle to push through a deal that neither Europeans nor progressive Brits want to see through, specifically in negotiating the customs border in Ireland.
But the biggest lessons to be had from a vantage point of critical distance is how quickly governance will fail when it does not prioritize citizens’ needs.
Facing re-election in under two years, President Donald Trump would do well to note how Theresa May is losing the support of her party and her country as deep political and social fissures in the nation remain unresolved. Instead of exacerbating division by pandering to a base of voters, the president should work harder to bridge social and political rifts within the country if he hopes to act as a leader capable of building coalitions to address the country’s most significant challenges.22 comments on this story
With a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, the Trump administration will struggle to accomplish key parts of its agenda if it is more interested in talking than listening. The recent televised argument among Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Trump documented an inclination by all three leaders toward argumentative redlines over compromise on immigration.
The Brexit process should serve as a warning sign that this kind of governance is both corrosive and unsustainable. The path forward for polarized political contexts is not to double down; it is to soften — listening to the needs of citizens and constituencies before they reach the boiling point of toxic political outcome.