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Brexit Requires New Brand of Leadership

Mal Fletcher
Posted 24 June 2016
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Rarely in its recent history has the UK needed leadership more than it does right now and will do for the foreseeable future.

That is, leadership as distinct from political management. Both are valuable assets in times of huge change. However, only leadership will facilitate a proactive, inclusive, reassuring and empowering move toward the future.

For the most part, management is focused on metrics, established benchmarks and tactics. Leadership is fundamentally aligned more with shaping mindsets, discovering entirely new ways of doing things and mapping out longer-term strategies.

Management is about structural engineering; leadership is about cultural architecture. It is about building a different cultural milieu in which people feel that they have the confidence and the security to innovate and prosper.

The UK has been a part of the European Union and the EEC before it for forty years. Its only other referendum on membership of the Common Market, as it was then known, was back in 1975 and saw a clear vote to stay, with the hope of reform.

The first test of whether the UK will flourish outside of the EU club will be the type of leadership it produces from here – in business, politics, the economy and much more.

The brand of leadership this country needs now is marked firstly by an ability to unite people, promoting inclusion and honouring those who feel excluded.

A voting result of 52 to 48 percent reflects how divided the community has become. Indeed, it is unlikely that any general election would foster disagreements within families and workspaces in the way that this referendum reportedly has done.

With or without a new general election down the line – and there is no legal requirement for one – the nation needs political leaders who have a capacity to re-energise people. To bring people together around a sense of a common cause and a common good. To practice pragmatism with a heavy dose of idealism and compassion.

The EU, which surely won’t welcome today’s outcome, should hold itself partly responsible.  Time and again the EU has over-stepped the mark where national sensibilities – if not sovereignty – is concerned. Its top layer has behaved with an attitude of exclusion.

At its highest levels it has pushed a clearly federalist agenda. This despite the fact that federalism was never a major plank of the Union for which member states signed up. “Ever closer union” has long featured in EU and EEC documents, but has never been clearly defined.

Many Europhiles within the UK look on that term favourably if it refers to a close-knit trading group of interdependent nation-states. But they feel very differently about the idea of an ever closer political union, with unelected bureaucrats at its apex.

The EU has sometimes brazenly ignored the results of national referenda on new treaties. Opponents of the proposed European constitution in 2001, for example, saw it as federalist in its intent. The planned constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

The EU sidestepped this rejection on technicalities. Where the EU had originally cast the constitution as an attempt to throw out earlier treaties and start again, Union leaders now presented some of its main points as mere amendments to existing treaties. This new treaty, itself once rejected by the Irish, was eventually signed into law in Lisbon in 2009.

The EU has had its fair share of successes – most notably in promoting internal travel, dialogue, trade, security and above all peace. These should not be underappreciated – especially the last.

Most recently it has, however, shown arrogance in its handling of the migration question and its attempts to solve common problems through elitist back-channel tactics. Angela Merkel’s negotiations with Turkey, for example, were well intentioned, but they were perceived by some people in the EU as unrepresentative and unsupportable.

This perceived arrogance made it hard for friends of the EU to make a case in its defence during the UK’s referendum.

Boris Johnson, a biographer of Churchill after all, claims that the institution was fit for purpose when it was conceived. It is now, he says, no longer doing the right job for Britain.

Now that the UK has made its choice, its leaders must wind back any notions of elitism in their ranks. Inclusion must begin within the political classes themselves.

It would be helpful if the next Prime Minister were to call together a “government of all the talents”. Not in the formal, cabinet sense perhaps, but as an advisory group made up of eminent thinkers and doers who are prepared to place national interest above sectional concerns or self-promotion.

If media vox pops are to be believed, today’s result has left more than a few Brits feeling quite insecure about their future.

This was bound to happen, whatever the outcome. After all, this was not a poll on a five-year government; it proscribed an epochal national direction. What’s more, the vote was always expected to be a tight one, despite more bombastic noises from the markets and the bookies.

Arguably the success of the Leave campaign allows more room for insecurity, even among its own supporters, than a vote for the status quo might have done. The status quo is, after all, usually easier to live with than change – unless, of course, there is an external, existential threat to the nation as in a time of war.

Doubtless, the legendary British capacity for continuity will come to the fore and people will find ways to leave disagreements behind. Indeed, many leaders and supporters of the defeated side have already expressed a desire to work for the common cause going forward.

Yet divisions will remain and possibly, for a while, suspicions with them. Tonight, the United Kingdom is more than a little disunited, emotionally and in terms of its aspirations.

Shaping the first pages in this new chapter in Britain’s history will also require leadership that focuses on strategy more than tactics, building on patiently-thought-through priorities. It will need to see over the horizon and beyond the nation’s front door.

Many voices will clamour to be heard as the UK seeks to decide what kind of “independent” state it will be. I use the word independent advisedly, as no nation is truly independent in an increasingly globalised world.

Indeed, most nations of any note today – even in the developing world – are uniting in blocs of one form or another, to bolster influence and cut costs with trade.

In Asia, the APEC network of nations provides economic opportunities for nations including Australia and New Zealand. The BRICS countries, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, are seeking to work more closely in terms of trade and development. Other blocs operate at differing levels of cooperation to form gateways of innovation, commerce and understanding.

Eventually, the UK will need to find its way into another perhaps non-political bloc, at the very least for trading purposes.

While the Commonwealth’s 53 nations provide a healthy and natural potential grouping for Britain, they operate at differing levels of GDP. Aside from the UK, none of them has any notably global influence. It’s never healthy for a nation like ours to cooperate only with nations of lesser influence.

As they formulate plans for the future, our leaders will confront demands for urgent attention from vested interests in trade, science, technology, banking, financial service and politics.

Media opinionators will urge this course of action or that; each one supposedly more imperative than the last. Meanwhile, heads of political parties will elbow their interests forward. Indeed, this was happening within a few hours of today’s result.

Mid-morning, David Cameron stood solemnly behind a lectern outside Number 10 Downing Street. His wife Samantha, wearing a distinctly worried expression, stood by as he delivered a heartfelt and composed speech.

In it he pledged to resign in time for a new leader of his party – and a new Prime Minister – to emerge following the Conservatives’ October conference.

A little while later, across town, Brexit leaders Boris Johnson and Michael Gove spoke about the next moves for the nation. Gove said that the UK would gradually extricate itself from the EU machine, while Johnson spoke of Britain remaining a committed friend of Europe and a major player in the European region.

Neither addressed the issue of whether or not, in this divorce, the UK would lose the children.

The EU referendum has not only divided some families, it has divided a family of nations.Wales, though often a beneficiary of EU funding, opted to Leave. Scotland voted clearly for Remain, as did Northern Ireland, which has the only UK land border with another EU country.

Almost immediately, the leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, pledged to set in motion a legal framework for a second Scottish independence vote. Shortly thereafter, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuiness, called for a poll on establishing a united Ireland.

With all this happening on his/her flank, the next Prime Minister must trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, officially setting in motion a disengagement from the EU. Two years of relative uncertainty will follow.

This will require leadership marked by a statesman-like sense of calm, along with the ability to project proactive forward-thinking and bold innovation.

During this time, lawyers will argue over the terms of the EU divorce. In a sometimes febrile atmosphere, the UK will need to negotiate with its erstwhile EU companions a new type of trade arrangement.

David Cameron has been, for the most part, a principled leader. On some issues he pivoted a little more toward liberalism than some within his party and the electorate would have liked. However, he has been upfront about his plans and has tried to explain his motivations.

Until now, he has been seen as a very lucky Prime Minister. He pulled a win out of the hat in the closely fought Scottish Independence referendum of 2014. Then, less than a year later, he guided the Tories to their first outright general election since, I think,1992.

One wonders now, though, whether he will be seen more as the great gambler than the great statesman.

He is a gifted politician, without doubt, and an honourable man. The question history must answer in time, though, is whether he had developed too much of a taste for risk. Perhaps in the end he pushed his luck once too often.

Now, some might ask whether Nick Clegg’s first-term boast about having kept the Tories from their own worst excesses wasn’t without merit.

Mr Cameron promised the EU referendum in his last election manifesto largely for political reasons, some of them quite understandable. In order to win a general election outright, Cameron needed to neutralise the UKippers on his right.

Although he was once something of a Eurosceptic himself, he also wanted to end the Tories’ decades-long bickering over Britain’s sometimes troubled relationship with the EU.

Does all of that constitute leadership, or political tactics and opportunism? Or is one intrinsically linked to the other in politics? It’s doubtful you could call it strategy.

Earlier today, Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader and a passionate Remainer, expressed anger at the result of the referendum. He outlined what he saw as the UK’s impending economic demise.

It is understandable that he should be upset about the result, when his party had fought hard for the other side.

But talking about doomsday scenarios will not move the story forward from here. The nation needs leaders to sound and behave as if they’re ready to overcome whatever the future throws at them and us.

The British spirit of pluck in times of deep uncertainty has become legendary. The UK’s ability to produce highly creative entrepreneurs, inventors and disruptive thinkers has earned kudos the world over.

It’s high time those qualities were embodied in and projected by the nation’s leaders.  

What’s your view?

In your view, is Britain better off outside the EU?



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