A peer’s sobering Brexit insights


From Great Britain to the United States and now France, we’re seeing the emergence of an unholy alliance of crass opportunism, big money, media savvy and an aversion to truth in the name of new politics. But then money, creative interpretations of the truth and media manipulation have been inherent to big politics far longer than Donald J Trump’s claims to the United States’ greatness have. The distinction appears to be in how these forces are being used to further bigotry in liberal democracies.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is a British politician who straddles these tensions. A peer of the realm and the daughter of immigrants, she’s also a Tory.

Days before the Brexit referendum in June, she publicly announced that she had withdrawn her support for the Leave campaign. Her defection to the Remain camp prompted some to question whether she had actually been part of the Leave campaign at all. Warsi insisted that she was ethically opposed to the racist and xenophobic undercurrents of the Leave campaign.

When the Brexit referendum results were announced, analysts thought that voters were driven by a feeling of distance from politicians, and there were also those brazen racists who believe the white man is an endangered species.

And yet Warsi described her initial support for Leave to have been rooted in the belief that Britain ought to be more open to the rest of the world and not centre itself in Europe.

On a recent speaking tour in South Africa hosted by investment firm 27four, Warsi admitted that these political leanings may well be a mystery to South Africans.

“I presume many of you in South Africa must be looking at us and thinking: ‘Why are you going in the wrong direction?’” she said.

Warsi insists that her initial support for the campaign to leave the European Union was rooted in her belief in Britain’s potential to make its own space in the world.

“There were the kind of Brexiteers that I felt that I wanted to be, which was: ‘Hello, world,’ and then there was the other kind of Brexiteers, which I defined as ‘little islanders’,” she said.

“What we found in the end was, sadly, despite the fact that many of us felt that Brexit could have been a positive moment, what we found was the message that resonated across the country, which got people to vote, was the little islanders’ message and that was really a sense that we needed to take our country back. I felt it was more of a regressive message rather than a progressive message.”

The parallels between the Brexit referendum result and the US election results are unmistakable.

“Voters seem to believe they have to vote in a way that is almost beyond what even they believe, but it is a way of saying we’ll be heard. It is a message they are sending: we will matter; we will belong. And it almost makes a very dangerous form of populist politics,” she said.

Warsi held the post of Conservative minister for faith and communities between 2012 and 2014. She was also a cochairperson of the party for some time. Famous for being Britain’s first Muslim Cabinet minister, she quit her post in protest over the government’s stance on the last Gaza war.

An indication of the change of political tack among Tories is that far-right politician Liam Fox now serves in Theresa May’s Cabinet. And this after once being forced to resign from the Cabinet for failing to keep his friendships out of his work as a minister.

As much as the media must be held accountable for the rise of the likes of Trump, so too must politicians be scrutinised for how well, or not, they serve the people.

Warsi agrees. “If people do not trust us, if we’re not a particularly liked profession, if people believe we say one thing and we mean something else and do something else, then of course you’re going to have a disconnect between those people who feel they’re going to the ballot box and putting a cross against your name and what they see as the outcome,” she said.

Politicians, she believes, need to take responsibility for their reputations just as they need to take responsibility for the rise in demagoguery.

“I think politicians need to say there are certain lines that cannot be crossed. As people who live in civilised nations, we believe in equality in terms of gender, equality in terms of races, equality in terms of religion, and those lines cannot be crossed,” she said.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether the Tories, for example, will shift further into defence against the ascendancy of the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party. “I think liberal values, which we so take for granted now in the United Kingdom and in the US, we can no longer take for granted,” Warsi said.

“Some people who are clearly voting for these parties and for Donald Trump will see this as their own form of progress, but I believe those people who believe in genuine liberal values of tolerance and equality have to say: ‘Yes, of course this is demo-cracy. You’ve delivered this election but there are certain lines that must not be crossed.’ And we have a lot to learn from South Africa, from how you actually started to head down the right path.”

Warsi believes that the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the ultimate arbiter of what those liberal values are. And yet Trump’s orange colouring has been no hindrance to white supremacists hailing him their leader, complete with Nazi salute.

Never mind strange, these are frightening times. And in the US and in Britain and in France, the failures of politicians are quite clear. Politics is no longer business as usual.

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Khadija Patel
Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, a co-founder of the The Daily Vox and vice chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI). As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and the Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand) and has previously worked in community media. In 2017, she was among 11 people from across Africa and the diaspora who were awarded the inaugural Africa #NoFilter fellowship from the Ford Foundation and in 2018, she was awarded honorary membership of the Golden Key Society. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good.

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