The politics of optimism: Brexit, crises and new beginnings

Matthew Flinders

Professor Matthew Flinders advocates a politics of optimism to counter post-Brexit despair

Democratic politics is rarely seen in a positive light. Politicians are scoundrels, cads and crooks, and political processes tend to be slow, inefficient and inaccessible. As our leaders increasingly seem unable to deliver solutions to a number of our ‘super-wicked issues’ (climate change, global inequality, mental health, terrorism, etc.), the number of ‘disaffected democrats’ seems to increase. Public frustration at politicians’ apparent ineffectiveness may well explain a large part of the UK’s decision to leave the EU in its recent referendum.

Whether such an isolationist decision will help the UK’s position in an increasingly inter-connected and globalised world is doubtful, and one of the most striking features of the UK’s post-Brexit climate has been a powerful sense of doom and foreboding. “What have we done?” seems to be a common sentiment expressed by those who voted to leave the EU.

So could the current ‘politics of pessimism’ be replaced with a more fruitful and constructive ‘politics of optimism’?

The first thing to consider is not the failure of democratic politics but its incredible successes. The EU, for example, was established first and foremost as a peace project in the wake of World War II’s destruction. In this regard, democratic politics has been incredibly successful. More broadly, the world is safer than it has ever been, life expectancy is increasing in both the developed and developing world and several destructive diseases have been eradicated. Democratic politics may not be perfect, but we should not deny its achievements.

How can our ‘politics of pessimism’ be replaced with a more fruitful and constructive ‘politics of optimism’?

A second issue to consider is that crises bring new opportunities. This is true in politics just as it is in life, and the current post-Brexit national soul-searching represents a significant ‘window of opportunity’ for the UK to reconsider its position in the world and forge new relationships. The sky will not collapse, the world will not end, fish will not swim backwards, but new relationships will have to be developed. This might create a new social space for meaningful relationships with countries in all corners of the world that go beyond the materialistic and money-oriented debates that have dominated recent discussions about the EU.

But possibly the biggest and most positive opportunity provided by the current Brexit crisis/victory/mistake/triumph — delete according to your personal view — is the opportunity to think about your role in your community. Most politics actually comes down to everyday issues — whether the public park is safe and clean, what state council housing is in, whether there are enough schools and doctors surgeries, as well as fundraising and budgeting to make the most of limited resources. It’s about community and how I live my life and how you live yours.

Politics is not something done ‘over there’ by ‘a certain kind of person’. In fact, one of the most remarkable elements of most local councilors and national MPs is that they are generally … sort of … normal. They have bills to pay, families to look after, dilemmas, challenges, stresses and strains. Few MPs will be rich or famous (nor do they want to be), but they do try incredibly hard to make their communities better places.

But the ‘politics of optimism’ is not about those who have already stepped into the arena. It is about you, the reader, and the chance that Brexit might actually become a catalyst for you to consider your role in the community, your contribution to public life. Mental wellbeing is positively linked to engagement in local community, and there are lots of ways to get involved without even having to join a political party.

Politics is not something done ‘over there’ by ‘a certain kind of person’

In his 1910 The Man in the Arena speech, Theodore Roosevelt issued a call to arms. A century on, it remains as prescient and applicable as ever:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
(Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, France. April 23, 1910).

So reject the sapping politics of pessimism and the dream stealers who tell you that nothing can be done. Remember that it’s too easy to heckle from the sidelines — step up yourself and create a new politics of optimism.


Matthew Flinders is a professor of politics and founding chair of the University of Sheffield’s Sir Bernard Crick Centre. He is also chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom.

Image: Still from the animation: How democratic is the EU? by Shout Out UK

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  • Martin Dixon

    The reality of being involved includes having the time and energy to create the space inwhich to make a contribution.

  • Frank Burton

    The decision to leave the EU is a big vote for democracy – I feel lots more positive is going to come out of this decision than negatives. The UK is now free to forge new trade relationships without being hamstrung by the EU. On immigration the decisions now are going to be made by the UK on who to take and not take, and the UK can act in its own best interest again. It’s also going to be a huge saving not having to support the whole EU bureaucracy, an unelected body of government, not accountable to anyone.

  • Stevie Viscuso

    Considering the EU had, or are negotiating, trade agreements with 75% of the GDP represented in the top 189 countries by GDP, and we have the best deal with the countries that have the best market parity, what “new” trade agreement can we sign to get the same sort of return?

    Also, now we have lost “the EU bureaucracy, an unelected body of government, not accountable to anyone”, who will be creating our technocratic laws? They were made by “an unelected body of government, not accountable to anyone” before we joined the EU. They are made by “an unelected body of government, not accountable to anyone” today in the areas we legislate alongside, od over and above, EU law. It certainly can’t be done by our MPs. The fact there isn’t enough time to sit on all legislation has been made clear by the HoC. So to get the same sort of parliamentary scrutiny that we had in the EU, are you suggesting another house and another set of MPs with another set of elections, or are you suggesting we have MPs work through the weekend?

  • Stevie Viscuso

    With several year lead times, opportunities don’t come into it for some businesses. I’ve had to look at winding down. It’s pointless talking about how much “red tape” leaving the EU will save my business, since it wasn’t massively affected by it anyway. Particularly since I can’t save any money if the reduced investment that my customers will get as a result of Brexit means the risk to my business has increased. That risk means I’m now struggling to get investment myself, and how much money I can save “cutting red tape” in operations becomes irrelevant if I can’t attract the money in the first place.
    Equally I already sell products all over the world. What “new” relationship can I make? If the suggestion is that companies have been neglecting markets, then it’s normally for a reason beyond “because of the Single Market”. Market parity, being a good reason. If you make designer handbags, you’ll do better in Paris than you will in Easter Island. Developing markets aren’t so great for luxury goods, or, for example, In-app purchases.
    A local producer somewhere there is good market parity is also at a massive advantage. They have a better understanding of the local market, and the cultural marketing needs. It’s quite possible they will be able to undercut on wages, spend less on raw materials, and their overheads for delivery and returns will always be lower than those incurred by a far off business.
    There is also the eggs in the basket issue. Last year Dan Hannan was telling everyone what a great place Brazil would be to sign a deal with. He didn’t mention it this year. Many markets that are showing high growth are usually doing it with some economic imbalance that is fuelling it. As a trader, I don’t look at a country doing well and think “I have to break into that market”. I could be putting a lot of effort into something that comes to an end before I’m ready to launch.
    Armchair traders who have never traded anything in their lives have sat back and said “Why don’t we just sell here, or trade there” during the referendum. Clearly they were people who have never traded in their lives.
    It might mean some companies who have been under reaching actually do a bit more, but for a lot of us it is about looking at what we are doing now, what bandwidth we have, and then worrying about how we can mitigate to the point where we don’t go bust.

  • Frank Burton

    This is an opportunity to do away with a lot of laws than have hamstrung the economy and people’s well being. The EU laws were made to serve the globalization agenda which is all about concentrating power in fewer and fewer hands. These laws have served multinational corporations well, but not small business. It’s small business that creates the jobs and gives people self esteem and purpose. It creates variety and economic well being shared more evenly in society. Assisting small business again would go a long way to reverse the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the shrinking of the middle class.
    The UK is free to pursue trade deals with whoever she wants. Trade deals done by the EU will always benefit some countries but not others, as every country is different. Again I see this as an opportunity for the UK, not a disadvantage. Trade is about looking at the win / win possibilities that are worth pursuing, not free trade at all cost, or imposed, which can end up having more disadvantages for the UK economy than benefits. The social impacts need to be taken into account as well.

  • Stevie Viscuso

    “This is an opportunity to do away with a lot of laws than have hamstrung the economy and people’s well being. The EU laws were made to serve the globalization agenda which is all about concentrating power in fewer and fewer hands. ”

    That’s not true. Globalisation is happening without any political involvement. One of the reasons the UK first applied to the EEC was it was a political system which was better suited to the political and economic climate that was evolving with globalisation. It’s not about concentrating power in fewer hands, I’d recommend you read understand Article 3 to appreciate that.

    The EU has done some remarkable work in terms of “red tape”, but it is largely mid-understood. A large amount comes down to soft laws, and a large amount is informative. A great example being the lie that Brexit gave about ladders. One of their representatives said he had to have someone come in and count the rungs on his stepladder once a month. Firstly, the EU didn’t dictate the length of time, that was our government. Secondly they didn’t dictate the type of testing that needed to be done. All they actually said was that member states could set the date but it had to be checked within the manufacturer guidance.

    Ignoring the fact that the UK then went to work gold-plating the EU legislation to make it far more complicated than it actually was (the equivalent German legislation is far more efficient), if we were to drop that legislation and revert back to the Health and Safety Act of 1974 then nothing changes for the small businessman in terms of his duty of care. If a ladder broke, he’d be in front of a judge, and if he couldn’t prove he had checked the ladder according to the manufacturers guidance he would be found liable. The difference between the “EU red tape” and the “UK Law” was that the small businessman was given clear guidance on how to keep his employees safe, and in the event of something going wrong, ensuring that his business was safe. Expert advice that he would normally have to buy in was provided free by the EU.

    There is also quite a lot of red tape around standardisation. Again, the majority of companies are going to be following that, regardless of it being a legislation, because it multiplies their addressable market by 10 times.

    Finally there is a certain amount of red tape that does impact businesses, but leaving the EU didn’t give us an opportunity to “do away” with them, since we already had that power. In the last government businesses were asked what red tape was affecting them the most. Unsurprisingly, the UK government was the biggest culprit (UK red tape costs businesses more than EU red tape), however, 20 EU regulations that were identified were taken to the EU and changed. It wasn’t hours of diplomatic work, it was one meeting to put forward the changes and have them approved. The EU was then, and remains to this day, only too happy to make their legislation efficient.
    The problem with EU red tape is that lazy ignorant people blame the EU for regulation that comes from this country. Leaving the EU will simplify the process to the point where they don’t need to apply their brain when they are complaining about something.

    As for the UK being “free to pursue trade deals with whoever she wants”, that’s not what I asked. Although, I’m very interested, aside from market parity, what particular trade deal you think benefits some countries but not others. Which one did you have in mind? I certainly don’t know of a trade deal that has been to the disadvantage of the UK. The EU isn’t even allowed to begin negotiations without their negotiation positions being approved by the Council. The EU-India FTA is largely being held because the EU is protecting UK interests. The idea the EU doesn’t have the best interest of all their member states is laughable.
    Equally, we don’t have trade deals “imposed” on us. The Commonwealth trade deals were done because we asked for them to be done. The 1978 China deal was done because we wanted it. Even the EU-Japan deal being negotiated now came from our push for it. We were in a position to get the trade deals we considered important when we were in the EU, along with having a much better negotiating position.
    So while Brexit is an opportunity for governments to play at trade deals, that doesn’t answer the question of where the opportunity is for business. It’s true the government is now entirely in the driving seat, but the question was where does it go to get the same benefits we had in the EU?
    Glad you brought up the social impacts, although they have little relevance in the context of “business opportunity” were great. Lots of opportunity for people to get to know people of different cultures. A very rewarding experience. However, not really applicable in the context of a discussion of the business opportunities of Brexit.

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