The politics of optimism: Brexit, crises and new beginnings

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

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