The Brexit Dichotomy – Illusion or Delusion?

The Brexit Dichotomy – Illusion or Delusion?

We cannot resolve the current impasse over Brexit without first reforming democracy itself, argues Gib Bulloch.


  I first saw this image when I was about eight or nine years old.  My father, an art teacher, had been using it in his in his classes to teach perspective.

“What do you see in this picture?” he asked.

“A woman, of course, Dad.  Why?”

“Do you see an old woman or a young woman?” he asked, with a smile. I can’t remember which answer I gave but whether it was the beautiful young lady, or the old witch like face with the long chin and big nose, my dad was ready to pick the opposite image. It was a simple, but memorable lesson.  There are two sides to every story.  We can be both right and wrong at the same time.

It strikes me that this is a powerful metaphor for the political chaos in which the UK now finds itself over Brexit.  Reconciling the Leavers and Remainers is an impossible dichotomy. The two-and-a-half years since the June 2016 vote have only served to deepen divisions between young and old, rural and urban, rich and poor. Both sides are, of course, right in their views. Both are also wrong. I’ve largely kept out of this debate until now, ducking the inevitable division and arguments it causes with friends and family. This contribution In writing about this today, I am contributing to a debate that is equally relevant to both sides.

Theresa May was handed the unenviable, arguably impossible task of finding a compromise between the 52% who voted for one image of Europe (or version of the woman’s picture, if you like) and the 48% who voted for the other. The compromise that has been forced through the Cabinet is akin to getting both sides to agree that the image is neither a young woman nor an old woman, but of an old/young man instead.  It’s a compromise that appeals to neither side. There are growing calls for a so-called People’s Vote and it certainly holds the appeal of jamming on the brakes before the country flies off the proverbial socio-economic cliff. But, a vote in and of itself will not solve the problem.

The Brexit process has been chaotic, to say the least, and has sucked the oxygen from most of the political debate, causing politicians to take their eye off the ball from some of the domestic issues that, no doubt, contributed to frustrations evident during the Brexit vote. After 10 years of austerity, is it any wonder that people are hungry for change? Change that will improve their lives and live up to the bold, attractive promises offered by both sides in the pre-referendum debate.

Yet, there could be one good thing to emerge from the vexed (or should that be Brexed?) situation we find ourselves in.  That is, the opportunity to conduct reform of our outdated democratic processes and institutions.

To criticize our hallowed democracy is to suggest we ignore “the decided will of the British people”—to be undemocratic. It is much the same as expecting criticism of that other great sacred cow, capitalism, to lead to being branded a communist, or anti-business.  I’m not anti-business—but I am anti business-as-usual. I’m not undemocratic. But I am anti democracy-as-usual. Both are powerful systems that are worth preserving and defending. Both were designed for a different era, before the advent of the Internet, #FakeNews and cyber espionage—and are now showing their age.

Perhaps, there is one thing that both sides of this debate could agree on—that Britain should lead the world and continue to be a beacon for the rule of law, fair play and upholding democratic values. The fallout from the Brexit dichotomy could be used as an opportunity to fundamentally reform our democratic systems of governance and make them fit for the new challenges of the 21st century. I’d go so far to say that failure to do so should be considered a dereliction of duty—especially when it seems to be sidelined in favour of short-term political expediency of our elected leaders keen to preserve their political careers. Pressing the pause button on Article 50 for a maximum of 12 to18 months, would provide a window of opportunity to conduct a Royal Commission into how our systems could be improved—a root and branch review that would harness the power of today’s technology to ensure that all voices are heard.  And EU leaders could take advantage of the opportunity to look at their own systems of governance and accountability.

Brexit need not be reversed.  Instead, it could be put on hold temporarily. The findings of this cross-party, cross-country, cross-age group Royal Commission could be subject to a vote in Parliament that would have far more chance of being passed than today’s ugly compromise of “let’s agree that the image is of a man.” The highly inclusive Royal Commission’s proposals for resolving the Brexit impasse could then be subject to a vote in parliament and perhaps, subsequently a new People’s Vote which would represent the clear informed view of a reformed modern democracy.

The challenges we are currently experiencing with Brexit are merely a symptom of a much deeper problem with democracy, as are Trump and all the other populist polarising leaders emerging from the right and left.   We cannot reverse this trend, nor resolve Brexit without first reforming the system that created it. Any short-term fix that is less than fundamental democratic reform is simply an optical and political illusion.


Gib Bulloch.  Author, The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a corporate insurgent

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