A referendum, like a general election, should be a wonderful opportunity for an electorate to engage directly with issues that matter to them. It should be a chance to hear arguments from all sides and to see evidence supporting or challenging those arguments, enabling an informed decision at the ballot box. In theory. But for a democratic exercise to affirm what it sets out to do – to give people a voice in how their country should proceed – those in positions to inform and influence the wider public need to ensure choices are accompanied by realistic appraisals of what is on offer. Unfortunately, in the wake of our referendum last week, many people feel that some in positions of power have rallied support for their own agenda by marketing to the electorate with false promises.
As untruths are revealed, regret is being expressed by some who voted to leave. Usually if you’re sold a false bill of goods you have the option of returning the goods. Not very likely in this case. So for many of us, one of the deepest regrets about last week and the concomitant sharpest concern for the future is that this was not the promised exercise in democracy. Instead it was more of a series of failures of leadership, an exercise in false marketing and a willingness to compromise on many of the core principles that should guide responsible behaviour by those with power and a public platform.
In my view, we now find ourselves with at least two key challenges around leadership. First, and most evidently, we have a political vacuum that must be filled. But this vacuum must be filled well in the wake of a referendum campaign many feel lacked credible leadership on either side. There are of course many reasons why leadership will have to be strong and skilful through these turbulent times, but not least because of a related challenge. An ongoing failure of leadership risks exacerbating the disaffection and discontent that many are feeling across the UK – a disaffection and discontent expressed at the ballot box.
As reality sets in, beyond the immediate shocks we are already experiencing, there is the possibility that reduced competition from migrants for some local jobs may be more than offset by fewer jobs and less growth overall as many companies consider relocating to the Continent. If this happens, disaffection could worsen, and with it a realisation that the protest against the establishment has merely replaced one set of mistrusted leaders with others. Many who have never done so came out to vote in this referendum, and if they feel yet again betrayed then further disenfranchisement may ensue. There is of course a serious question about where protest and disaffection goes when the usual democratic channels fail, and evidence of the kind of sentiment expressed in racist hostility over the weekend is not grounds for optimism.
So what do we do? Filling the political vacuum and rebuilding trust in leaders is not a small ask. But this is also not the first time related challenges have been faced. In response to public dissatisfaction with the conduct of those in senior public positions 22 years ago, then Prime Minister John Major asked Lord Nolan to undertake a review of standards in public life. The Nolan Committee concluded that public discontent stemmed from a lack of clarity about how people are expected to behave in public positions of power and influence.
After six months’ work Lord Nolan announced the committee’s unanimous conclusions and proposed seven Principles of Public Life to which those holding public office should be held to account and which should be ‘systematically reinforced’. This is a moment to restate these principles, many of which seem to have been lost along the way by so many who should be exemplifying them. They are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, openness, honesty, accountability, and leadership. It should be noted that leadership in Nolan’s framing is defined by upholding these principles and being held to account for leading by example.
In the coming months, whoever takes on the mantles of the various political parties could revisit these Nolan principles, work harder to understand the very real concerns of many who wanted their voices heard, and ensure they are proposing realistic and effective ways forward. We shall be looking to hold them to account – there is far too much at stake not to do so. And far from eschewing expertise, the challenge ahead will require careful thought and deep expertise, both in relation to how to ‘leave well’ and in relation to how to address the concerns expressed through the Leave vote and beyond. In the coming months and years, I and many of my colleagues will be finding ways to work with those making consequential decisions that affect many people’s lives, trying to help them govern well for the benefit of the many, informed by research and analysis and underpinned by the principles and values that contribute to strong and effective leadership. That is one way we can help fill the political vacuum – and fill it well.
Professor Jennifer Rubin is Deputy Director and Director of Analysis at the Policy Institute.
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