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The Day Great Britain Became Little England

The vote to exit the EU wasn’t really about the EU, it was a protest vote of people who were left behind, argues Imran Amed.
Illustration: Costanza Milano for BoF
By
  • Imran Amed

LONDON, United Kingdom — This morning, as I handed my British passport over at immigration control at the Gare du Nord in Paris, everything looked the same as always — and yet everything had changed.

Overnight, the unthinkable, the unfathomable, the impossible had happened: in a landmark referendum, my adopted country of Great Britain had voted to leave the European Union. Suddenly, the passport I had been so proud to earn as a UK resident for over a decade had a different meaning, raising countless questions about the future of the United Kingdom, its place in Europe and the state of the wider world.

Watching the coverage last night reminded me of another tightly contested referendum concerning a country that I love. In October 1995, the province of Quebec, another adopted home far away from Calgary where I was born, was on the verge of separating from Canada after a divisive referendum campaign. In the end, much to my relief, Quebecers voted to stay in Canada.

I first arrived in London from Montréal a few years later, in 1999, at the age of 24, on a work visa enabling me to take up a position as a management consultant. I had no idea how long I would live in London, but as a Canadian used to living next to a single powerful neighbour, the idea of a collection of different countries, each with their own languages and cultures, and yet woven together into a trans-national tapestry, was new and very appealing. Over the next eight months, I worked in the Netherlands and France, as well as Norway and Switzerland (which are not EU members), and developed a real appreciation for the idea of a European community.

Later, between years at Harvard Business School, I returned to London for a summer internship and came back again after graduation to take up a full-time job at McKinsey. London was a symbol of all that was right in the world, a truly global city that was open to people from everywhere, who lived side by side and yet retained their cultural differences. My work colleagues came from everywhere. It was exhilarating. Only here could I be both British and Canadian, and experience every culture imaginable.

When I left consultancy, I was able to stay and work in the UK as a skilled migrant. Soon after, I set up the company that would blossom into The Business of Fashion, which now employs people with more than 15 nationalities, including British, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish — not to mention Americans, Argentinians, Canadians, Chinese and Thai.

Our global make-up informs our global outlook, and there is no other city on earth where we could bring together this talented international group of young people. Of course, it is the young who will have to live with this decision for the decades to come.

Today, we are all feeling confused and upset by yesterday’s referendum results and the mood in the BoF offices is sombre, reflective and uncertain. Like many people across the country, we are asking: how could this happen?

For one, UK prime minister David Cameron gambled the future of the country — and Europe — to secure his own political future to assuage the right wing faction of his party by promising to hold this unnecessary referendum. But on further reflection, the roots of the problem are much deeper and began many years ago, long before Cameron came to power.

Something changed in the 2000s. Drunk on the highs of cheap credit and burgeoning financial markets, the British capital was awash in money. A year later, Lehman Brothers collapsed. We all know what happened next: the greatest economic catastrophe in a generation caused by irresponsible financial institutions. The financial bubble had finally burst.

In the intervening years, after the government bailed out the banks, the global economy has slowly crept upwards. But nothing has really changed in the regulation of the financial markets here in the UK or in the US. My friends who worked selling sub-prime debt instruments before the crisis tell me they are back to their old tricks — the new financial instruments are simply the old financial instruments with new names.

And to make matters worse, the fruits of our post-Lehman, anaemic economic recovery have largely accrued to the rich, while an entire underclass of people has become further marginalised, weakened and ignored. The British government, meanwhile, has implemented severe austerity measures that have hit these people hardest, cutting back funding for health services and education. Watching it on television now, it all seems so far away from our bubble in London.

No wonder many of them voted to leave the EU in huge numbers. They were looking for a way to voice their discontent with the political class and economic elites, and were lulled into voting for ‘Brexit’ by right-wing populist politicians who appealed to deep-seated fear of immigrants, as mainstream political parties failed to paint a compelling vision for a strong Britain in Europe.

Indeed, the focus on immigration was depicted as the bête noir of EU membership, when in many cases, this is part of what makes living, working and running a business in the UK so appealing in the first place. The vote to exit the EU wasn’t really about the EU, it was a protest vote of people who were left behind.

The vote to exit the EU wasn't really about the EU, it was a protest vote of people who were left behind.

Back in October 1995, things turned out differently. After the polls began to turn in favour of separation and the vote became too close to call, Canadians from across the country descended on Montreal for one of the largest political rallies in Canadian history. Dubbed the 'Unity Rally', we gathered in the streets and showed our love for Quebec and desire for Quebec to stay part of Canada. On the night of the vote, the country staved off a break-up by a mere 54,288 votes. It seemed then like the country could never come together again, but today, separatism in Quebec is all but dead and the Canadian union is intact and thriving.

Having now experienced this kind of referendum twice, I have learned that in the end, for many voters, these kinds of decisions are driven by emotion more than rational logic. And rather than positive emotion and vision in this EU Referendum campaign, we had far too much fear-mongering, nativism and xenophobia.

But the vote is done and we must now face the consequences. Over the next few years, we will enter an unprecedented period of uncertainty here in the UK, but the ramifications extend to our neighbours in Europe and our partners around the world.

The world has faced many grave challenges in the past — and we have come through them. The same will be true in this case. That this is a largely self-inflicted crisis makes the pill much harder to swallow, but swallow it we must.

Our new mayor Sadiq Khan wrote a message on Facebook that left me hopeful today. "I want to send a clear message to every European resident living in London — you are very welcome here. As a city, we are grateful for the enormous contribution you make, and that will not change as a result of this referendum. There are nearly one million European citizens living in London today, and they bring huge benefits to our city — working hard, paying taxes, working in our public services and contributing to our civic and cultural life. We all have a responsibility to now seek to heal the divisions that have emerged throughout this campaign — and to focus on what unites us, rather than that which divides us."

Imran Amed, Founder and Editor-in-Chief

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State of Fashion 2023
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State of Fashion 2023