Nothing elevates the tragedy of democracy coupled with poor leadership, like the Brexit crisis. It all started with a fractured Conservative Party and a Prime Minister who believed the best way to call out his opponents was to humble them into a referendum on the exit of the UK from Europe. In those heady days, it was impossible to imagine anyone, let alone the UK, leaving the EU. Germany had even given Greece extensive financial support (some Greeks believe it all ended up in German banks) to ensure Grexit did not happen after a crushing anti-EU referendum in 2015.
Yes, the UK had been a difficult partner in the European marriage, taking forever to say yes and obtaining all manner of concessions in view of its importance to Europe. Yes, there were always rumblings in the UK about Europe, but no one seriously believed the Brits would quit Europe. That was David Cameron’s first act of poor leadership, playing politics on critical national questions. The second error of leadership was to throw a complex issue to the democratic pathway before ironing out all possibilities at the leadership level.
The issues which informed the Brexit referendum were complicated and did not lend themselves to a binary Yes-No vote. While a Remain vote raised no significant challenges, seeing as it would continue business as usual, a Leave vote would throw in all manner of complex questions, as Theresa May has had to learn in the last two years. Because no one had really considered the Leave option a possibility, not much policy work was carried out on it.
What did leave mean? Full withdrawal or withdrawal with a Customs Union? What would the consequences of either decision on UK business and profile? What of the contentious border in Northern Ireland since a Leave vote would essentially leave one part of Ireland in Europe and one part out? Good leadership would have demanded that the most critical aspects of the Leave options be presented to the public so that people would be better informed on the choice they were making.
The third failure of leadership was failing to read the public mood. Many Brits were unhappy about many things in Europe but most significantly they were unhappy about immigration and the increasingly open borders of Europe. Granted the choice to opt out of Europe or be “overrun by increasingly darker skins,” all other considerations became moot.
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Had the Tory leadership read the mood not just in Europe but also in America, they would have recognised that the rise of people like Donald Trump was the reflection of a fear by many voters, of a new world in which intense migrations, new technology, a new job market and an increasingly internationalised workforce were in vogue. Those voting Brexit, Trump and similar right wing options were also reacting to falling economic fortunes of the first world and an assumption that the old safe world was still available if they made wiser choices. This is largely what energised the Leave campaign. Unfortunately, these fears still reign supreme. Unfortunately, they will not be resolved by Brexit.
What does all this portend for Kenya as we consider a referendum shortly? Firstly, our leadership must avoid granting us complex questions with binary answers. Certain issues like the form of government appear simple but in reality, they throw all manner of possibilities once people have said yes. Secondly, leadership must read the public mood. The win in Ugenya recently speak of an increasingly sophisticated voter who may just shock the leadership which assumes that we still live in the “Baba amesoma” days. Kenyans can say NO to their leadership.
Finally, good leadership is about recognising what is ailing the population and instead of keeping populations excited through cheap populism, identifying a vision through which people can rally and which can translate to better fortunes for them.
A change in the system of government, an increase of the top of the executive may excite a national campaign but it will not resolve the intense challenges most Kenyans wake up to each day.
- The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya