A number of British people who voted to leave in the EU referendum did so because they felt the system no longer works for them. These people live in areas that have not benefited from globalisation in the same way cities such as London have. Now these areas no longer see themselves in the policies and culture of their nation’s capital, leading them to rebel against it. States have an obligation and incentive to bridge the gap between those in the cities and those in the peripheral areas or they will face further self-destructive moves like Brexit.
Those who voted to leave the EU are overwhelmingly old, non-university educated, and living outside thriving metropolitan areas. Many of these people show a strong sense of cynicism and distrust for the establishment, for example, a large number commented on the jaded working class and the power of bankers and Eurocrats in their reasons for leaving. These sentiments suggests that policymakers must act to repair this distrust if they wish to stop the growing chasm between cosmopolitan centers and the rest of the country. The current disaffection, seen in the Brexit vote, will weaken the nation state and create a divide that undermines the gains of globalisation.
These grievances, and increasingly throughout the Western world, are a reflection of perceived and real neglect by central governments. In an era in which income inequality has grown and the world market grown, those that were once valued as contributors to the domestic core-periphery balance have been swapped out for machines or international producers.
Now that the post-mortem has begun on the Brexit referendum, policymakers and elites around the world are searching for ways to avoid similar events in their own country. There are a number of potential solutions.
Above all else, purpose must be restored to disaffected areas. It is not as if the coal-producing areas of Pennsylvania or Wales ever compared to the wealth or power of New York or London. Yet, they had a sense of economic utility to the nation and predictable income. Britain, and other nations, should seek to reinvigorate economies in disaffected areas with not only economic investment but a sense of identity. A great example of this type of project is the ambitious attempts by New York State to create a nanotech corridor in upstate New York. The projects aims to use the existing infrastructure of public universities in the region. Similarly, Pittsburgh, a city once infamous for its dilapidated warehouses and depressed public mood, has revitalized itself in spectacular fashion. Older theaters were updated in modern venues, public trusts were established to support arts and other cultural ventures. By maximizing existing resources and investing in a future industry (rather than trying to protect an old one), New York and Pittsburgh’s governments are not only bringing investment into their economies but building new identities around which people not only work but build new careers.
A second pillar of periphery revitalisation is education. The education gap between core metropolises like London and places such as Clacton or Cleveland in the UK are driving both cultural and economic grievance. A potential solution is geographically-based scholarships and other incentives for individuals from peripheral regions to attend universities and pursue graduate degrees. There must also be incentives to bring educated people into the countryside. These people will not only serve as economic drivers but community leaders that can bridge the cultural divide. Another option is reeducation programs for individuals who have lost jobs to outsourcing or technological advances. Better links between periphery schools and counterparts within major metropoles through both technology and possibly student exchange programs would also bridge the gap. It may be crazy to consider student exchanges in the same country but if a child from London interacts more with children from Paris than he does children from Clacton, the idea of a united Britain is threatened.
These solutions will not solve the problem overnight but proactive steps to lessen the growing pains of globalisation will prevent the dividing of the UK nation. The nation state (and by extension national identities) still has an important role to play in organising and uniting people. While globalization has increased, international institutions like the EU have failed to overcome nationalist inclinations in the peripheries of its countries. Instead of fighting these inclinations, policymakers must seek to coopt disaffected populations into the the gains of globalisation or, at the very least, provide them with enough resources to lessen uneven outcomes. Otherwise, many of the peripheries will continue to feel separate from their rest of their nation.