Brexit: Exploring responsive and responsible leadership

This blog is part of a series published on WEFLIVE from young leaders in the One Young World community who are addressing issues across the world relating to the World Economic Forum 2017 theme of 'Responsive and Responsible Leadership'.

The result of the Brexit referendum instigated a material course change in the direction of not only the British economy, but our society. The final six months of 2016 showed that it likely acted as a trigger to further political disruption across western democracies too.

Attempting to look back and evaluate what happened through the lens of responsive and responsible leadership is difficult; certainly with regard to long-term impact.

The British electorate voted to leave the European Union, but we have not yet left, as Article 50 has not been triggered and indeed there is uncertainty as to whether the referendum result was even legally binding. Our Chancellor expects the divorce to take up to six years following our 43-year relationship.

Despite this, looking back from an immediate-term perspective, it would seem that the decision to hold the Brexit referendum was responsive, but at least in parts irresponsible. The key difference is that the Brexit decision is forever, not for a five-year electoral term as with other electoral processes in the UK.

A responsive decision, an irresponsible referendum

The Brexit referendum was responsive, though hardly immediate. It answered a long contested question in British politics and it was promised in the elected government’s 2015 manifesto. They should be applauded for meeting that commitment. It was not something that could be resolved as part of a general election.

In a perfect world, referenda are responsible. Why should the electorate only be consulted once every five years (in the case of the UK) about how they want their country to be run?

But in our imperfect world, we have learned that referenda are often irresponsible because they are at risk of being influenced by short-term politicised considerations, while it is the long-term impact that theoretically voters ought to focus on.

Our political leaders on both sides did little to mitigate this during the Brexit referendum and this was irresponsible in my view. Our media also bears some responsibility.

The referendum was also irresponsible in respect of the lack of transparency about the projected impact of the result. A lack of a consensus or set of expectations has now fuelled a debate about how robust (‘soft’ or ‘hard’) Brexit should be. Both sides were guilty of this and there were no consequences for misleading the public.

Further, in our ‘always on’ world there was no way that many voters would have the time to thoroughly fact check the claims and counterclaims of both sides, even if they were well versed on EU law and its governmental system.

Inclusive development and equitable growth

We now live in a world where social mobility is no longer guaranteed to those that work and study hard. Inclusive development and equitable growth have become a necessity not a philosophical indulgence.

This should be the focus for our political leaders, but not only them.

Like the World Economic Forum, One Young World, founded in 2010, brings together young leaders from the private sector, government and civil society because we realise all of these parties need to work in unison to achieve these goals.

I hope those that are able to attend this year understand that while there is a need to achieve these goals, they will also create opportunities for peace, prosperity and purpose.

Charlie Oliver is Managing Ambassador for One Young World in Europe and works as a Research & Innovation Manager at O2 (Telefónica UK).