In Britain there were two recent votes that were particularly noteworthy: one that showed significant progress for the country, another that represented a serious setback and which reflects a political elite out of touch with the citizens.
The first vote was the election of Sadiq Khan as mayor of London. Whether or not one agrees with his centre-left politics, for a Muslim of Pakistani heritage to be elected as mayor of a major global (and Western) city represents significant progress for multiculturalism. Where terrorists like ISIS and Al Qaeda have tarnished the image of Islam, it is refreshing to see a strong Muslim voice in the West standing up for democracy and tolerance, one that shows Islam and the West need not be opposed. Where terrorists and extremists represent a very small minority of Muslims, it is important to see a strong Muslim voice for pluralism and diversity (and one that is elected by masses of people).
The other vote is Brexit, the referendum that resulted in Britain voting in favour of leaving the European Union. It is a surprising vote, and many observers did not expect it. Former British prime ministers, academics and other experts warned about the negative consequences of a vote for Brexit, but nonetheless a majority of the voting public ignored this advice.
While it is too soon to fully judge the implications of this vote, it does not bode well for Britain.
We live in an interdependent world. No country is an island in international politics and economics, even countries like Britain that physically are islands. The European Union is far from perfect, and for many in the public it can appear an impersonal bureaucracy out of touch with local and national concerns.
However, the European Union represents a remarkable accomplishment in supranational cooperation and government. It represents thinking beyond the nation-state in a world where nation states are not the only actors: where global cities like London, New York and Tokyo are important economic nodes, and where problems like climate change transcend national boundaries.
In the era of the global city, the City of London could potentially be alienated from major markets in Europe.
The European Union provides for common standards in trade and goods, it provides for free movement of people across 28 member states (soon to be 27) to live and work. This mobility is especially attractive to young people seeking to establish their careers. Note that under-35s in Britain voted to remain in the European Union (it was older generations who voted to leave). The European Union also provides for common standards in human rights and environmental protection.
The European Parliament, while limited in its power, provides a supranational elected entity.
In many respects, the European Union stands as a positive example of multinational cooperation, of establishing something close to a level of government above the nation-state. This is a remarkable achievement given the destruction of the Second World War in Europe, and it is an important means for the smaller and medium-size countries of Europe to compete alongside larger powers like the United States, Russia and China.
Where countries like France and Britain had vast overseas empires in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the post-Second World War environment was about the "superpower," vast territorial states like the United States and the then-Soviet Union. The European Union was a means for Europe to coexist and compete in this global environment. Overall, the European Union represents an important political and economic bloc.
That is why Britain's exit is all the more concerning for the country. In the era of the global city, the City of London could potentially be alienated from major markets in Europe. It is worth noting that in Canada, the scare of Quebec separatism in the 1970s and 1980s led Montreal to lose its position as Canada's primary financial and economic centre. Toronto would come to eclipse Montreal in this role.
It is noteworthy that London mayor Sadiq Khan made it a point to emphasize that continental Europeans remain welcome in London, no doubt to stave off a potential decline of London as a pre-eminent financial and economic capital.
Britain's exit from the European Union also has the potential to redraw the map of the country and spell the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.
Britain's exit from the European Union also has the potential to redraw the map of the country and spell the end of the United Kingdom as we know it. In Scotland, the majority voted to stay in the European Union. Now the potential of being distanced from European markets has renewed calls for an independent Scotland that can remain part of the European Union (it would have to reapply, though there could possibly be a fast-tracked membership process for an independent Scotland).
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the separatist Scottish National Party, is talking about another referendum on independence. (There had been an earlier one where the Scottish people voted to remain in the United Kingdom.) Even the Scottish Labour Party, which has been in favour of union with Britain, now is not ruling out Scottish independence as an option.
Where Quebec separatism in Canada raised economic red flags, in Britain Scottish independence could now be the economically prudent option. This represents a major shift in the debate.
In all this there is an "anti-elite" politics, where people facing a tough job market distrust political and economic elites; where demagogues like Donald Trump, scapegoating immigration and "outsiders" can gain traction. However, the reality is that Britain is no longer an empire, Britain cannot stand alone. Demagogues find easy answers and scapegoats, but ultimately make the situation worse.
The effects of Brexit threaten to damage Britain's economy and even rip the country apart. The prospects for the country, at this point at least, do not look good.
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