LONDON – Ethical political leadership is in short supply worldwide, from the United States to Turkey to the Philippines. But perhaps the most striking instance of dishonest leadership has been in the United Kingdom, where the Brexit referendum and its aftermath have caused more instability than Britain experiences in a typical decade.
In just the first couple of weeks after the referendum, David Cameron, the prime minister who brought about the vote, resigned, and his Conservative successor, Theresa May, appointed a new Cabinet. Though some of the Brexiteers – most notably former London Mayor Boris Johnson – are now in the government, none of those who led the campaign to leave the European Union are ultimately responsible for carrying it out. May herself supported the “Remain” campaign.
Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party has fallen into disarray. Almost the entire Shadow Cabinet has resigned, having lost confidence in party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and efforts to challenge him have been exceptionally acrimonious, with Corbyn supporters even throwing a brick through the window of one of his rivals' constituency office.
And the post-referendum turmoil runs deeper. The number of reported hate crimes since the referendum has soared by 500%, amid a lowering mood of social, political, and economic uncertainty and discontent. More than £100 billion ($131 billion) was wiped off the FTSE 100 in the first ten minutes of trading after the result was announced, while the pound has plumbed a 35-year low against the US dollar.
One of the most striking lessons of the British case – and many others – is that promising efforts to hold business leaders to account and ensure that companies behave ethically have not carried over to our political systems. Our elected leaders, often among the first to demand sound strategy, succession planning, and accountability in the private sector, have spectacularly failed to practice what they preach.
We expect business leaders to plan for the certainty of uncertainty and to manage risks properly. In the past year, companies big and small in the UK, elsewhere in the EU, and around the world have held countless meetings and high-level planning sessions to prepare for a Brexit vote. When the results came in, it seemed that the only people who hadn’t planned for the “Leave” campaign’s victory were those who led it. Indeed, according to a recent report by Parliament’s foreign affairs select committee, Cameron’s “considered view not to instruct key departments including the Foreign Office to plan for the possibility that the electorate would vote to leave the EU amounted to gross negligence.”
The only UK political leader who quickly stepped forward with a clear and decisive strategy was Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Her plan is to hold another referendum on Scottish independence and rejoin the EU.
And it was an unelected Canadian, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, whose authoritative reassurance helped to calm the markets. In 2015, Carney came under fire for forming a committee to carry out forward planning for the possibility of Brexit. And in early July, he was called to testify before the House of Commons Treasury Committee, accused of leaning toward “Remain” in the run-up to the referendum, simply because he presented a bleak (and accurate) assessment of the economic consequences of a Leave victory.
When Nigel Farage, one of the Leave campaign’s most vociferous and extreme leaders, decided to step down as leader of the UK Independence Party on July 4, he said, “I want my life back.” If that sounds familiar, it is because Tony Hayward, then-CEO of BP, used the same phrase when talking about the impact – on him – of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
When Hayward said it, the condemnation was swift. His words conveyed a complete lack of empathy for the people who were actually affected by the spill. Likewise, Farage, having helped drive Britain to disaster, blithely walked away when the destination was reached. As mortifying as it is to see Johnson appointed Foreign Secretary, given his history of lying, xenophobic statements, and insulting remarks about other world leaders, at least he will bear the stain of Britain’s catastrophe publicly.
The deeper problem in the UK is that there is no alternative. The Labour Party is simply too divided to take power. If Corbyn were a CEO who lost the confidence of his entire executive team and board, he would be forced to resign or be fired. If a CEO can’t command the respect of his leadership team, he can’t lead the company to success, even if most of the employees think he’s great. The same is true of political parties, though they often take longer to act, causing the enterprise – in this case, the UK – to flounder.
With very few exceptions, the Brexit vote has brought out the worst in Britain’s leaders. If a CEO lied to investors and consumers as much as Farage, Johnson, and Michael Gove lied to UK voters, the consequences would be swift and painful, both from regulators and the market. They could not simply resign and move on, much less receive a future role in the organization (and certainly not a senior post). They would be fined (or worse), professionally ostracized, and sent packing to Florida.
When we can hold our business leaders to account more effectively than we can our elected political leaders, we should worry for the future – and not just in the UK. If it can happen here – in the homeland of Edmund Burke and Tony Benn – it truly can happen anywhere.