In focus: Mueller and Brexit - exposing the roots of public discontent

By Mohammed Sheriff

8th May 2019

It is often noted how the politics of Britain and the United States tend to unfold in concurrent patterns. An uncanny set of alignments over the decades – of Thatcher and Reagan, Blair and Clinton, Cameron and Obama – lends some credence to the “special relationship” label that otherwise elicits snorts of derision.

So, it’s fitting that both countries were expected to meet their most decisive points, on their most divisive issues, at the start of April.

In the UK, we crawled uneasily towards the 12 April Brexit deadline, the Prime Minister still having received no approval for her withdrawal deal from Parliament. In the US, Democrats finally got their hands on Robert Mueller’s report, having been unsatisfied with the conclusions drawn from it by attorney general William Barr.

It wasn’t long into the month before Theresa May had to request an extension to the Brexit deadline from the EU. And, as the Democrats soon found out, the Mueller report didn’t carry the sting they hoped would finally expose long-standing allegations of President Trump’s collusion with the Russians.

So, it’s fitting too that the tradition kept, and that in both countries those expectations were left unmet.

It’s easy to see these developments as simply more of the status quo—the kind of grind we have come to expect in this highly charged political climate. But it’s worth reflecting on how they explain, in a microcosm, the waves of populism crashing on both our shores.

The rhetoric that energised Trump’s ascendance (to “shake things up”) and the vote to leave the EU (to “take back control”) always indicated a loss of trust in core institutions of public and civic order, and in the prevailing norms of public discourse that uphold them.

And when those core institutions – such as established press organisations – build up expectations around Mueller’s investigation, only for no smoking gun to emerge, they reinforce those sentiments. In Trump country, it’s an example of how the “mainstream media” seeks to undermine the president they chose. It’s yet another reason to turn away from established news sources, to ‘alternative’ outlets.

Likewise, when the UK government repeatedly fails to get its withdrawal deal through parliament but promises it will go through right up until the last moment, the “Brexit means Brexit” promise begins to ring hollow. In Brexit country, it’s yet another reason to turn away from mainstream parties and turn to entities with names like The Brexit Party.

The claim here is not that the Mueller investigation doesn’t carry serious implications for the current president, or that no action will ultimately be taken by Congress. Nor is it that the UK government ought to have pursued an alternative course of action to postponing our withdrawal from the EU.

Put aside the endless rationalisations behind what didn’t happen and speculation about what may come. It’s a matter of how messages are conveyed; how the failure to manage expectations can undermine trust among key stakeholders – whether voters or consumers – and cause lasting damage.

It’s why we increasingly see business organisations, political campaigns and brands invoke ‘authenticity’ as the locus of their appeal. It may seem like a non-sequitur to point to Carlsberg’s recent admission that it ‘probably’ doesn’t make the best beer in the world, but it’s a useful case in point. It’s the kind of move that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and yet its success today is a lesson in how to take the pulse of current times.

There’s a hunger for honesty. Its pangs arise not just from market forces, but from the vicissitudes of our culture at large. Sometimes – perhaps now more than ever – it works to acknowledge your limitations, if you simply promise to keep at it and try to do better.

At a time when governments around the world struggle to satisfy that appetite, there might just be an opportunity for businesses to bring some relief.