On Brexit Day

John IV
9 min readMar 29, 2019


The UK’s withdrawal from the EU is the disaster of the decade, and the opportunity of the century

I have been following along with the Brexit proceedings, from Colorado and, these past months, from here in London.

I was opposed to the idea of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, and would have voted Remain if I had been entitled to vote. This is because I support openness and inclusiveness in the way we conduct our affairs, and would rather see greater connectivity and reciprocal reliance than less. In time I have come to understand a bit about the situation’s complexity, some of the many valid reasons people voted to leave. The truth is that our world is an incredibly elaborate intersection of interaction from moment to present moment. Many people in Britain do not feel better off than they were years ago, and for many of them the UK’s membership in the EU was among the causes. I can understand the impulse that I might be better off on my own. I certainly can agree with much of the underlying reasoning, that what we have does not appear to be working very well and has deep flaws. Changing it, improving it, is a noble aim.

On June 24, 2016 I woke up in Denver to learn — by the arrangement of pixels on the screen of my phone — that the people had voted to leave. I was surprised and concerned, but not long after I began to consider what opportunities might arise along with — because of — the disruption to our global system the UK’s action would entail, and how this act of isolation might still serve us as a global species.

Britain — and especially London — is at the core of the global system. Politically, sure, but more so of the global capitalist system, the world of business and finance, which defines so much of what we produce and consume. This is among the reasons that the UK has served as a creative, intellectual and commercial capital of the world through the past centuries into the present. As such, the UK is a hub of human flourishing, a place where some of the most brilliant and gifted instances of human aggregate, live and travel to learn and create and meet and enjoy and work. The UK a locus of power, a place where decisions are made and ideas conceived that affect billions of people and the world that we live in. By adopting this role, and especially by benefiting from it, Britain bears some responsibility for the effect it has globally.

Image from Sky News

The Challenge

In so many ways Brexit is a disaster for the UK, Europe and the world. It will carry enormous costs — economic ones, but also human, political, environmental — costs that may never be fully known, that will echo and reverberate in humanity’s story for a long time to come — centuries — as long as humanity exists. No person on Earth will be entirely unaffected. I say this because we now realize we live on one globe. The vast majority of people on earth interact in, or on the edges of, a global marketplace to survive. We are all connected by the air we breathe and the water that sustains us, the ground we stand on, the ways in which we communicate. This is undeniable.

I had hoped that the British political leadership could make the most of this disruption, communicate a clear vision in the uncertainty. Unfortunately the government has apparently been unable to do so, and Brexit Day has arrived without those elected to lead their country having found agreement. It still appears there is no coherent vision for how the country might move forward through these next months and years in a self-possessed, fair, just and inclusive way.

The Opportunity

I believe Brexit is the opportunity of the century for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is a chance for the country to define a new role for itself as the world order evolves. It is a chance to ensure relevance (and, as a result, wealth), a chance to set an example, for bold and forward-thinking policy makers to make the changes that their system needs to continue to serve its purpose. As the status quo is shattered it could be remolded to more capably assure that we protect and preserve the environment for future generations. Britain could lead by example in ensuring that all people alive are taken care of, and that the industrious and resourceful can create the opportunities they deserve. By sculpting the volatility inevitable in times of transition, British and EU political leaders might correct some of the profound structural injustices perpetuated by the global system in its current configuration. I don’t feel that British policymakers are personally responsible for these injustices, but they are in a position to address them. They have volunteered to be responsible. Inaction may be a form of complicity.

Make no mistake, I understand that this would require an inordinate collective effort, a sudden shift in the way the people involved engage with one another … and here perhaps my delusion is exposed … but I think they are capable of it. Leading sometimes means placing the welfare of the led above one’s own. British MPs were elected to lead the country — all people in the country. It should be apparent to them that if they don’t come together and find consensus their constituents will suffer — they will suffer. And — what an opportunity to make history, to define a legacy. My aspirational view of our capacity to adapt the way we work together extends beyond the political class: it is an effort I am undertaking in myself, and I see early indicators of across society.

A few ideas

I don’t have all the answers, though I do have a few ideas to offer. I should acknowledge that these have very little to do with the UK’s membership in the EU, and are not why most Leavers voted as they did. But emergent opportunities are opportunities are opportunities nonetheless. Here I offer three areas especially deserving of focus, major steps on the critical path to a new state of being. These are collective problems rooted in our history — in many ways no one alive is responsible for them, and at once we all are.

Illicit Capital

As part of being a key player in the cultural, political and (especially) commercial history of the world, London plays a role in the perpetuation of some of the greatest ongoing injustices in the world. By this I am primarily referring to the role played by financial institutions within British jurisdiction in providing haven for illicit capital. This money is illicit because we all agree it should not be legal to earn a profit through the practices these people engage in. It causes profound harm at scale, and is not fair to honest actors. As a young person in the world, I feel the need to raise my voice and ask: please, do whatever you can to stop this needless suffering. It is not tenable. We have enough for everyone to survive. Competition is incredibly valuable, a powerful tool for human motivation, but should never result in intentional human violence, certainly not so someone can make some money. Britain has never had a better chance to change the role it plays in enabling malevolent and unethical actors to scale their profits and the accompanying harm.

Drug Policy

This also is an opportunity for Britain to take a leading role in a conversation that we have needed to have for a long time, on the transition to a humane and evidence-based drug policy. The global prohibition of recreational drugs other than alcohol is, in my view, perhaps the most harmful policy ever instituted by men still in effect today. The Drug War causes layer upon layer of profound suffering every day. If deepens despair amongst those who feel the urge to use drugs, sharpening their loneliness and exposing them to the harmful additives dealers add to their product to increase their profits. It exposes people to the violence that results when profit seekers are forced to enforce contracts in an extrajudicial manner. And, it provides organized criminal networks billions in annual revenue to continue causing harm on an unconscionable scale. The longer it takes for us to break this entrenched aspect of our system, and finding something that serves us better, the more difficult it becomes to overcome the resultant violence, suffering and injustice.

Closely related, the UK government could use Brexit as an opportunity to reform many of the services it provides to its citizens and residents — especially mental health services. In six months living in London I have observed a major (and, evidently, rising) proportion of the population — especially young people — repressing their interior pain, turning to drink and drugs and sex and screens to avoid the difficult and lonely process of introspection, developing mindful and healthy life habits, admitting one’s flaws, identifying one’s orienting values. In some ways, I include myself in this population. I truly believe that we are in the early phase of a profound turning in human history, a waking up to our own potential. In realizing that our behavior affects the world and those in it, we are taking responsibility for our selves. Breaking social taboos and improving access to mental health services would do a great deal to speed up this necessary evolution in our collective consciousness, a step toward us adopting our role as stewards of this planet.


Third, the British political leadership could use Brexit as a chance to set an example for the world in improving the efficacy of arms control regimes. We continue to produce weapons of war in enormous volumes every year. Arms are durable, and will be able to inflict grievous harm on people and property decades into the future. Again, I have been challenging my naive and idealistic attitude towards the armaments industry by trying to understand the positive role these technologies play in preserving peace, but I am convinced that the trends towards continued militarization on the global geopolitical stage are short-sighted and not sustainable. Again, I don’t have answers (though I am doing my bit …) — but perhaps Britain could stride ahead in this domain, as in so many others, in the lane opened by their exit from the EU. A senior MP acknowledged this opportunity in a recent Parliamentary Select Committee on Arms Export Control.

As we foray into this century we are realizing the scale of our challenges just as we are discovering — inventing — the tools to solve them. This is a chance for the UK government to reform how it operates. To innovate, and adopt a more agile rule of law, to break ground on building an antifragile system for administering public funds and making policy that can adapt with a world moving at the pace we are moving, accelerating as we are. I see promising and novel new techniques and technologies for managing incentives and distilling insight from informational assets in the digital era— computational modeling and machine learning, distributed ledgers and smart contracts, innovative governance models, connected sensors, crowd-sourced data mining. We are adapting. But we can adapt faster, and thereby mitigate much future human suffering.

I believe we can face down the global challenges we must address in these coming decades, for ourselves and our descendants. Many, many people are already adapting their behavior as they become aware that their actions impact the world around them, even devoting their lives to this cause — we have already come a long way. But reform from the top down offers a chance to make changes at a scale that can yield instant, significant impact. For this, I encourage the British political leadership to consider my perspective. I offer these ideas because it seems that culture might have a self-reflective quality to it, and if more positive perspectives are consumed, more might be projected.

My call to action? Parliament could go on a retreat — maybe to Scotland. Leave your phones, leave the city, and spend some time together. Reflect on your values. Engage in civil debate. Connect on a human level. Share meals. Remember you are all people doing your best. Rise above the din. Acknowledge that this an extraordinary moment in your history as a country, and rise to it. In this way, maybe, find a way forward, the path Britain and the world deserves.

My hope is that humanity will remember Britain at this moment for its brilliant blooming of human ingenuity, a new example of coordination and cooperation unique to our time.

John IV

MSc Candidate, University College London

London, March 2019



John IV

Data visualization, spatial data science, consensus networks.