U.S. Markets closed

Here's what everyone has wrong about Brexit

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief
1 / 2

Michael Elliott

Michael J. Elliott speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos Municipality, Graubünden Canton on January 28, 2009.

Yahoo Finance was sad to hear the news that Michael Elliott, the former CEO of One and an esteemed editor and author, recently passed away after a long battle with cancer. Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer recently had the opportunity to talk with Elliott about Brexit:

Brexit was such a shocker that it’s left the media scrambling to explain what happened and why. Perhaps not surprisingly then, some key points seem to have become completely misconstrued, or so says at least one thoughtful observer, who has taken to Facebook to set the record straight.

Raised in Liverpool, Michael Elliott is the former CEO of One, the nonprofit founded by Bono, as well as a former top editor at Time, Newsweek and the Economist. He’s also the author of a number of books including “The Day Before Yesterday,” an acclaimed history of the post-1945 United States. Full disclosure, Elliott wrote a column on the global economy for FORTUNE magazine, while I was editor there. As such, I can tell you that there are few deeper thinkers than Elliott when it comes to understanding the UK, the US and globalism.

I guess I wasn’t surprised when I heard he opposed Brexit, but it was his level of ire that caught my attention. You can see some of that sentiment on Facebook where Elliott has unleashed some of his frustration in a series of energetic and erudite posts. (One of my favorites begins: “Hang on hang on, I can feel another Brexit rant coming on …”) And so I called him up recently in Devon — in the southwest of England — where he has been watching Brexit unfold to ask him for a bit of context.

“I’m very unhappy with Brexit,” Elliott told me. “But I wasn’t surprised by the vote. The ‘leave’ side had the passion, intensity and momentum.”

Now before you dismiss Elliott as just another sore loser

OxBridge type, (he does in fact have two degrees from Oxford), understand that he comes from a modest background. Elliott’s father was a schoolteacher in a working-class neighborhood near the docks. And this speaks to one of the biggest misconceptions that Elliott sees playing out in Brexit.

“There is this trope that globalism only benefits the elites. That drives me bat shit! My parents lived very circumscribed lives,“ he said, noting that his father lived pretty much all of his life within five miles of where he was born. "Immigration and globalism greatly improved life for everyone in my family.”

The arc of his life, Elliott argues, and his children’s lives has been shaped and improved by globalism, which is what Brexit seems to be rejecting. “And there are tens of millions more families like us — to say nothing of the hundreds of millions in Asia, Africa and Latin America for whom that is true,” he wrote on Facebook. “So can we stop this stupid crap that globalization and migration somehow only benefit the ‘elites.’”

More specifically Elliott points to two key reasons why Brexit is bad news: “First there will be economic turmoil over the short and medium term and the global economy is fragile right now. The US recovery is ok at best. I mean it’s not exactly a boom. The bottom line is when you have manufactured turmoil in the world’s fifth largest economy, it doesn’t stay limited to the UK.”

And the second reason speaks to Elliott’s deep belief in globalism. “I have always believed that the EU represents international cooperation in a world that needs more international cooperation, not less. Yes the EU isn’t perfect — and we need to have a real conversation about immigration, both in Europe and in the United States and we haven’t had that yet — but to weaken this organization that has really contributed to peace and security is irresponsible and makes me very unhappy.”

As for what happens next, Elliott says that’s actually the worst part about it. “What has been most shocking to me over the past 48 hours is that no one here knows what to do,” he says. “There was no Plan B and both political parties are in complete collapse.” 

Globalism can’t be rolled back, Elliott says: “You have some guy in Mali who can Facetime his brother in Paris and say, ‘hmm, that looks pretty good, I’m going to go there.”

Figuring all this out was never going to be easy, Elliott says, but Brexit will make it that much harder.

Read more:

What to expect from markets Monday morning and beyond

Crazy flowchart shows how the UK could stay in the EU

Why the Brexit could actually screw up your travel plans

We asked Mohamed El-Erian if there is a Brexit silver lining — he said there are two!