I am still working through my reaction to the results of the UK’s Brexit referendum. The overwhelming polemic in the aftermath, coupled with the near-hysteria during the build-up, make calm, rational, nuanced thought difficult. This is not a straightforward problem and there won’t be a straightforward solution. Those of us who voted remain are struggling to imagine a future in an economically insecure, deeply conservative, divided country cut off from our neighbours. Things don’t have to go this way, of course, but it is hard to conceive how we might turn this around and make Britain (if Britain even stays a thing once the Irish and Scottish have had their say) a fair, prosperous, open society.
If there is anything positive to emerge from the results of this is election it is that those of us on opposing sides have had to seriously listen to each other. As emotions cool, I am seeing careful, reasoned debate on social media (even as the mainstream media continues on along predictable lines: reactionary polemic and obsessively shoring-up social divisions: pitting classes and races and generations against one another as though this will help us. It won’t). Many of us on both sides feel that politics has been broken for a long time, that there are too many angry, left out, unheard people in this country and the world beyond it. The status quo wasn’t good enough, and we’d be foolish to return to it, even if a lot of us felt safe in our bubbles. So what do we do?
Several things strike me in the wake of the result and the debates I’ve had on social media:
- Backing out of a Brexit has two likely outcomes: a (possibly violent) revolt by those who have voted for leave and who will rightly feel their democratic rights have been trampled; further apathy and mistrust in political processes, leading to a further polarised, divided nation, vulnerable to extremist rhetoric. Neither of these is desirable. The fair thing to do is to honour the referendum result. Although at this stage it seems impossible that leaving the EU will be a good thing, I can’t see how staying under these circumstances is viable either.
- We have to understand what the leave vote meant, and address the issues it highlights. This was not only, or even primarily, a vote about the European Union. It was a vote about the UK. I firmly believe that we mostly want the same things: secure housing, communities we can feel proud of, an income that allows us to get by, opportunities for fulfilling jobs, stimulating social lives, to feel safe walking down the street, a sense that our lives matter in some greater context. Whatever people’s individual reasons for voting to leave the EU, many of the regions with the strongest ‘leave’ vote are those where austerity cuts and deindustrialisation have hit hardest. Unless politicians start to prioritise people and their needs over rhetoric and ideological game-playing we will continue to foster a deeply divided, angry society.
- Political debate in this country is a disgrace. Politicians and the press can and do wilfully misrepresent facts, openly mislead and outright lie to the populace with no recourse, no real sanctions, no personal consequences. This means mainstream political discourse is now simply a race to the bottom. We are all worse off when we’re being lied to. We have to lobby our politicians to implement rules and regulations that prohibit outright lies; our politicians and our press should be held to higher standards of proof than academics, because their words have tangible consequences.
- The shock of leave’s victory for politicians on both sides illustrates what is increasingly clear: our government are not experts in governance, and have little understanding of the realities at play in the world they oversee. The recent resistance doctors and teachers have expressed towards health and education policy only highlights this. In my view, we need a political overhaul that places expertise at the centre of political decision-making. We cannot have career politicians acting as ministers for areas they have no front-line experience of and no qualifications in. How can a man with a BA in Modern History be expected to conduct a complex economic project like planning the budget of a country with one of the world’s largest economies? How can a journalist be expected to sensibly oversee the education system? I have long felt a 7-10 year minimum front-line experience should be a prerequisite for any senior ministerial or cabinet position. I have no idea how we could lobby for or implement such reform but it would, in my view, make a significant and positive difference to the governance of this country.
Whatever our personal feelings about the outcome of this referendum, we do have now have an opportunity to properly start again and remake things, better, stronger, fairer. But it won’t be easy.