I fell asleep shortly after 2am on 24th June 2016, with Leave and Remain just about head to head, although even then, there were signs that Remain was in trouble. When I woke at 5am, to the news that, notwithstanding the last couple of declarations, the UK was out, I felt a lot of things. Anger, yes. Sadness, yes. Disappointment, yes. Shock, yes, but in that peculiar way you feel it when you almost expect something to happen, yet aren’t altogether prepared for it. Overall though, I feel a deep sense of trepidation and, dare I say it, fear. What have we done? What have we started? Aside from the obvious (two-way) benefits of free movement, one of the things I valued most about our relationship with the other 27 members of the EU (and via that, the rest of the world) was the ability to act as a bloc on things that matter: environment, international crises, terrorism and intelligence sharing, access to health care, workers’ protection, human rights, animal rights. Things that transcend national boundaries, or areas in which we can achieve more when we act collectively than if we try to ‘go it alone’. In some cases we’ve pushed Europe for greater ambition(1,2); in others, they’ve brought us along with them(3,4). However, sitting way above all of that, was the ideology that our precious union represented. Togetherness, openness, trust, progress, a rejection of the hatred that tore Europe apart in two world wars, and a commitment to work together to avoid that ever happening again.
Within the first few hours of Britain voting to leave the EU, France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen had announced her desire for France to hold a referendum on the same question; Scotland looks likely to hold another vote on leaving the UK; relations between Britain, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic look worryingly uncertain; and the European far right is gaining traction in countries including the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Italy(5).
We’re breaking up. It’s famously been said that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”(6) and with the memory of WWII for many of us now limited to stories our grandparents and great grandparents told us years ago, this is in danger of being seen to be true. 52% of us have just voted for a rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ and ‘doing it better alone’, ‘keep the immigrants out’ and ‘British jobs for British workers’, the possibility of which not only has little foundation in fact, but also harks dangerously back to an insular, nationalistic and protectionist viewpoint.
We now know that areas with the highest leave percentages correspond to areas with large populations of older people, lower social classes and lower educational levels. On the contrary, despite the campaign centring on immigration, areas with the highest numbers of immigrants overwhelmingly voted in(7). This is not surprising. But it does hammer home that we have serious societal issues which have divided people, and emphasised inequalities that were already too wide. Yet the reasons for these inequalities cannot be ascribed to our membership of the EU, but are instead the result of domestic politics which have been failing for far too long.
Since the result was announced, I have felt very angry and sad to the point of tears because of what leaving represents to me and evidently many, many others. It makes me want to fight back, argue with those that voted out, and lay angry blame at the feet of Cameron for starting this, Farage, Boris and the small but pernicious group of leave campaigners for a false campaign and promises that have turned out to be lies(8,9). But that will serve no useful purpose and will only continue the mud-slinging, arguing-without-listening behaviour we’ve collectively become so good at. It needs to be channelled elsewhere. Anger and frustration are what led us to this decision, because when anger becomes the overriding emotion, it can rarely lead to logical thought or response. I suspect that many people that voted to leave, did so not because they are fundamentally xenophobic or ‘just plain stupid’, but because they’ve been carried along with a rhetoric of change that gives them some hope for a change of circumstances. I’m upset, although not surprised, about the statistics showing the effect of the baby boomers’ vote on this referendum, yet far more troubling is the number of disillusioned people of all ages who felt that this was their answer to increasing challenges of employment, income and opportunity. This is a tragedy because the issues they, in some cases, are rightly concerned about, are unlikely to be solved with an EU exit; rather they require a shift in domestic policy that stops favouring the wealthiest; a reconsideration of our fiscal strategy so that investment goes to the most rundown areas; and substantial efforts to rebuild jaded communities with a focus on the most fundamental of things including education, integration, jobs and health.
It is also true that the vote was not as polarised as it may seem from all the outpourings on social and other media. Yes, it was close. Yet I know a lot of people that either voted to remain with great apprehension, or were undecided until the last minute and for all I know could have swung either way, and traditional party lines have been broken. That leaves a lot of disenfranchised people and the potential for a lot more disenchantment, blame-laying and intolerance to grow.
There is a lot of strong feeling amongst remainers right now. I’ve lost track of the number of people wanting to emigrate, investigate their heritage for an alternative passport option, move job and loyalty elsewhere, or get a one way ticket to the moon; but I think we can do better than talking about abandonment in the face of uncertainty. I don’t want the UK to break down, and I don’t want to be around to witness the continued rise of xenophobia and racism, and whatever horrors that brings with it. We might not be able to reverse this decision now, but we must certainly not just accept that that’s the way it is and get on with life. 48% of us voted to remain in the EU (not to mention those that didn’t vote, or have since realised they should have voted the other way(10)). For everything we love about our prevailing multiculturalism, transparency, tolerance and the economic opportunities that immigration brings (in both directions, of course) I think we have two main responsibilities:
Firstly, we must not mirror them. We can’t fight hatred with hatred, but have to respect the multitude of reasons that people voted to leave. We need to demonstrate empathy and understanding, and more usefully, action, in response to them. In my opinion, part of this is accepting that we need to narrow our economic disparity and become a more equitable society. The anti-correlation of the characteristics of vote leave groups, is that remainers tend to be younger, more educated and in a higher socio-economic group and, for the benefit of us all we need to start communicating in a meaningful way to address the issues that affect those that need the most help so that these divisions do not perpetuate.
Secondly, we cannot leave this with the politicians that want to take our exit forward. They’ve shown themselves to be irresponsible and prepared to gamble with the futures of the younger generations and the people that can least afford it. They’ve also shown that they don’t know the difference between European immigration, global immigration and a refugee crisis, which has been translated into huge misunderstandings amongst the British populous. It’s possible that there will be another vote(11) but we may still be on course to leave. If we want to come out of this with our values, humanity, environment, economy and world leading research base intact (science, technology, research(12) and agriculture(13) stand to lose a lot from leaving the EU), we need to be vocal; petition and protest so that we don’t allow them to erode the principles that made the UK great in the first place. Lobby your MP (most MPs were in favour of remaining) and look out for and sign petitions that resonate with you (you can find these on the UK Government website or groups such as 38degrees and sign up for alerts).
As for me, I have decided it’s time to get more actively involved in politics. This vote represents a historical moment for me: it has utterly shifted how I view my place in this country and the world. Aside from all the practical benefits of the EU, I love being part of a multicultural community where we can share cultures, traditions, food and drink, and learn from an experience wider than our own narrow world view. I don’t want to lose that, and if you don’t either, let’s make sure we let our politicians know.