The morning of Friday 24th June was a morning that changed Britain, Europe and the World. It shook markets, it plunged our political structures and those within them into chaos, and it left the World’s largest example of continental cooperation severely set back.
Yet, more than that, it left myself and many millions of other ‘remain’ voters in utter shock. Disbelief, yes. Sadness, most definitely. Worry, a ton of it. Anger, sadly. Despite staying up for much of the night and going to bed deep down knowing the results, I hoped and prayed that London or Birmingham had kept Britain in the EU. It was not the case and acceptance wasn’t easy.
Acceptance still isn’t easy. Not because I don’t believe in democracy, but because on a personal level my hopes and ambitions felt somewhat further away; what would become of free movement, career prospects, potential friendships or opportunities to work abroad? Equally it was because the country I awoke to did not feel like the country I knew. I said to myself, ‘at what point did my country decide expertise was a bad thing, at what point did the Polish person down the road become more of an issue than global climate change or breaking down barriers between people and nations.’ To those ‘leave’ voters who reminded us youngsters that they were ‘born and bred in Britain’ I could only remind them that I was ‘born and bred in the EU’. Much as they had remembered a Britain outside of Europe, many of us couldn’t envisage a Europe without Britain.
But acceptance is what is needed now. The argument for staying in was lost and whilst I and many others will continue to believe and maybe even fight for a Britain that works and leads in the Europe and the World, we must set that aside for the immediate challenges facing our country and our futures.
Firstly, any ‘remain’ voter will tell you about the importance of unity and togetherness. That still applies. We have lost the European Union but we must not lose the Union closer to home. We have a duty to fight for a United Kingdom, not a divided one. That means lobbying for the Westminster system to devolve power as far as it can. In many respects this vote was a vote on a democratic system which isn’t working. It isn’t working because people feel like their vote ‘doesn’t count’ and because they feel ignored by an elite. Returning powers back to regions and introducing voting reform is, in my view, key to addressing that.
Yet it is not merely the union which faces division, much rather it is our country as a whole. Far greater than the economic uncertainty that has dawned upon the UK; with the pound falling at a rate not seen for over thirty years and many investors starting to get tetchy, is the social and political division that we face.
In my lifetime has the country has never been so bitterly divided; young vs old, rich vs poor, educated vs uneducated, Scotland and Northern Ireland vs England and Wales. The battle lines have already been drawn. Yet this is wrong. Not least because it oversimplifies; it provides no solution. Despite all of that it is understandable; I myself have expressed my regret at the lack of attention paid to the young’s voice in this referendum and as I mentioned earlier, the many feel like their nations voice is simply ignored.
I, like so many of this generation, felt robbed of opportunities by a generation that had themselves benefited from the free-market and years of peace in Europe. I am the first to admit that I couldn’t stomach those who said they voted for their children’s future without listening to the voices of their children. I am the first to believe that in expressing decades of anger for being ignored by generations of political elites, many older voters had themselves ignored the next generation.
Yet, that is not what we need now. If the battle lines continue to be drawn we risk further disenfranchising a young generation from a political system that many already feel is unfit for the modern World. We risk anger and hatred fermenting in a young generation whose defining feature is tolerance and acceptance.
We risk communities never healing. We risk intolerance and ignorance establishing a foothold in British politics. Indeed, we risk our union.
So what now? I spoke earlier of how I prayed that a London vote would save the ‘remain’ campaign. Here is a good place to start. The fact that many of us were relying on one city or one specific area to decide and swing the decision of the whole country is representative of a political system in Britain which is too reliant on specific areas.
My aim here is not to London bash, quite the opposite. I love London, and I am proud that its our capital. It represents tolerance and togetherness like no other. Yet, we cannot escape that London and the country it serves as capital aren’t running on the same course. In politics too, too many feel abandoned by the capital. In many ways the referendum was as much as vote of no confidence in the ‘Westminster bubble’ as it was on the European Union. If politicians truly want to bring our country together, they must seek to devolve power back to regions or maybe even give voting reform a chance. I am not certain of the answer, but I know that those debates must be had.
If we don’t have them we risk taking the anger and frustration which led people to vote leave to only intensify. I do not believe that key issues such as immigration or political disillusionment will be fixed by ‘Brexit’. Indeed, since the result, key members of ‘leave’ have distanced themselves from key claims such as the ‘£350 million for the NHS’ and that immigration will fall.
There is a real risk that in five years time we will see a voter, previously concerned at the economic impact of immigration on Britain, shouting at Nigel Farage on Question Time that ‘you promised they’d all be gone’. There is a real risk that unfulfilled promises and exposed lies will lead to a more direct, hostile and vile debate. History tells us we should be cautious of the mixture of nationalism and economic uncertainty.
I, like everyone else, have no idea what the future holds, but I do know this. Everyone frustrated with the result now needs to fight in whatever way they can to hold those who led us out and their promises to account; that means campaigning, voicing anger, writing, having conversations. It also means showing dignity in defeat; not snubbing those who voted to leave but rather understanding why they did so and fighting to resolve those underlying motives. Do not forget, they are our neighbours, our friends, our grandparents and parents. It means, more than ever, standing up for the values we hold close; tolerance, hope and unity. Call out hated. Talk to the disengaged. Stand with the vulnerable.
I don’t know the future of our country. I do know we must ensure that our voices and values are heard in it.