Over the last 36 hours, Britain has been coming to terms with what has been one of its most historic referendums. Taking a turn that no-one really expected, Britain has voted to leave the European Union, leaving in its wake a level of uncertainty and division so profound, the effects reach far beyond the isles themselves. The international media scene have bombarded the world with facts and figures that paint the level of uncertainty and division quite starkly: the pound sterling drops to its lowest value since 1985, the majority of those that voted ‘Remain’ will outlive the majority that voted ‘Leave’ and that which was the United Kingdom is now a divided kingdom of values and agenda.
Infographics, soundbites and retweets are a plenty and I’ve little academic authority to address what the economic landscape of future Britain (or possibly, future England if the Scots do call a second referendum) will look like. But what I do want to address, for myself more than anyone, is why a referendum on our participation in the EU and subsequent decision to leave it has had such a profound effect and sent many of us into grief and others to regret their decision at the polling booth. The scale to which this referendum has affected nearly everything I know of my life in the UK is so large that it seemed that the only way to isolate idea from emotion was to write.
Leading up to the referendum, my right to vote was questioned daily even by some of my longest-standing friends. As an English born, New Zealand raised, hereditarily Scottish citizen I did indeed have the right to vote (on either passport) - whether I was ‘English enough’ or not. To answer the question, “where are you from?” today, is one of the most loaded and difficult endeavours for more people than we’d probably like to admit - and my lineage is really one of the more straightforward ones. While I don’t hold it against my friends who forget that I am indeed British enough to carry the paperwork, this idea of ‘authentic nationality’ and immigration has been quite central to the Leave campaign. It is an idea that has been employed as political bait in the Trump campaign in the US and indeed here in the UK: that Britain has lost control of her own borders.
To couple the fear of immigration, the promise of ‘free money‘ and taking back what is 'rightfully Britain’s' to end austerity, was rife amongst be-Leave-ers (yes, I went there). Recently, the UK has had it tough. The recovery from the effects of the 2012 recession has been slow and it has left many regions feeling neglected, cheated and struggling to build viable economic strongholds. The North - South UK divide has never felt greater. Fear is a complex thing, it drives us to take irrational actions at times that call for logical decisions. So what was supposed to be a referendum on our relationship with Europe, became a protest vote. Camp Leave wanted a referendum result that ‘stuck it to the austerity man’ and bought into such lies that promised money saved on EU responsibilities would be fed back into our own social infrastructure, such as the NHS.
So while we voted to end a relationship formed out of an agenda for a united and economically progressive Europe, the message we actually sent was one of racism, financial fear and internal protest in order to ‘take back Britain’. On the morning of the 24th June a dear friend said to me, “yesterday I was a resident. Today, I have woken up an immigrant”.
London Mayor, Sadiq Khan was quick to acknowledge the near one million London based European citizens, and affirmed their welcome in the capital city. An online petition crashed the UK govt website within hours of its creation, as it called for a second referendum.
The EU isn’t perfect. And I don’t really believe that anyone thought that it was. But like it or not, they’ve become family and a Brexit is, as J K Rowling puts it, ‘using a hammer to fix a watch.’
So where do we go from here?
As every conversation that I’ve had amongst friends these last few days has been Brexit related - we’re so tired of talking about it and yet it’s all we can think about - several camps seem to have emerged: those that are still grieving, those that have grieved but are ready to constructively move on with a Europe-focussed strategy, and those that genuinely believe Britain is better without any ties to Europe.
Today, I find myself in camp two. We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and attempt to fix the mess that has been left behind to build something even better. Our camp wants open and critical discussion on the state of affairs regarding the toxic and startling intolerance, impatience and complacency that has made its way into the Brexit campaign. Discussions that enable security for Europeans in the United Kingdom, security for Britons’ long term well-being and action that fosters social inclusiveness (be it race, gender, age etc) need to be central to the next two years of negotiations if we’re not to regress into dangerous socio-political ideologies of the past.
And actually, I think this is what our camp has wanted all along. Perhaps we felt that being in the European Union enabled these things. How well it did or didn’t is perhaps irrelevant now. What is now salient to Britain’s moving forward is twofold: how are these Europe-centric issues addressed as an independent but considerate nation? And secondly, how will our leaders address and work to constructively resolve the internal uncertainty and fear that drove the nation to leave Europe in the first place?
The biggest uncertainty is, does the rest of the nation and in particular our parliamentary leaders feel the same as we do?