Waking up to the referendum result on Friday morning is something I’ll never forget. It may well sound melodramatic but I felt genuinely heartbreak, and a vacuum replacing the cautious optimism and hope that had been there the night before. Of course there was the knee-jerk reaction too, the tears and the anguish over the fact that I no longer felt “English”. After three days, I can appreciate that grandiose statements about identity politics possibly aren’t helpful, but the feeling still hasn’t subsided. My values and political beliefs are based on the idea of global cooperation, and the idea that I will, over the course of the next two years, lose first my European identity and then my Britishness, fills me with deep sadness. My darling Dad used to say we were internationalists – he’d cheer a foreign team playing against the English if it would make for a better game of rugby – and I don’t think I’d appreciated until Friday how much that had influenced me.
And images like this? That isn’t helping. I’m not ready for twee platitudes, gallows humour, being told to “keep calm and carry on” and that I ought to respect this democratic result and somehow live with the consequences. The Leavers in Westminster are claiming that they now have a “clear mandate” to extricate us from the EU, and social media is telling me that I ought to make the best of it.
No. I reject that absolutely. This was an advisory referendum, and the results are a confusion of prejudices, divisions and misinformation. 48% of the portion of people who voted want to remain. That is a significant chunk of the British population, particularly when you consider that Scotland was so pro-Europe (and that they were told to remain in Britain during the independence referendum in part because it guaranteed them EU membership). 75% of 18-24 year olds wanted to stay in the EU. Lord knows what British teenagers think – the generation which will inherit the consequences of this decision – because they weren’t asked. That doesn’t offer a clear mandate as far as I’m concerned, and neither does it smack of democracy.
Would I think the same if the 48/52 split had gone the other way? I don’t know, and I appreciate that there’s a level of arrogance in assuming Remainers should have the right to unpick this because they believe it’s the wrong decision. (Although for the record, it’s deeply frustrating to read world-weary articles about the sudden hysteria of the “leftie intelligentsia”. Really? The 48% aren’t even allowed a few days to grieve this nightmare scenario without snide mockery? Given that I’ve been bombarded with nonsensical Leave propaganda for months, that seems a little rich.) I know that for some there were genuine, rational, heartfelt reasons to Leave, buried in the mire of Nigel Farage’s 1930s manifesto. And where those arguments can be made I’ll try to have the humility to respect them. I know that for a lot of people, Leave offered a way to rebel against a status quo which has failed them. That some voters were genuinely – rightly – disgusted by the prospect of the TTIP deal and the seemingly inevitable privatisation of the NHS. The EU, in its current form, is in urgent need of reform. But I also don’t believe that the majority of Leave voters could actually give you a clear, justifiable reason for wanting to go, based on something other than Boris’ absurd references to “Independence Day”, and Farage’s xenophobic scare-mongering. And the point is that when Cameron decided to hand this over to the public (in itself a ridiculous and irresponsible decision), it became incumbent on everyone who put a cross in the “Leave” box to be able to justify themselves with something other than sound-bites. When every financial, environmental and political expert is saying that Brexit could destabilise not just our British future but the future of the European project as a whole, you’d better have a damn good reason for wanting to go the other way. And if you don’t, then I think it’s fair to accept that the Remainers will be pretty hacked off with you for a while.
The environmental consequences of all of this are also utterly bleak. After COP21 in December last year, it seemed as though we were actually on the cusp of a unified, global response to climate change. Brexit will almost certainly de-rail that. Instead of helping to build a harmonised, EU-wide initiative to develop green technology and phase out fossil fuels, Britain has decided to go it alone. Which may not be so terrifying if we had a better track record, but we could soon find ourselves at the mercy of a Conservative government which fracks in national parks and slashes subsidies for the green sector. Lord knows what will happen to the EU legislation which underpins our already-inadequate national environmental framework. We’ve lost the right to sit at the TTIP negotiating table, and to block a treaty which would give corporations the right to sue European governments if environmental legislation threatens their bottom line. And instead of asking the EU to focus on climate change now, urgently, recognising it as the existential threat it truly is, we’ve ensured that the next couple of years will be taken up by protracted exit-negotiations and economic uncertainty. We’re wasting time, and turning our backs on the very idea of international cooperation and global leadership. “One just hopes that collaboration on these issues, conservation issues, will transcend political divisions,” David Attenborough said, post-referendum. Collaboration now seems wholly unlikely from where I’m sitting. So yes, I am frightened, and disgusted – and don’t you dare accuse me of self-righteous hysteria, or try to placate me by mauling A.A. Milne.
For now, I can’t just sit back and bask in the glow of democracy at work, just because a couple of old Etonians decided to play a game of chicken in Westminster. History is unlikely to look kindly on the last few months, and I don’t want to reflect on this period in the years to come and remember my apathy. There’s a time to be angry. This is it.(Image taken from: https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/03/why-there-will-be-no-brexit/)