This time last week, I was fairly upset. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend why someone would have voted Leave, and was enraged by the idea that I was going to have part of my identity erased by Westminster. I’ve signed every petition, I’ve written letters, and I’ve roared at the news whenever they’ve shown another clip about the fresh wave of hate crimes which seem to have been legitimised by the vote.
It’s been a tough, strange, disorientating week, and the dust hasn’t even begun to settle. The Tory Leavers are ducking and weaving in the hope that they won’t have to accept responsibility for the fissures creeping across the country, and there isn’t a coherent opposition to speak of. For a lot of the Remainers, and the Leavers who now regret the result, the hope is that the constitutional niceties of this will somehow block Brexit. Lawyers aren’t sure whether the Prime Minister can trigger Article 50 without the prior consent of Parliament; it’s possible that the 1972 Act which introduced us to the EU will need to be repealed; and Holyrood may try to block Brexit given the overwhelming support in Scotland for remain. It’s conceivable that this will all just…fizzle out – that the new Prime Minister will go into Brussels with a view to negotiating a compromise rather than actually pressing the button. For many, including me, that’s the hope.
But. The past few days have also been humbling. I fit squarely in the demographic for remain: I’m 31, a graduate, I live in a city, I have a steady income…I’ve never really felt the pressures of austerity, or immigration. And in retrospect, it looks as though many of the votes have been a response to a combination of those things. According to a report issued by the UN Human Rights Commission last Friday:
The Committee is seriously concerned about the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups. The Committee is concerned that the State party has not undertaken a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of such measures on the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, in a way that is recognized by civil society and national independent monitoring mechanisms (art. 2, para. 1).
The same friend who pointed that out on Facebook also shared the following chart from the Washington Post, which shows how little the income of many families in the UK has increased over recent years.
Reviewing the past few months with that in mind, the referendum suddenly looks like a tinderbox. Even from my liberal Oxford echo-chamber, I could see that the rhetoric used during the campaign was reductive, dangerous, and at times openly xenophobic. Combine that with Austerity Britain, and you’ve got a perfect cocktail of blame and confusion. Perhaps immigration really is putting impossible pressure on the schools and hospitals in some regions – but underlying all of that is the fact that our infrastructure has been hamstrung by years of funding cuts. The EU, with all of its flaws, became a useful scapegoat for years of financial struggle precipitated in part by this government’s economic policies.
And I’m not saying that that is the only reason people voted to Leave. We all responded to this in a myriad of different ways – rightly or wrongly – and the problem with the way this has been presented is that it all become so binary. You’re in or you’re out. Global or isolationist. Urban or rural. The 48 or the 52. In a political and economic context this complicated, that’s a recipe for disaster – because none of us fit neatly into one of two boxes, and the problems the people of this country (and Europe) are facing can’t be reduced to “Leave” or “Remain.” Our politicians failed us when they reduced this blend of issues into a series of inflammatory soundbites, and we’re failing each other if we start to view Britain through that over-simplified prism.
I’m not saying that I’m going to accept the result, or stop kicking back against the way this has been handled. A lot of people I have a great deal of respect for, like George Monbiot, have been saying this week that we have to accept the democratic outcome of the referendum. If the Tory Government has taught me anything, it’s that democracy is a flexible beast. When a County Council voted to block Cuadrilla fracking in a national park, for example, the Government suggested that they were going to centralise fracking decisions going forwards, as a way of thwarting local opposition. When democracy didn’t suit them, they decided to adapt it. With that in mind, going on marches, writing letters and fighting this outcome to the end is the least I can do. I believe in my bones that the referendum was a mistake, that the Tories don’t have a mandate to take us out of the EU subject to their own terms, and that the best hope all of us have is to try to fix this thing from the inside.
However. I will stop referring to myself as part of the 48%, as though that makes us the rebellious, liberal soul of this country. We’re in this together, chaps. We’re not Leavers and Remainers – we’re a struggling nation which hasn’t been communicating. Yes, the wave of xenophobia and racism needs to be stamped out urgently, and we really need to stop sending Farage out into the world as our envoy. But we can’t leave this up to Westminster anymore, or what’s left of it. We need to start talking.