As I sit here in the early hours of Friday morning, listening to the referendum results coming in, it seems that those of us who have been campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union have pulled off what was seemingly impossible. There can be no denying that the establishment put absolutely everything into keeping Britain in the European Union, and yet somehow, the leave message, a message of hope, of optimism about Britain's future as an independent nation, of a return to proper parliamentary democracy, resonated with people.
My Twitter Message the Morning of the Vote
I know that many people will struggle to understand what's happened. There are some who will dismiss the vote as the work of racists and bigots. I count myself very lucky to have had an unconventional life and as a result I'm fortunate to know people from all sorts of backgrounds. As a writer, I like to listen, because I know that the best stories, the best characters, are grounded in truth. I've been listening to a lot of different people for the past few years; rich, poor, unemployed, self-employed, disabled, people from all sorts of different ethnic backgrounds, and, as I've listened, two things have become apparent.
The first is that everyone is remarkably well-informed. The Internet has democratised information, so governments should no longer assume they can lie or spin to suit their needs. People will go off and find their own facts. I've spoken to a strange variety of people who've actually read large parts of the Lisbon Treaty, a document that would have once been the preserve of civil servants and international lawyers. People possessed of facts were never going to be swayed by brand EU - the idea that the European Union is an inherent good. They have access to enough information to know that the EU isn't all hugs and frolics, and that it has overseen a period of terrible hardship and decline.
The second thing that has become apparent is that people know that they have been losing their democratic rights. This isn't just about the EU. They feel the pressure of globalisation, of corporatism, of zero-hour contracts, of cuts to the welfare state. They see the individual becoming a smaller and smaller cog in ever-growing machines. Democracy is the only way we can protect ourselves from these huge machines, and a lot of people are very conscious of the fact that membership of the EU has involved the curtailment of our democratic rights.
If you wake up dismayed at the Leave vote, and condemn your fellow citizens as bigots and racists, you're missing the point, and you're in danger of doing the country a disservice. If we shout slogans across a dividing line, there is no way we'll ever understand each other. No way we'll unite and build a better future, which is, ultimately, what we all want. Talk to a leave voter. Engage with them, and what you'll hear is very different from what's been portrayed during the campaign. Most leave voters I know speak of equality, rights, accountability, and democracy - and I know a lot of leave voters. If you're still struggling to understand why people have voted to leave, I can recommend these articles here and here. And also my own pieces, here and here.
I wrote this piece shortly after Jeremy Corbyn was elected, calling on him to lead the Labour Party away from its dogmatic adherence to the EU. At the time, I don't think many people understood what was at stake. Labour should be grateful for a leave vote; it might just have saved the party from abject humiliation at the next general election. I applaud the Labour MPs who have campaigned for leave. I know how hard it is to stand up for what you believe when the majority of your peers are on the other side of the debate. I also applaud the Conservatives who defied their own government and gave voice to the concerns of the majority of people in Britain. And despite not approving of their tactics, or some of their messages, I applaud UKIP for fighting so hard to make this referendum a reality.
One of my American followers on Twitter asked me why so many people in Britain struggle to understand the rationale for a leave vote, and I likened it to the rise of the Beat Generation. There was a time when mainstream America just didn't get the counterculture movement, and I think something similar has happened here. There's a huge change sweeping across Europe and it's propelled by increased access to information, a sense that our politicians have misled us time and time again, and the feeling that we are simply regarded as cogs that serve mighty machines. There's a profound belief that people deserve better, that the status quo just isn't good enough. It seems certain that our departure from the EU will trigger demands for reform across the continent.
As far as Britain is concerned, I sincerely hope that the European question has been settled once and for all. But while the referendum might have punctuated the question, it marks the beginning of a huge process of change. We must ensure that we leave the European Union in the right way. We need to be vigilant and ensure that the process is properly managed, and that our departure is handled carefully, acting in harmony, not only with our European neighbours, but also with all the constituent nations of the United Kingdom.
Instead of being fearful, people on both sides of the referendum debate need to come together to seize this huge opportunity. We have an unparalleled chance to reshape our social, political, and legal landscape, and I hope that the British people will unite and work together with a common purpose to build a better future for us all.
Please excuse any errors in this piece, but I've been up all night. The first thing I want to do in a reformed Britain is get some sleep. And when I wake up, please don't let this have all been a dream.
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