I wake up after two hours sleep this morning to a world of fear, division and blame. As an Englishman in Northern Ireland, my timeline is full of people blaming my homeland for dragging us all head first out of the EU. Northern Ireland, Scotland and London blame England and Wales (but mainly England). Leftie Remainers loathe Lexiters. Corbyn is facing a fresh wave of internal strife and a possible coup, Tory leadership contenders sharpen their knives as Cameron resigns and everyone else is resisting the urge to sock their jubilant Brexit friends. We stand this morning as a country divided.
Generally, Britain does not do this sort of thing. We do not do radicalism or revolution. We do not ignore economic self-interest. We do not opt for sudden change that upsets the status quo. But then, this change was not so sudden- it was a long time coming. There has been a healthy dose of Euroscepticism in all flavours of political thought in Britain since the Union's conception, and fears around immigration are as old as society itself, deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. Modern political history, however, has proven a fertile breeding ground for such underlying sentiments.
As trade unions and our industrial powerhouses declined and left many without secure work, at the same time as rapid cultural changes and a more marketised and careerist electoral system took root, dragging both parties to a sort of catch-all, please-none centre ground, certain sections of society began to feel isolated and neglected by our political elites. Sustained failure to invest in housing and services exacerbated this feeling, and later austerity compounded the pressure on certain communities, as well as reviving a demonization of these communities and their lifestyles, further pushing them to the margins of modern Britain.
For these individuals an overbearing EU and a booming immigrant population came to represent the changing world they seemed to have little say in, and there was no shortage of demagogues ready to exploit legitimate grievances for their own political agendas. Changing cultures and community compositions left some in already fragile communities to feel resentment and distrust. It didn't help that notions of 'hordes' of immigrants were summoned to cloak the failures of an economic system that sent inequality into the stratosphere whilst leaving wages tied to the ground, promoting sluggish growth and leading to the instability and recklessness that toppled financial markets 8 years ago. Crucially, Labour failed to challenge the narrative that over-spending crashed the economy and the rest of us paid the price for their failure with more austerity, deregulation and division.
Now we stand on a grey Friday morning having left the European Union. Remainers have to listen to this result- not admonish it, not patronise it, not explain it away- but listen to it. People are angry. People feel alienated. People feel betrayed. Immigration is not the cause of this, but it does play a role in further changing communities that have already lost much of the glue that held them together, and the EU was perceived to be another roadblock to these communities retaining the England they used to know. Whilst we must highlight the far greater role a morally and economically bankrupt ideology has played in shattering these communities and the positives immigration and the EU have brought to our country, we have just seen the result of completely dismissing the concerns they conjure too.
Murder was brought to our streets during this referendum when the brave and committed Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally gunned down outside her constituency office 8 days ago. This act, along with the increasingly divisive rhetoric around the referendum highlights the dangers of a highly polarised political landscape that contains extremes simply unable to understand and communicate with one another, that leaves certain sections of society feeling neglected and betrayed. Whilst such an analysis in no way excuses xenophobia, let alone cold-blooded murder, it does highlight the need to find a way of engaging with the concerns of those we can often be quick to dismiss.
Instead of seeing selfish, racist Little Englanders, I'd compel my Northern Irish and Scottish brothers and sisters to see working-class communities betrayed and disenfranchised, communities we have all failed. We need to understand the emotions and values that drive some to reject immigration and the EU, as well as the impacts these issues are having on their communities, to see where we can balance the need to have a humane and welcoming immigration policy whilst still respecting and valuing the communities we often dismiss. This is our only hope of salvaging a workable society from the abyss of Brexit.
Leaving the EU is a huge blow but bitterness and bewilderment cannot be allowed to let this be the catalyst that morphs Britain even more into an isolated, right-wing dominated political landscape. If we are honest, most of us were moved to some degree by the rally calls of democracy and sovereignty of the Leave campaign- we just weren't convinced they would stand up to political reality in the post-Brexit world we now nightmarishly find ourselves in, or were worth abandoning the good that the EU has brought us. Now we have no choice: we must make the best of this we can, and Remain voices will be key to this. Those that still believe in a progressive, outward-looking, egalitarian and welcoming Britain that aims to heal rifts in our communities and play a positive role in world affairs need to make sure our voices are loud and clear over the coming months- we're the only ones that will be protecting migrant and worker's rights and thinking about our place in wider global affairs. We need to foster unity, unity between nations, between classes, between parties, to make the difficult but necessary political arguments. We need to make sure this referendum is the start of a political conversation, not the end of one.
Britain is at a crossroads: not the crossroads we wanted, but the one we have nonetheless. The choice before Remainers now is to allow this to usher in a new era of neoliberal, xenophobic politics that works for the few not the many, or to fight for a better, more inclusive, more equal Britain. We can choose to despise and demonise the predominately white, working class English that led us to this point, or we can try and engage with their grievances. We can choose to lambast our Lexit comrades and demand they conjure up a political revolution, or we can stand side by side with them in trying to build a better post-Brexit world. We can choose to be mired in inaction, demoralised, despondent and disillusioned or we can be determined to fight for the best possible outcome for the people of these isles that can be won. We can let this be an ending, or we can let it be a beginning. We can let this tear us apart, or we can let it begin a conversation that brings us together. Which will you choose?