It was a common claim of the Leave campaign, and UKIP in particular, that being pro-EU is something of the liberal political elite or the 'establishment'. Speaking to supporters early on Friday morning, Nigel Farage described the Brexit vote as "a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people". The Remain campaign lost, that's now a matter of historical record. However, the 48 per cent or the 16,141, 241 people who voted to remain in the EU, makes us a pretty large 'establishment'. Just as it would be grossly unfair to describe all Leavers as racists or xenophobes, it is also inaccurate to see all of the 48 percenters as 'the establishment'. Maybe some of us are ordinary decent people too. The question is what should we do now?
Spending far too long on social media on Friday, I noticed that, rather than celebrating their victory and extolling their grand plan for Britain's post-EU national re-birth, many Leavers demonstrated a remarkably thin-skin in response to the anger, upset and frustration expressed by those who had voted to remain. Name-calling and being mean to one another on a personal level is neither nice nor helpful. However, just because the majority voted to leave the EU, doesn't make the decision sacred or beyond criticism. Exercising power collectively, as we do in a democracy, also means taking responsibility for poor decision-making and the criticism associated with it.
There seems to be a palpable sense that we should now accept the will of the people, move on, and get to work 'rolling up our sleeves' and making Britain great again...keep calm and carry on, muddle through, have faith in your country etc. The 48 percenters need to reject this. By accepting this, we would be buying into the post-imperial nationalist fantasy of the Leave campaign. As of Thursday, Britain's role and influence in the world has diminished and its economic stability has been undermined. Accepting this is not doing your country down, it's acknowledging the realities of power in the international system. It will be cold outside...
The 48 percenters are not a unified group and we had a variety of different reasons for voting to remain in the EU. It might be enthusiasm for free trade and free market values, it might be about the role the EU has played in improving worker's rights, or simply a desire to preserve the status quo and to avoid the turbulence that Brexit has now brought. Remain was after all a campaign that united investment banks, trade unions and those who were previously ambivalent about politics. There might even be some genuine enthusiasm for the idea of a united Europe. That after centuries of violent conflict, including the world's two most destructive wars and several genocides, we could be better than all of that. That we could live together peacefully and share both citizenship and a common identity. The EU remains the best framework for achieving these aims and has no obvious rival.
A second referendum isn't going to happen any time soon. Britain will now leave the EU. It will be politically impossible for the British government to ignore the voices of nearly 17.5 million people. What the 48 percenters need to think about now is how to return Britain to the EU. It involves acknowledging that the EU has some significant flaws. However, the organisation has evolved significantly since its creation and the claim that it can't change flies in the face of its own history. But change comes from within and Britain should be part of that.
It also involves an acceptance that many people in Britain feel uncomfortable about the EU or have a limited understanding of it. Many of the facile claims about the EU made by the Leave campaign (our imaginary £350 million a week contribution for instance) were internalised by voters because of this. This doesn't mean that the British people are stupid, rather that the progressive case for the EU wasn't made clearly enough. In the short-term, Labour do share some of the blame for this.
However, it's also a longer-term problem. Despite being a prominent member for 43 years, the EU is curiously absent from Britain's national story. The story of Britain's victory in 1945 is remembered fondly. However, the role that EU membership has played in helping Britain to successfully adapt to changes in Europe and its own declining power in the post-War world seems forgotten. As a result it's easy to create an image of the EU as alien, intrusive and working against Britain's national interest. These perceptions can be changed - xenophobia and Euro-scepticism isn't innate to British politics.
For the 48 per cent who supported Britain remaining in the EU, the challenge now is how to develop a stronger foundation for British EU membership in popular consciousness. This is a pre-requisite to Britain returning to the fold as a positive and progressive force in the EU. It is going to be difficult, but not as difficult as attempting to achieve a return to national greatness by drawing Britain away from its closest trading partner and a major source of its power. Had the referendum gone the other way, the Brexiteers wouldn't have given up. The 48 percenters shouldn't either.
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