When 34million people went to polling stations to vote in the Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016, I wonder if any of them imagined that three years later, the country would be so divided and politics so paralysed. If anything, the polarisation seems to be getting worse.
Let’s not pretend, though, that Britain was united before the referendum. There have always been divisions which have sharpened in recent decades into those who’ve done well out of globalisation and those whose communities have been shattered by it.
It’s not just prosperity and the feeling of inequality. The creation of regional mayors has done little to reduce the sense that all power is concentrated in Westminster, and all investment in London. Add to that a bankrupt voting system which discounts two thirds of all votes cast and it’s no wonder that so many people felt angry, disenfranchised and determined to give the political establishment a good kicking.
The referendum was the perfect opportunity.
What makes me angry is that if people’s genuine grievances had been tackled much earlier, we could have avoided so much pain and division. We needed to address people’s anger and sense of powerlessness, and rebalance our economy so that regions were not left behind. But the mishandling of Brexit has made a bad situation much worse. And the blame for this lies squarely with the Conservative party, which from the beginning has only been interested in its own survival.
It was a Conservative prime minister – David Cameron – who called the referendum to try to close down a long-running civil war over Europe in his own party which he was unable to control.
It was a Conservative-driven austerity programme, combined with resentment over Westminster, that fuelled the vote to leave.
It was a group of right-wing Conservative MPs who then manipulated that Leave vote to mean only one thing: a hard Brexit, regardless of the consequences for the country.
And it will now be up to some 160,000 Conservative party members to decide who will be Britain’s next prime minister, and all the signs are that they will vote for a man (Boris Johnson) who even former colleagues say is lazy, incompetent, lacking judgment and a liar – simply because Conservatives believe he has the best chance of saving the party from oblivion.
Some might be tempted to feel a sense of schadenfreude. Except that the rest of us are the collateral damage in this Tory party civil war.
It is not just the impact on our economy: nearly a quarter of a million jobs lost already; companies pulling out of the UK or threatening to do so in the event of a no-deal Brexit; business uncertainty from banking to manufacturing to farming.
What isn’t happening is just as important. Brexit has sucked all the political oxygen out of government, leaving a sense of policy paralysis. None of the issues which voters most care about are getting the attention they deserve and the feelings which drove the Leave vote are stronger than ever.
On the climate crisis, two thirds of people in Britain recognise that we face a climate emergency. Across the UK, schoolchildren have been taking part in monthly climate strikes. Businesses are calling for leadership and clear policy measures from the government. Scientists are constantly telling us of the urgency for action. Only last week, the head of the Environment Agency warned that we all needed to wake up to the climate emergency and its implications.
And from the government? An announcement that we would aim for a target of net zero emissions by 2050, with no plan for how to achieve it. In other words, business as usual even though that business includes export finance schemes which fund fossil fuel projects in developing countries, aviation expansion, fracking, and an economic growth model based on continuous consumption of finite resources.
Legend tells us that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. I have a sense of how those Roman citizens felt.
Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion