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Out of the darkness – groping for hope in a bleak post-referendum Britain

By Sophie Witter
on June 26, 2016

We live in dark times. After months of campaigning in which people who have faced declining real wages and a rise in income inequality were sold a lie that leaving the EU would solve their problems, it looks like Britain is being wrenched from its European home. 52% voted in favour of leaving, but on a 72% turnout, this is just 37% of our electorate.

Those who voted in favour of leaving were predominantly old, poor, uneducated. Not, interestingly, those in areas which had actually experienced high immigration – which was the cause celebre of the leave campaign. Cities with high immigration like London voted overwhelmingly to stay. So the fear of immigrants in areas like the north-east came not from personal experiences, but presumably from the slow drip-drip of poison from our unregulated right wing press.

They were sold lies by politicians with a naked agenda of power-seeking. They were told – at least, it was cunningly implied – that if they voted to ‘get their country back’ then we would reduce immigration and all would be sweetness and light. All facts to the contrary – the obvious statement, for example, that you can’t have free trade with the EU-zone without signing up to common standards – were dismissed. ‘Experts’ were disparaged – even by our former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove! This was demagoguery and evidence-free policy making at its finest.

The voters in areas left behind by recent economic progress were protesting, understandably, though at the wrong target. Within hours of the results, people were saying they regretted voting ‘leave’ – they hadn’t thought it would work! A top search term the day after the referendum was: ‘what is the EU?’! Within hours, Leave campaigners were ‘clarifying’ that controlling immigration did not mean reducing the numbers!

The good politicians resign and the way is potentially open to the demagogues to profit. Britain faces uncertainty, the risk of internal break-up and potentially a decade of unravelling a 40-year relationship. Europe is weakened. We are all diminished.

What light can we find in this dark hour? Here are my top five hopes:

  1. Damage limitation. We need to question the justice in bringing about such a huge constitutional shift on such a low proportion of the electorate. There is a campaign for a second referendum with a threshold of 60% for change and a minimum turn-out of 75%. All UK citizens are encouraged to sign up, if they support this view. This would at least signal our outrage at the result. One other hope may be that Scotland will block the exit. If not, we will just have to negotiate to keep as much of the relationship as we can – it will be costly, but may be the least bad outcome.
  2. We failed to make the positive case for Europe. The argument that we are stronger together – which we promoted, rightly in the Scottish referendum, we never understood it for ourselves in relation to Europe. Having autonomy but the protection of being in a larger unit is the ideal set-up. We must not throw it away. We need new leaders who can communicate that passion. The campaign was dominated by old, rich men who focused on narrow, unappealing economic arguments, as if that is all that motivates us. Let us open up the leadership to wider voices. Some of the younger generation of politicians show promise. We must respect the memory of Jo Cox and all she stood for – bringing respect back to politicians for the hard work they do, rather than corrosive cynicism.
  3. Which takes us straight into press regulation. While the BBC has to be scrupulously ‘balanced’ (giving equal time to both sides, even when one presents evidence and the other just sound-bites), our written press has no such restraints and pursues its ideological and personal agendas to the detriment of public understanding and debate. The false figures on how much Britain pays to the EU continued to be peddled through the campaign even after thoroughly disproved. No longer should papers be able to tell lies which sell. That way lies Trump.
  4. Within Britain, we have to clean up our constitutional house. Our constitution is in a mess (no one understands it, it is semi-reformed, and devolution has thrown up more challenges as yet unsolved). The English regions are disempowered by our over-centralised government (having none of the status of the devolved nations), with almost no local powers. Our electoral system means most votes count for nothing. A lot of the anger which was redirected to the bogeyman of ‘Brussels’ needs to hit closer to home! Just as Scots need to stop blaming ‘Westminster’ for all woes, so we too, in the rest of the country need to take responsibility and grow up.
  5. Addressing inequality has to be at the heart of our efforts. This includes more investment in education and training, in regional development, in industrial policy, in social protection, in infrastructure, especially in the regions – no easy quick fixes but a long steady haul towards healing our divided nation.

Yes, the EU does need reform, which we can contribute to, if we stay in, but let’s clean up our own house above all else. Let’s honour the memory of a nation which grew out of immigrants – Britons, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, children of Empire – and which always looked outwards.

In or out in legal terms, no one can take away our identity. I remain a proud (but dismayed) Briton and a proud European.

What unites is us is more important than what divides us – let’s make that a reality in our UK politics, as much as in global health.

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