Brexit, or Not – And Then What?

Over the last months comment has frequently been made that we need to be having a conversation on how to bring people back together after the divisiveness of Brexit.

Yet, I see no evidence of this conversation being had.

The whole atmosphere surrounding the issue is unpleasant and divisive, and frequently vitriolic, and however it is eventually concluded (if, indeed, it ever is), there is the prospect of a large number of bitterly disappointed and angry people making their feelings known and even the possibility of some turning to violence.

We urgently need to be having this conversation, and we need to be having it before whatever the conclusion is, happens. Otherwise those putting ideas forward will be constantly accused of smugness or bitterness or some other motives.

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Not sure why I chose this image – something to do with the whole sorry process, I suspect.

So how is it proposed that we bring people together who have held often bitterly opposing views and who have been, perhaps, shocked by the hostility with which they have been voiced? People who may feel that one-time friends have become unexpected enemies? A familiar observation on the American Civil War (the first one, that is, just in case another has broken out by the time this is published) is that it divided families and turned brother against brother, father against son, and friend against friend. This left a bitter legacy for years afterwards, a legacy that persists yet in some places over a hundred and fifty years after hostilities supposedly ceased.

It is this sort of legacy we must avoid at all costs.

Whether we leave or remain, I think it important to focus on this being a healing process, so the focus might perhaps be on the community and the environment, where there is the potential for all of us to contribute to the healing.

There should be purely enjoyable things, such as festivals and concerts, but also important issues should be tackled such as re-wilding and planting trees, or projects to help those disadvantaged in society. People might be encouraged to take part in this as a way to enable those of differing views to work with a common purpose. Whether we are in or out of Europe, community at a local level is important and is part of who we all are.

It is vitally important that we agree not to replay the arguments over and over again once it is over. The emphasis must be on how we move forward in whatever situation we find ourselves in, not point fingers and discuss whose fault it was in the first place.

There has been a certain amount of talk of the traditional political parties being no longer fit for purpose, and the possibility of them fragmenting. If this does happen, it seems likely to contribute to uncertainty and instability in the political process, perhaps with no party able to gain power outright in future elections. Like it or not, we would then enter an era of coalition government, much as is seen in much of Europe. If we have left Europe, of course, this would be rather ironic.

Strangely, this could be part of the conversation, as we will need to find a way to move on from purely adversarial politics, towards a point where parties look more for common ground. This was supposedly attempted with the Conservative / Labour talks on the Brexit plan, but neither side appeared to negotiate in complete good faith and I suppose I can think of several reasons why that was.

As an aside, it would be fantastic if every politician connected with the whole sorry process could be ditched and fresh untainted ones brought in, but I know that really is wishing for the impossible.

Yet I find it difficult to think of other ways a nation-wide healing process could take place, and so this is why the conversation needs urgent input from everyone.

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The People’s March

There are a number of big marches taking place in the UK today, demanding that the public get a final say on any deal made to leave the EU.

Despite what many people think, these marches are not demanding a stop to Brexit.

Surely, there cannot be anyone who is unaware of the original referendum and the result, as well as the resulting chaos and discord that followed it, but just in case there is…

The British public was asked in 2016 to vote on whether they wished to leave the EU or to remain. The results were as follows:

Of those who voted, 17,410,742 (51.9%) voted leave, and 16,141,241 (48.1%) voted remain.

The turnout was 72.2% of a total registered electorate of 46,500,001.

This means that 37.45% of the electorate voted to leave and 34.72 to remain.

So to say that the result was an overwhelming one (as has been frequently claimed) is clearly untrue. Not much over one third of the electorate declared their preference for leaving, and just over a third to remain.

One thing that is obvious in hindsight, and really should have been blindingly obvious at the time, is that if you offer a referendum on an incredibly significant and life-changing choice such as that, you should also state there should be a very clear majority for change (such as over 50% of the total electorate, or a margin of over (say) 15%)

And parliament has been utterly unable to come up with a workable, realistic plan to manage this exit.

It is true you are on shaky ground demanding a re-run, even if you think there is convincing evidence (as in this case) that everyone was lied to. And this is not about a re-run.

The initial problem, which has been the great stumbling block all along, is that nobody knew what they were voting for.

Politicians canvassing for ‘leave’ promised everything from completely halting all immigration to channelling massive sums of money to the NHS, all of which they knew was completely undeliverable, and naturally many people believed them.

So, what are the people taking part in the march demanding?

The official march website states its objective is that any Brexit is put to the people so that we can have the final say.

What it does not demand, is a stop to Brexit. Yet that is a theme I see everywhere in social media at the moment; we’re marching to stop Brexit – repeal article 50.

How about the petition?

Well, that states ‘revoke article 50 and remain in the EU’. Which is probably why so many people seem to think that’s what the march organisers are demanding, and consequently what is being repeated all over social media.

Now, although that might be something I’d like to see happen, you cannot get away from the fact that the result of the referendum was ‘leave’, and you cannot simply set that aside because you disagree with it. If it is something that is going to happen, it has to be because the majority of the public decide it is the right move.

Emotions are running very high and many people seem unable to even allow the other side to put their case without shouting them down. The name calling is ludicrous and disgraceful. And to have national newspapers with headlines calling MPs ‘traitors’ for voting against their (i.e. the newspaper’s owner’s) views is nothing short of repellent. And the unpleasantness is certainly not confined to just one side.

There is also far too much political posturing and point scoring. Not just from politicians, but from the public. Looking at social media, for example, there are many people who see this whole thing as Labour against Tory. I’m not going to attempt to dissect that, except to point out that the leadership from both parties has been derisory.

To be fair, there have been a few voices asking how it will be possible to bring both sides together when the dust has settled, but they have been largely drowned out by the clamour of those demanding their ‘rights’ and deriding their opponents on the one hand as treacherous cowards who want to see Britain ‘taken over’ by the EU, in a somehow similar manner to a country occupied by an invading army, or on the other as fascist bigots who want to expel everyone not white and Christian from the country.

There is only one way I can see out of this impasse, without the very real danger of violence and long-lasting bitter divisions. After all, once this is over, one way or another, we have to find a way to coexist with each other.

Parliament needs to either pass the deal the government has got, or alternately vote to leave with no deal, and then put that back to the people in a referendum that asks Do you accept the terms of this deal / no deal to exit the EU or do you wish to remain?

And the result of that referendum needs to be both final and legally binding. I can only speak for myself, but if the vote is still to leave, then it should be accepted since this time the electorate actually know what they are voting for. This is also, as I see it, the only way to respect people on both sides of the divide. And respect is something that seems to be in incredibly short supply at the moment.

Why?

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Have half of the American population become xenophobic, misogynistic haters overnight? Of course they haven’t. The demographic who voted for Trump are, like any other political demographic, a mixture of many different views and beliefs.

There are the die-hard Republicans who would vote for anyone or anything, as long as it wore Republican colours.

There are those who believe in Trump’s vision, as he set it out.

Those who believed that Clinton would take away their guns.

Those who have had a pretty raw deal over the past however many years, and think that Trump holds out their best hope.

And there are those, who I believe number many millions, who wanted to give the establishment a damn good kicking, and perhaps did not care how much damage they did in achieving it.

They are the ones who think that everything is run by the rich; the elite, no matter what their political colours, and that the system needs to be torn down and built afresh.

‘Drain the swamp!’ – how that must have resonated with them.

Had the Democrats selected Bernie Sanders as their candidate, and the Republicans selected a more moderate candidate as theirs, then I suspect we would have seen many of those who voted for Trump, supporting Sanders – solely because he would be seen as the anti-establishment candidate.

And the Democrats had another huge disadvantage, in that they were the presidential incumbents, and therefore the obvious targets for this anger.

Clearly, the political class, most commentators, and probably a huge chunk of the population have been unaware of this mood, this anger, although it must have been widespread, and for a long while.

And perhaps the Brexit vote has, in some ways, given it a legitimacy, given people permission, almost, to express their feelings. Even made them realise their power. Trump has been very keen to use Brexit as an example, aided by Farage’s visit.

And Brexit was a phenomenon strikingly similar to Trump’s victory, in that it caught the pollsters, commentators and political classes by surprise, and for many voters was an outpouring of anger against the political status quo, the elite.

Where we go from here, I don’t think anyone yet knows. In the UK, it seems that the political class have not yet realised that there is going to have to be, at some point in the future, some serious discussions about how the electorate are given a genuine say in how things are run. The same conversation will have to happen in the US.

Of course, the electorates of other countries will be watching all of this with great interest.

It could get quite exciting.