So on the 23rd June 2016 surgery happened. No that isn’t some kind of clever allegory for the UK referendum that saw 51.9% vote in favour of leaving the EU (that comes later) My husband literally had surgery, laparoscopic left inguinal and open epigastric hernia repairs. The next day he came home, miserable, sore and generally feeling very sorry for himself.
As he did so the UK was reeling from the results of the EU referendum vote and immediately fell to arguing and blame. Please don’t take that the wrong way, it is not a rebuke. People were, and still are, afraid about what this could mean for the future and that is entirely understandable. Aside from one civil war and the occasional riot British people are not, generally speaking, a hugely revolutionary bunch. We like our tea hot, our fish battered and our wit dry, sarcastic and slightly whimsical. We crave stability and the comfort of familiar things, who doesn’t? The government was certain that Remain would win, as was the media. Even some of those that campaigned and voted for Leave were sure that Remain would win. As the results were revealed supporters of Remain commiserated and raged while the celebrations of Leave very quickly gave way to a kind of stunned silence as the sheer enormity of what had occurred began to sink in and the inevitable question of “Now what?” began to arise.
I’d watched both campaigns slinging mud at each other for years. I know people on both sides of the argument, Leavers and Remainers both as passionate and certain in their perspective as each other. I greeted the news that we were leaving the EU with a kind of numb detachment. Outside of my window the sun was shining (for a change) and life was continuing as normal. People were eating, drinking, going to work, taking their children to school and going to the shops. It was very hard to reconcile that with the Extinction Level Event status being declared online and in the media. I was facetious, flippant even, in the face of an outpouring of fear and uncertainty. I am pragmatic by nature, now that the vote was done with I wanted to get on with coming up with a strategy for dealing with what lies ahead.
UKIP were the ones pushing for the UK to leave the EU but the Conservatives are the ones in government, until the general election at least. The Tories would be the ones doing the negotiating and making the policies and after the initial shock and the unsurprising resignation of David Cameron I wanted them to get to the actual politics. There had seemed to be a decision, albeit a close and hugely controversial one, what there didn’t seem to be was a plan.
I can only speak from my experience but as someone from a working class family that lives on a local authority housing estate I was not actually that surprised by the way the vote went. From street level the social landscape of the UK has changed dramatically in what seems like a very short time and from what I saw the reasons why the poor voted to Leave are too complicated to be dismissed as “Too many immigrants”
The working classes have been made to feel powerless and disenfranchised by Westminster politics for decades. There’s an old expression about shit rolling downhill and in the age of harsh government cuts to public services driven by austerity as usual it is the people at the bottom that have suffered the most in their daily lives. This combined with lack of public trust in the politicians meant to represent them created a perfect storm of fear and resentment. As a people we are used to feeling that our votes make very little difference in real terms. We bleakly joke about our elections being a pick between liar A, liar B or liar C. The EU referendum gave the people a choice, the first choice in a long time that many felt would actually make a significant impact. It turns out that when you give people a choice, and don’t address the concerns that caused them to want that choice in the first place, people may make the choice you don’t want.
Some people voted Leave because they don’t trust the Westminster politicians that told them to vote Remain. They felt that giving the politicians they knew were bad, but in the long run replaceable, the unfettered power was better than the unknown and far away quantity of EU politicians. The government and media have spent decades telling the working classes about the inane and crazy decisions supposedly made by the EU and blaming them for unpopular outcomes, such as convicted criminals successfully applying to the European Court of Human Rights to overrule the UK justice system. This created a perception of the EU as a bunch of costly, interfering and unelected busybodies that had more concern with the labeling of jam and comfort of perpetrators and terrorists then the suffering of victims of crime or the poor. If UK politicians and media are looking to portion up responsibility for the way things have turned out then they better dish themselves up a particularly healthy slice.
Personally I believe that for working class people this whole referendum has been about fear, fear of the future, fear of loss of identity in the era of identity politics, fear of becoming lost and forgotten by politicians even further removed from our lives than the ones in Westminster. Fear alone does not make anyone racist or xenophobic and it is irresponsible to just dismiss it as such. Ultimately to ordinary people the EU Referendum was a decision about which future seemed scarier, the known of being part of the EU or the unknown of being outside of it. To me personally it felt like a choice between negotiating with and potentially being enveloped by the army on one side, hoping to not become a mindless drone, or throwing myself off the cliff on the other side, not knowing what is below and hoping to not get my head smashed in by a rock. The fact that the majority chose the unknown says a great deal about our mental state as a nation. We would rather feel in control and take a chance on a potentially disastrous unfamiliar then be secure while feeling undermined and unimportant. Maybe that is justified, maybe it isn’t, but that is the outcome that we have chosen.
The EU Referendum has been the most divisive, bitter and shocking event that has occurred in our recent history. Neither the Remain or Leave campaigns have come out of this business with clean hands, both have used fear as a tool to try to simplify a hugely complex decision. The dogged jingoism of Leave and the sanctimonious shaming of Remain hasn’t really helped anybody alleviate their fear. Nobody has won, all we have done is chosen one set of consequences over another.
Like my poor husband, we had the surgery we were told we needed and now we are wounded, miserable, sore and generally feeling sorry for ourselves. The good news (other than Game Of Thrones not being affected) is that now that the popularity contest of the vote is over the real politics will begin. After all what does politics really mean? Compromise. The UK has options, so does the EU. The government may strike a deal, they may negotiate the Adam Smith Institute model, there may be a second referendum. Concessions will be made on both sides, free movement between EU countries may not be affected at all. Call me a hopeless optimist if you like but I believe that chances are that none of us will get everything we want but, on the other hand, none of us will get everything we fear either. It is too soon to see whether or not the surgery has been a success and in the meantime there will be pain, uncertainty, discomfort, unexpected side effects and probably a touch of constipation. What we must remember is that we all have to live with each other.
The future is not a straight road, it twists and turns and it doesn’t stop. As a nation we need time to heal, and to adjust. Mostly we need to remember not to let ourselves be ruled by fear.
Thanks for reading