Surviving the Shock of the New
The seismic decision of Britain voting for ‘Brexit’ has been an enormous social and political shift, leaving many people feeling disorientated or resentful and uncertain of their place in this new world. What are the implications for democracy, and how can we best find unity and optimism again? Following his widely-read pre-vote articles, Andy Thomas concludes his unofficial trilogy on the EU vote by helping to make sense of what has happened and takes a helpful and impartial look at how we can all survive and thrive in this altered landscape – and avoid some classic divide-and-rule tactics…
UPDATE NOTE: This article was written just after the British vote that decided the country should leave the EU. Whether, following this, it was implemented correctly in the way that was promised, with honesty, common sense or any real vision, is something that can be debated elsewhere, but this article and its companion pieces remain available as nuanced deliberations on the issues focusing the nation’s minds back in 2016.
A Historical Event
Make no mistake; what happened on 23rd June 2016, as Britain elected to go forward outside of the EU, is a massive decision that has changed the course of history. That is true wherever things go from here. Whatever compromises the nation makes, whatever the attempted reversals, it is too late; a shockwave has passed across the world and its reverberations will be felt for years to come.
If the nation holds its nerve and this course continues, it will perhaps be comparable to what occurred when Henry VIII broke from the power of Rome and the direct influence of Europe in the 1500s. That decision had repercussions which are still felt in power structures across the world today. Although Britain’s place in the world is different now, what has happened may bequeath a not dissimilar political legacy when looked back on by future historians.
Although it is gradually subsiding, there is still an air of unreality in Britain at the moment, like a state of shock, mixed with a fear of what the unknowable future will bring. Many people – even those who fervently voted for Leave – have reported feelings of disorientation, even deep grief, at this huge letting go of the known, mixed perhaps with a quiet excitement that nothing will ever be quite the same again; each day could now bring a new twist or development. We have bravely embarked on a programme of deep change, and the road will be unclear for some time to come. The hope is that the adage ‘no pain, no gain’ will prove to be valuable in time. We will certainly never be bored. The potential opportunities of this blank sheet are huge, but avoiding the potential pitfalls too will require some very careful treading.
Those who wished to remain in the EU feel the grief and angst the most, understandably, and the inevitable feelings of anger and resentment, exacerbated by the close result, are still rippling through society. This would also have happened if the result had narrowly gone the other way, but these natural expressions of concern must be still understood, worked through and processed as soon as possible if the nation is to hold together and thrive. Even for those who still hope to reverse the strongest effects of the vote to Leave, right now what Britain needs is unity and sense of direction. So how do we find that in such a climate of anxiety and how should we best deal with the conflicts and uncertainties begun by ‘Brexit’ in our lives?
In my previous articles on the EU I discussed some of the currents driving the difficulties some people were having in making their minds up about the decision, and looked at some of the pros and cons of which way to go, even as I revealed my own thoughts. These will not be sifted again here and readers should read them if they have not already done so. I do not intend to maintain a running commentary on the unfolding of the Brexit saga, but as my earlier pieces went far and wide I felt it right to conclude this unofficial trilogy (or quadrilogy if the compilation of responses is included) with an unbiased musing that attempts to make sense of what has happened and offers a little solace to all sides. I hope to show that there is a way forward for all of us, no matter where we stand on the debate, and will examine some of the revealing issues that have made themselves intriguingly clear throughout the referendum process.
Divide and Rule
In my original articles I voiced the hope that the vote would be at least a decisive one for whoever won, as this would create less division and uncertainty. Although the result is clear enough to be called a victory for Leave, it is, of course, a narrow one, hence the volatility of some of the continuing Remain reactions and calls for a second referendum. It is worth noting here that had the actions of the crazed individual who caused the tragic death of the MP Jo Cox not been used – as it so abhorrently was in some quarters – to falsely tarnish the reputation of all Brexit supporters in the immediate run-up to the vote, the result for Leave would probably have been notably higher. The death of Cox has inevitably been seen as suspicious in many quarters, raising fears of a ‘Manchurian-Candidate’-type scenario in conspiracy circles; but if political skulduggery was intended then it failed.
A second referendum of the same nature is unlikely to materialise, as such a move would be both socially destabilising and economically crippling (“suicidal”, as even David Cameron has put it) when what the world markets most need to see now is at least a firmness of direction. It is certainly something that will not be cajoled into being by protests, angry flash mobs and an internet petition that has been exposed as at least partly fraudulent, with many fake ‘signatures’ and a big percentage of ineligible contributions from people outside of Britain. Its very existence does, however, illustrate the need to address carefully the grievances of those who worry that their voices will no longer be heard.
It is interesting to note that many Leave supporters, fooled by the weight of the incorrect (yet again) anticipatory polls, appeared to have resigned themselves to defeat in advance and were preparing to at least reasonably graciously slide into the role of reform campaigners shouting from the sidelines. Perhaps it is the shock of unexpected defeat that has sent many Remainers into a rage that has reciprocated very little graciousness and is still being expressed in dangerously uncompromising tones. The inevitable anger must be understood by Leavers, but it needs to be quickly tempered if sanity is to prevail. There is an irony here, because some Remainers are today exhibiting the very kind of behaviour of which they had been accusing elements of the Brexit camp.
The stereotyping, in the run-up to the vote and in the fallout, of most Brexiteers being overt or closet far-right bigots is unfortunate and demonstrably untrue, and is leading to misplaced and damaging unrest. Some of the verbal attacks heard towards Leavers, expressed publicly or even personally in social or work situations, have been very aggressive. Even less excusable, of course, have been some of the pathetic racist rants reported in Britain from an unrepresentative minority who wrongly seem to think the result gave their misguided beliefs a channel through which to be voiced. However, although bigots might have been more likely to have voted Leave, this equation should not be used to imply that all Leavers are bigots. This is far from the truth, as I hope my earlier articles made clear, and this view needs to be pulled back from. There will be no repatriation, nor pogroms against ‘foreigners’, as is currently being falsely screamed from some irresponsible areas. Not one leading figure has ever suggested such a thing. Racism is racism and the minority that indulge in it must be dealt with by the courts. We are a multicultural and cosmopolitan society and that will not change, even if our immigration filters have to shift to create a system that is seen as fair by all. Right now, moderation is needed on both sides. We need to be extremely careful that an unbridgeable gulf, one much encouraged by a media addicted to controversy, is not being opened up here. This will serve no-one but the darker manipulative powers that thrive on such conflict.
One of the cries heard from aggrieved Remainers, and even some Leavers, is that the whole EU vote has been a ‘divide and rule’ exercise, designed to set the nation against itself and weaken it for some as yet unrevealed social purpose. The sadness is that if this is true, or even just a possibility, the warring factions still throwing accusations across online forums and social media, not to mention workplaces, pubs and dinner tables, are falling into the trap. It must stop. The anger has now been expressed, and the feelings made clear; it is understood. But any continuation will only stir more hatred and fear, the very tools always used to separate us. Every time the media runs yet another lurid piece on ‘divided Britain’, it actively ensures we stay divided.
The reality, uncomfortable though it may be for some, is that the democratic process – and it was democratic as far as can be discerned, however poor the campaigns were – has spoken. For the well-being of the nation, both spiritually and financially, there must begin a process of reconciliation and a desire to move forwards together to make the best of where we are now. Those who did not want this need to be reassured that things will be better than they fear and gently introduced to some of the opportunities a freedom from the EU could bring, and those who did choose this need to comprehend and address the concerns of those who worry about being left within a closed state that might not listen to their needs.
Fears over the economy are inevitably to the fore, and the expected transition crisis in the markets has duly emerged – although, notably, with less volatility than some had predicted. To ensure financial stability, above all uncertainty must end and Britain must show that it is determined to go forwards positively from the decision it has made so that the global markets can see that it is still a place worth investing in. Uncertainty is the worst thing for trade. Whatever doubts other nations may have about our decision, there is currently also a grudging admiration, and if that can be turned to a perception that we have found a new strength to stand tall in the face of huge opposition, a new financial faith will eventually grow in the minds of overseas investors. Remainers who fear that Britain will be left out in the cold and that people will be poorer and lack career options are more likely to help self-create that situation if they continue to talk down their own nation. It is time to look at how the best can be made of this new playing field, however undesired it may have been.
Similarly, the Leavers now need to come up with a clear plan – something that should, of course, have been in place before now, flagging up yet another deficiency of the pre-vote campaigns. Maybe they never really expected to win (as some suspect of Boris Johnson in particular, perhaps another reason for his sudden withdrawal from the Tory leadership race) which adds a worrying note, but the fact is that they have won and they now need to encourage clear leadership and constructive planning which the whole world can see. With his resignation David Cameron has decided not to aid that effort for very long, so in the absence of an effectual Prime Minister until a replacement is found, and with the opposition Labour party currently in crisis (see below on both), strong signals of meaningful determination from the nation as a whole, if nothing else, are keenly required.
If divide and rule is being applied to Britain, we must not fall into the trap. We are where we are and we must unite as best we can. The historian Terry Boardman has flagged up concerns that the narrowness of the referendum result leaves Britain vulnerable in a way that recalls the years that led US citizens towards the American Civil War of the 1860s, and there are also parallels with the situation that led to the devastating civil war that ripped Britain apart in the 1640s. I am not suggesting that a war is going to occur, as we live in very different times, but there are resonances, with unfortunate political conflict with Scotland and Northern Ireland likely to grow in the coming months and years. The new conduit for unhealthy division that weakens the nation is a real concern that calls on everyone to temper their language and behaviour now for the sake of future calm and stability. As this is an important moment in history, let us not also forget the lessons that have come with our history so far. The tones and generosity of spirit with which we approach these uncharted waters are going to be as important to ultimate success as the technical detail.
‘The Betrayal of the Young’
One tool being used to create conflict appears to be the claimed gulf that has broken out between the generations raised and educated within EU influence, and those who weren’t. The cry that the Brexit vote was a ‘betrayal of the young’ is a meme that has been sent far and wide in the days following it, one which implies that older folk have selfishly scuppered the chances of fresh-faced youth, imposing their bitter and outdated views on an institution they no longer understand. But are things as clear-cut as they seem, and should both sides of the apparent generational divide be more careful about accepting this disruptive social algorithm at face value? Who, precisely, are we even referring to when we say ‘the young’?
There was, without doubt, a clear tendency for younger generations to vote for Remain, as was expected for people brought up to trust and believe in the EU by decades of educational programmes with its influence in the background. But a look at the breakdown of who reportedly voted where shows a less distinct divide than one might imagine from the coverage. A BBC report gives a useful breakdown here. Between the ages of 18-24 there is certainly a two-thirds majority towards Remain. But this begins to narrow in the 25-34 group, and from 35-44 the divide is pretty much even between Remain and Leave. So if we say that ‘young’ means anyone below 24, then most of those who voted (see below) did indeed vote to Remain. But if we say that below 34 is still young, then quite a few actually voted to Leave, and the sweeping characterisation of ‘the young’ as unquestioning Euro-children betrayed by older generations begins to look shaky. Although doubt has been cast on this figure, a Sky poll claims that there was only a flaccid 36% turnout in the 18-24 age group – which, if true, would mean that 73% didn’t feel motivated enough to even make their feelings known. The fact is that we don’t actually know whether ‘the young’ overwhelmingly supported Remain, but if the surveys are even slightly correct and a majority of them didn’t express themselves at the polls at all – only after in protests – therein will lie a lesson. Regional variations in age-biases also come into the equation, as the report demonstrates. (Regional variations come into the vote as a whole, with most English constituencies voting to Leave, with the exception of a majority of London boroughs, although talk of London ‘going independent’ is an impossibility.)
So were the young betrayed? Or have they simply been faced for the first time with the hopes and disappointments that constitute real democracy? Those who believe that leaving the EU is the only path to true democracy argue that, rather than being held back, younger people have actually been given a gift from generations with a longer view that they may one day come to understand and appreciate, a gift that has saved them from eventual totalitarianism in a closed market with an uncertain future. Naturally ‘the young’, or at least the ones who at least turned up to vote Remain, will today see this as condescending and patronising. The truth is that wherever things go deals are very likely to be done with the EU that may leave the everyday reality of general free movement (a big concern for travel-hungry late teens and twenty-somethings) and European career prospects much as they have been, as politicians have already started to backtrack on some of the more elaborate campaign talk. As it was such a major issue in the campaigns, some kind of change to immigration laws will have to be factored in or trouble could follow, but people are unlikely to find the door of the EU closed to them even if a few more forms have to be filled in.
A suggestion, voiced more than once during the campaigns, that maybe only those below 50 or perhaps 60 should be allowed to vote, as it was going to be ‘the young’ who would be most affected by the outcome, is bizarre. If we are generous and call below 34 ‘young’, then the vast majority of the British population is ‘old’. For many of the latter camp, with people increasingly living into their 90s and beyond, why should they not have a say in the system they might spend a significant further proportion of their life in? The assumption is also made in this suggestion that the wisdom of the elders counts for nothing, when in truth a sensible society recognises that experience and maturity can sometimes see things that the vibrant but impetuous enthusiasm of youth cannot. True democracy needs input from both ends of the age spectrum, and, as far as can be ascertained, the EU vote was democratic. Everyone voted as they felt and a collective result was forthcoming. It demonstrates a lack of understanding, or faith, in the democratic system that some are attempting to overturn a legal result through petitions, social media discourse and street protests. This needs to be addressed in future if divide and rule is not to win out.
The youthful predilection towards ‘loving’ the EU (as some recent protest boards have had it) seems not to recognise the reality that the real EU, not the one of fantasy idealism, is an edifice run at its core by the very kind of bitter old men (and a number of women) that some think shouldn’t be voting in elections anymore. There is a paradox here. It may well be that the kick Britain has given to the EU might yet spark a wider reform movement, if not a collapse, and if so our younger generations need to place themselves at the forefront of campaigning to ensure it becomes the bastion of financial freedom and collective democracy it was supposed to be. That way, the EU dream version may yet become reality and Britain might then be able to reconsider its relationship at some stage in the future. Until then, the reality of our decision must be faced and worked through.
Re-familiarising Ourselves with Democracy
With a worldview cleverly fostered by the EU itself, the apparent general tendency of the younger generations to want to exchange our own democratic history once and for all for a system that is factually less democratic raises many questions, suggesting that the right to choose our leaders is less important to some than careers and finances. Yet the latter concerns shouldn’t be underestimated. It is easy for those at the end of successful working lives with nice houses and reasonable pensions to denigrate this concern; for those starting out these are very real issues and this needs to be appreciated. A transition period of economic quakes was always inevitable, but whoever leads us into the Brexit process will need to ensure that the promise that Britain can financially thrive outside of the EU is finally met or there will be repercussions later.
A lack of faith in democracy can also be forgiven given the appalling quality of some British political debate in recent years (illustrated by the referendum campaigns themselves) and the real betrayal that many young people felt when the Liberal Democrats reneged on their promise to fight student tuition fees when they entered into the coalition government in 2010. But this can’t be used as an excuse to justify singer Damon Albarn’s claim at the Glastonbury Festival (which, taking place around the time the result was announced, was used for political purposes with Remain stage pronouncements throughout the whole event, beginning with manipulative videos of Jo Cox MP to set the scene) that “democracy has failed us”. How, precisely? Was the result not evidence that it actually does work? At 48, hardly one of today’s ‘kids’, it is hard to see how Albarn justifies this statement. With a claimed large proportion of ‘the young’ not turning out to vote, as discussed above, did democracy really fail them, or did they fail democracy?
Interestingly, the referendum result was possibly the most democratic poll Britain has had in years, effectively following proportional representation, something regrettably denied to us in our General Elections; each ballot paper counted. Everyone was made aware of the upcoming vote, through social media, TV, radio, leaflets and even billboards, and all eligible British citizens were encouraged to take part. The last-minute rush to register, which saw a questionable two-day extension of the registration deadline, was a sign that many people had not taken seriously the referendum, thus nor democracy, until then. Perhaps the usual resignation that votes often don’t count in the typical non-PR system blinded some to the fact that this time they actually would – or there had been a simple assumption that Remain would win. The late realisation that it might not brought on panic amongst those who wouldn’t normally show up at polling stations. Even then, many eligible people in the 18-24 age bracket simply failed to vote. All this sounds an important note that people need a re-familiarisation of how real democracy works.
If a referendum re-run were to occur based solely on people mounting petitions and protests, this would be a concerning subversion of democracy, destabilising the whole electoral system for future generations and risking the rise of mob rule. The belief that ‘lies’ were told by the Leave campaign and that therefore there is a legal basis for a second referendum only ignites accusations of probable untruths told by the Remain camp. Neither side was spotless. If political exaggerations made during campaigns were to be used as reasons to remount elections, it could be said that no government in modern history has been legitimate. This doesn’t make it right, but it is sadly how it is.
There are many problems with our British democratic system and in my writings and lectures elsewhere I have made clear my concerns about the threats to freedom, the need for reform and a wide and truthful recognition of its shortcomings. But it is still a more democratic process than that being offered by the EU. At least we know who we have to deal with and, theoretically, we can remove them on our own terms. Perhaps, seeing how votes actually did count this time around, people might begin to value more the systems they do have here, however much improvement is needed. At the last General Election it was pointed out that if all the millions of people who didn’t vote had all turned up and voted the same way, even for the Monster Raving Loony party, that party would have won. So we have more choice than we know, if we but choose to put our faith in the system we have, imperfect though it is.
It has been dispiriting to have read in the days following the EU result several articles by disappointed British Remainers denigrating their own democracy and history as brutish and moribund, as if the glowing towers of Brussels and Strasbourg were fairy-tale castles of freedom and light by comparison. Britain has made many mistakes, but it has also learnt from them and grown and improved itself over the centuries, providing the model for many other nations. The EU is still very young and its refusal to listen, thus far, to concerns about its more oppressive agendas and less wise policies have brought it, and us, to this point.
Many have reported feeling sad at the breaking of our direct links with the EU, and the reality is that it is sad. It should never have come to this. Complete separation isn’t really what most people want in their hearts; what was wanted was reform and a fair system that allowed for the individual needs of every country under the EU umbrella – not a homogenised, heavily controlled and unaccountable superstate. But the warnings weren’t heeded and the hubris of the EU leaders that is now sparking demands from several other countries for referenda needs to be exposed so that the whole project can be rebuilt into what it always should have been. The hard, unfeeling reactions we have heard from some of the EU elite since the announcement of the result has quickly revealed some of the very attitudes that have led to Brexit and which might yet undo the whole EU project.
Party Unity and Disunity
Here in Britain, political party unity would be another helpful element to have if the worst effects of divide and rule are to be averted, and so that we can see clearly the options before us. Instead, we have confusion. The Conservatives, who initiated the referendum, were always bound to go through some kind of restructuring following what amounted to a civil war within their ranks, but the current leadership contest (below) will have to find a solid settlement, however uneasy, between the two camps if effective government is to result. What was perhaps more unexpected is the conflict that has broken out in the ranks of the Labour party. Just when strong opposition is needed to hold up a mirror to the party in power, it is instead falling apart.
The leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has, to say the least, been controversial. A throwback to the ‘old left’, enraging neoliberals on all sides, the overwhelming surge of support from the party members who elected him gave him a strong mandate. The refreshing note of principled sobriety and calm he has brought to the Commons has been popular with his followers. Yet at the time of writing, almost 80% of his actual MPs are demanding his resignation, aghast at his undoubtedly lukewarm performance for Remain during the campaign. Formerly sceptical towards the EU, few were convinced at his sudden conversion and Corbyn has been cited by some Remainers as one of the reasons for their failure. Ignoring the lesson that Nick Clegg learnt with the Liberal Democrat student fees debacle, in retrospect Corbyn might have done better to have been honest about his own views and allowed two sides on the EU debate to co-exist within Labour, as did the Tories. If by limply backing Remain he hoped to avert a party split it now looks like a colossal misstep.
An interesting aspect of the way the EU vote went was the unexpected level of support from the left-leaning ‘working class’ for Leave, especially in places like Wales and Sunderland. A presumption was made that, grateful for the claimed investment from the EU in supporting jobs and local economies, certain stratas of society would compliantly stick to what they knew. They didn’t. Tired of austerity and feeling threatened instead by immigrant workers, the EU was seen more as a bane than a bonus. The ‘Lexit’ factor will be much debated for a while to come and this split between what the Labour leadership expected of them and what they really wanted has been damaging for the party. Yet for all this, there seems to be an acknowledgement that Corbyn had had his arm twisted to support Remain and he therefore is not seen by the Lexiteers to really be to blame for going against his instincts. Still widely viewed as an unusual leader actually motivated by principles and not the usual career politician paths, support for Corbyn remains strong in pockets across the country, while others, even his own MPs, have been champing at the bit for nearly a year to remove him. They have scented blood and see this as their moment.
Thus we are left with a further potential societal division, which opens up a gap between ‘working class’ everyday folk, who still see Corbyn as the People’s Saviour, and the more particular desires of the Westminster elite who are supposed to represent them. If Corbyn does find himself pushed out, as could occur any day now (with a leadership challenge expected at the time of writing), this might provoke a division of the Labour vote in future if a Corbynite splinter party emerges. This would strengthen further the hold of the Conservatives if they eventually manage to project a strong unified force that appears to work for the Leavers but mollifies the Remainers well enough. How many Leave red lines will be compromised to do this, especially over the free-movement-for-trade equation, which remains the EU’s crowbar in allowing us access to their markets, remains to be seen. It will be a difficult balancing act.
Beyond party boundaries, though, the stereotyping of right-wing working class Tory supporters, left-wing working class Labour supporters, and ‘white van man’ UKIP supporters, from disaffected Remainers in the wake of the result has been marked. One unpleasant remark heard more than once has been that the Leave vote demonstrated that the “great unwashed” had spoken their ignorant minds – despite the fact that, as all the ‘Vote Leave’ posters seen on the edge of wealthy estates demonstrated, just as many moneyed people voted against the EU as the working class. This unfortunate attitude highlights the need for Britain to look closely at the class divides that still plague it. We must ensure that the process ahead of us, as we have to almost work out from scratch who we are as a nation and what we want to be in the world in future, will include some soul-searching that will give some time to healing this under-addressed issue.
As for where the Tories will go, despite being the ‘bookies’ favourite’ there was never any guarantee that Boris Johnson would become Prime Minister, and once his former compatriot Michael Gove unexpectedly unsheathed the knife and announced he would stand against him, Johnson probably had no choice but to withdraw from the race (denying us the delicious but dangerous possibility of a blonde-mop duet as Johnson did international business with a victorious Donald Trump). Many Tory Remainers would have liked to have punished Johnson anyway and his leadership would have been divisive to many citizens. His abrupt retreat might also suggest a lack of faith in his own vision, as some suspected from the start. Famously ambitious for the top job, whether Johnson is playing a long game and still plans a future return at some point remains to be seen.
Michael Gove was supposedly in the frontline for consideration, but his unexpected attack on Johnson and his about-face (having previously said he would not stand for the leadership) made him look treacherous and untrustworthy. Could it be that Gove knew full well that this had stymied his chances, but that he genuinely believed Johnson would be bad for the future of the Tories (or, being generous, perhaps even the nation) and acted accordingly in an act of self-sacrifice? The beneficiary of this action is likely to be the new main contender, Theresa May, who is clearly being groomed to be the new Margaret Thatcher, as is Andrea Leadsom, now the only other candidate. Leadsom was a Leaver, but as May was an oddly quiet Remainer during the campaign, seemingly waiting to see which way the wind blew, she could be seen as a potential balance between the two sides.
From the truthseeker point of view, the problem is that Theresa May doesn’t have much of a record of standing for up for freedom. Indeed, with May behind the current pushing through of the ‘snoopers charter’, the surveillance state’s dream, having freed ourselves from EU rule we may now have to restart campaigns within our own borders to maintain true democracy and freedom of speech. In that, some of the anti-Leave tracts have a point. There is currently a sense that even some former Remain Tory ministers are beginning to detect the potential personal benefits of being free from the EU, with no-one but themselves to answer to, considerably increasing their power. The party backstabbing and shenanigans amusing, confusing or boring us today may seem trivial on the surface, but the outcome matters because the characters who emerge on top, with all their hidden allegiances and agendas, will help determine the shape of all our futures.
So this is not the end, but a beginning of a whole new war for freedom. Yet at least this way we know who we are dealing with and can get the measure of them.
The Future of Britain
What we will be as a nation at the other end of all this will be important in other ways too. With Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted to stay within the EU, now very likely to accelerate to another referendum on their own independence from the UK to ensure they can retain EU status, and Northern Ireland, with similar results and concerns, debating ways in which it could somehow moderate the Unionists and merge with its southern neighbour, the political shape of Britain could be very different in a few years’ time. Even some Welsh people have been calling for independence, although given Wales’s fragile financial state it is hard to see how it could ever realistically stand alone. Will just England and Wales constitute a ‘United Kingdom’, though?
Some people are blaming the Brexit vote for this threatened break-up of the Union, which would create even further profound change. But would it really be responsible? In truth, it was always very likely that Scotland would probably re-vote for independence within fifteen years or so anyway. Brexit has clearly surged this plan forwards, but the future of the Union has long looked uncertain. Losing Northern Ireland’s support is perhaps less expected, and whether it would have the means to swap allegiances so easily, or want to risk an upsurge in sectarian tensions, is another matter.
England and Wales, if ever left to their own devices at some point in the future, would have to reboot themselves in many deep and fascinating ways and look very carefully at the economic basis on which they operate. Calls for proper regional assemblies in England would certainly re-emerge and the way we are governed would have to fundamentally change, taking us into a whole new unknown chapter even beyond this current one.
Across the board, Britain’s vote to leave the EU has flicked a huge domino that is setting hitherto unanticipated patterns flowing across Europe and the world. The EU’s fear is that Brexit will lead to a series of referenda breaking out in other nations that feel uncomfortable about the EU’s current trajectory. The Netherlands, Italy, France and Sweden have all shown signs of wanting a similar choice to be put to their peoples, and European media’s coverage of the UK’s decision has been surprisingly sympathetic in many quarters, displaying some envy at the chance we were given (even if it began as a simple tactical party mistake from David Cameron). The EU will probably go out of its way to make the path of extricating ourselves from its systems fairly tricky, to set an example – to a degree. Yet if it goes too far, then it will reveal its darker nature and hubris too plainly and justify its critics, as even Angela Merkel has hinted. It has a balancing act to perform here and is unlikely to treat Britain too harshly as a result.
The EU still needs to trade with us, even as we need to trade with it, and the likelihood is that, eventually, some kind of deal will be hammered out, blow by painful blow. From our end we may well wind up with the kind of Great British Fudge that we seem to specialise in. But we will still have sent a message out loud and clear that the EU needs to look into its soul and reconsider what it is and what it really needs to become – something for the peoples’ good and not only for corporate elitists with control agendas. If we have provided that service for the world and for history, then it has probably been a worthwhile mission. Now we just have to deal with our own elitists and their agendas.
Fears have been raised that the whole Brexit journey is a New World Order venture designed to make an example of a country to show why trying to escape from an inevitable superstate system is unwise. Or it could be a manipulation for some other end. But could it be that Britain really has thrown an unexpected spanner into the works? As with much conspiracy speculation, it is hard to know for sure. As Terry Boardman and others have pointed out, the EU was at least partly inspired into being with the help of US-backed motivation, keen to have European countries under an easy-to-deal-with umbrella, at the beck and call of US hegemony. This is something that needs to be recognised more widely. If Britain has genuinely broken free(ish) of this system, could it mean punishment or further coercion of some kind is due? How will the alleged ‘special relationship’ be affected by having either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton at the helm on the other side, and should we even have such a relationship in these new times? What will our role in the dubious TTIP treaty be now – will being outside the EU save us from this and/or delay the whole thing, or will we simply add our name to it later? And what of the anti-democratic manipulators such as the Bilderbergs and Council on Foreign Relations, et al? How do they feel about what has happened, and will they be scheming up some ‘remedies’ of their own? Once again, the battle for freedom is not over – it may just have begun.
The Way Forward
These times are disorientating, with huge changes occurring around the world, of which Britain’s decision is just another wave in the flux. We need to hold our nerve in the face of what might be challenging years ahead in some areas. But Britain has been very good at standing up to challenges and always finding a way through and it is time to take heart and find our confidence that we shall do so again now. Great potentials lie at the other end.
One thing that a number of people have voiced, even those who didn’t vote to Leave, is that there is a strange feeling that something like this did need to happen. So much social and political resentment and disillusionment has built under the surface for so long that the boil needed to be lanced. The shock that our nation has given itself, and others, is providing the chance to get many important things, long swept under the carpet, out onto the table at last to consciously and mindfully deal with them. This offers hope.
Regardless of wider agendas, a significant proportion of British people have made clear their feelings that they want a degree of autonomy that the EU did not allow them. It has been a brave move and while some trouble and strife will almost certainly come from it, so will new opportunities, helping with a rebuilding of our economy into a free trade zone that widely interacts but also stands on its own two feet, and the discovery of a new sense of who we really are in the world, healing some of the social faultlines along the way. This period may be the time when we can look at ourselves anew and finally let go of the feeling of failure fostered by the loss of empire and our weakening after the two world wars, which have held us for too long in an old place, expressed in sometimes over-indulgent nostalgia. Now we must look to the future instead. This is unquestionably an important new chapter and we would be very wise to start working together to firmly build towards what we all want. We will have to decide what it is that we do want first, and how we can realistically create that. We will also have to decide what we don’t want and refuse to budge in the face of pressure.
I alluded earlier to Henry VIII’s break from Rome and the English Civil Wars. They were very difficult times, forged from a variety of conflicting ambitions. Yet, in the face of a wide expectation that Britain would soon sink without trace, instead the Reformation saw the seeds of the British Empire being sown, however amoral it was, and the Civil Wars brought the beginnings of enlightenment, new ideas on democracy and greater tolerance, amongst all its darker pitfalls, leaving us strong in the world. The very moments that have seen us written off by other nations have often been the beginnings of a new ascent.
We certainly don’t need a new empire, nor should we care that Britannia no longer rules the waves. Those days are gone, and foolish Jingoism serves nobody. Instead, we can help create a model society that finds a balance between good democracy, good governance, reformed systems, more social equality, immigration fairness, successful multiculturalism, toleration and freedom that sets an example to all. This could be New Britain’s gift to the whole world. We now have the chance to begin this journey. For that to happen, division must stop and unity begin, so that we can be proud once again to say that we are British, whatever that word comes to mean in the future.
As George Orwell, ever aware of the threats to freedom but equally aware of the crucial need for a strong nation to maintain that freedom, famously wrote, of England if not Britain:
“Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.”
It is time to go forward.
Andy’s live lecture on Brexit: Surviving the Shock of the New, can be watched here.