Sunday, June 26, 2016

Britons need to calm down and embrace Brexit - and each other

26 June 2016

A taxi driver holds a Union flag, as he celebrates following the result of the EU referendum, in central London, Britain June 24, 2016
A taxi driver holds a Union flag, as he celebrates following the result of the EU referendum, in central London, Britain June 24, 2016 CREDIT: REUTERS

This must be how a man in the middle of a revolution feels. Excited, delighted, surprised, confused. My voice is going; my eyes are a blur. I’ve not slept much in a week. We have unleashed Brexit and it’s astonishing. The country feels alive again. I’m so happy.

In fact it’s not nearly as big an event as it seems right now. The EU was breaking up anyway and we weren’t entirely in it (no Euro for us, no Schengen zone). Jean Claude-Juncker, the bureaucrat’s poet, put it well: “it won’t be an amicable divorce but it wasn’t a passionate affair.” Historians might eventually write this up as a sentence in a chapter on European decline. They shall note that the markets panicked but, hey, they always do. And they will write that the nationalists immediately demanded their own referendums but, hey, they always do that too. The 10.45 to Aberdeen could be five minutes late and Nicola Sturgeon would call a referendum over it.
So why the panic? The histrionics on Twitter; the Facebook posts accusing OAPs of destroying their grandchildren’s future? The news shows are reporting the referendum results with the same tone they covered Princess Di’s funeral. It’s preposterous.
Actually, I do understand. I feel it, too. Friday morning I briefly thought: “what have we done?” Most political decisions I’ve taken have been uncontroversial and had little immediate effect. This was a historic decision because history is when things really matter. Prices might go up. House values could fall. Financial firms may move overseas. Leavers all knew this, by the way, as much as they knew that Brexit was never going to result in a hospital on every street corner. BBC Southeast news interviewed a man who said: “It won’t be easy but it was worth it.” A friend in Birmingham reports a church lady putting it more bluntly: “I don’t care if I’m poorer, so long as I’m not run by those buggers in Brussels anymore.”
They’re all getting drunk in Birmingham and loving it. So why does London feel like the bomb dropped? Why are there protests? Petitions for a second vote? What has changed in a country that has had referendums before on proportional representation and devolution without any political fallout? Why can’t we all accept each other’s hurt and joy and move on?
A confession: towards the end of the referendum I considered emigration. Move to Denver; open a pet store. Whatever. I was feeling physically sick about the quality of debate. I was tired of sitting on panels and being shouted at. Tired of the brutal, unrelenting nastiness of Twitter. Tired of social media, where people seem to live in strange loops of moral re-enforcement: “Isn’t everyone who disagrees with me a total arse?” “I agree.” Etc.
And I was worried, too, that I wasn’t being who I wanted to be. When Jo Cox was murdered – an event a lot of us still haven’t had time to process – I was devastated. I had to check my conscience. Had I thought of politicians as human beings endowed with dignity? Or as targets for invective and cruel humour? Too often I’d done the latter. I know I have sometimes played the man and not the ball. The optimism of Jo Cox and her sacrifice put me to shame. I want to do better. To be better.
One easy way would be to avoid politics altogether. But it’s the great game, isn’t it? The meeting point between human beings where they decide to do good things. And most of us making that connection are liberals of one variety or another. There’s less to divide us than you think. We all reject the filthy lie of racism, want to eliminate poverty, stand against tyranny and uphold the rights of the individual. We all recognise, unlike the nasties of far-Left and Right, that politics is part of life but not its definition. We are not obsessives; we have hinterlands. We have passionate disagreements and we respect the other’s point of view.
Or, at least, we are supposed to. I, personally, am thrilled about Brexit but I can understand those who are anxious - their concerns are legitimate. Yet some of those who hate Brexit refuse to comprehend the the Leaver’s point of view. That's a mistake because ignoring them - threatening even to ignore their vote and overturn it somehow - won't make the anger go away. It'll only foster the sense of alienation.
Part of my purpose as a political commentator for these past few years has been to try to understand the fears of angry people. I don’t agree with everything said by the voters of Clacton, Rochester or Trumpville USA. But I think it’s important that we understand where they are coming from. I probably do that for personal reasons. My own family tree is populated with working-class folks who would be dismissed in the media as morons and bigots. They’re not. They’re just people, and there’s a poetry to their lives like everyone else’s - a resilience that defies recessions and snobbery. It’s like Ma Joad says in Grapes of Wrath: “Us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people - we go on.”
On and on they go, silent and invisible. The people driving your train, fixing your car, pouring your coffee. Until some day some desperate politician gives them a referendum – and they are heard across the world. That’s why the referendum saved my faith in politics. It put the people back in charge.
But, of course, a lot of people voted for the other option and they, too, must have a say in the future. The national consensus has to be rebuilt; the politicians need to atone for their past sins by reconnecting and leading. They need to talk Britain up, not sustain this weird Project Fear long after the referendum - like an insurgency against the electorate. Come out of your hiding, Mr Osborne! Tell us it's all going to be okay!
Britain mustn't let one vote divide it. Speak to your neighbour, give your friends a call. Assert through contact that everything’s just fine and we all still love each other really. Have a pint, have a Pimms. Be merry. Summer’s coming. Britain is still golden and there’s always time for tea.

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