Let’s not fuel the fire of division and negativity

Jul 05




Helen Whitten

Posted In


Let’s not fuel the fire of division and negativity

I can’t remember a period in my lifetime when there has been so much talk of politics – in homes, offices, at parties and with complete strangers.  “Remain or Leave, what do you think?”  And many people, including myself, were quite torn, endeavouring to distinguish between a sentimental love of Europe and the Europeans versus doubts about the way the EU Commission is run.

30 million people turned out to vote.  That’s more UK voters than had supported anything else in history.  People of all types thought about the issues and cared.  I believe both Remain and Leave campaigns let down the British public with both lack of information and misinformation.  The leaders of all parties took us to the edge of the cliff and then stepped back, without leaving us with any plan. This was totally irresponsible.

That said, I voted to remain but am discomforted by the frequently disparaging way that my fellow Remainers talk about those who voted Leave.  They accuse the Leave campaign of inspiring hatred and division and yet, now that they have lost, those on the Remain side seem to be in danger of perpetuating that division and hatred.  Think how we would feel if the boot were on the other foot.

OK, so the Referendum was a close call and those on the Remain side are gutted.  Personally, I did sign a petition for a second referendum but am concerned that it is unethical to expect  17.4 million people, 52% of the population, just to shut up and go back to the previous status quo with no promises of reform.  The result has exposed genuine and daily-experienced concerns about infrastructure, the pace of change and perceived inequality of opportunity.  Those living in economically depressed cities have been left behind, particularly the white working classes, and they need help transitioning from an industrialized manufacturing economy to an economy based more on the brain than on brawn.

There have been several decades of job losses and successive governments have ignored the problems.  There is only so much any government can do about dying industries but net annual migration quadrupled between 1997-2010 and since then there has been the crash of 2008, and austerity, all of which have put pressure on jobs and the quality of life.

We don’t really want to say that “the masses have let us down yet again”, do we?  While the middle classes and professionals have benefited from global economic prosperity and have the choices that both education and money can buy, we are not necessarily the ones stuck in living daily with the problems of economically struggling or transformed areas.  If we believe that remaining in the EU is ultimately most beneficial for all of us, including those feeling alienated, then we needed to make it much clearer how staying in could indeed be to their personal advantage.  Quoting Mark Carney or the IMF wasn’t going to do it.

Apparently the older generation should feel ashamed that 57% of them voted to Leave but can we not argue that the young should also, in that case, feel ashamed of themselves for not turning up to vote – and in fact 27% of 18-24 year olds and 38% of 25-34 year olds voted to Leave too.  The young don’t know about a “Britain as it used to be” so they must have their own ideas of the issues.  See http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/  The picture is inevitably complex and I believe we need to try to focus on common areas rather than divisions as we go forward.

Perhaps it is because I have been trained as a mediator, but I feel uncomfortable with the way the Remainers refer to Leave voters as racist, xenophobic or little Englanders.  We need to be careful when we label others and I personally feel that anyone who took the trouble to vote requires some respect.  In fact only 33% of Leave voters actually cited immigration control as their reason for voting for Brexit.  It is illogical to bracket 17.4 million people together.  I certainly met Remainers who were also worried at how our creaking infrastructure would cope with immigration continuing at its current rate.  It is a rational concern when housing, education, health and transport are all under pressure in a slowing economy.   The fact that Brexit never was the answer is, in many ways now beside the point.  If these worries are not discussed in a transparent and grown-up way they could continue to cause unrest.

In my experience of talking to those who voted Leave, it was for a far more complex set of reasons.  People talked of deep concerns about a dysfunctional EU Commission, the lack of willingness for the EU to flex and reform, the imbalance of economic strength that exists within the 28 EU countries, the over-generous social provisions within those countries, youth unemployment, the Euro bail-outs, the rise of the Far Right in France, Austria, Poland, Hungary and Germany (which has existed for many years before any UK Referendum came on the scene), Juncker’s federalist plans for “more Europe”, a history of dubious regimes and unrest, the recognition that many other countries are also disgruntled with the EU Commission and that the whole endeavour may anyway break up, and also an interest in a global trading alliances beyond the EU.   These are legitimate considerations, even if we don’t agree with them.

A Swedish colleague of mine remarked that “ I think UK’s withdrawal was almost necessary, to enable the EU to wake up. I am a European ever since I turned 15 but too many fingers got into the pie”.  This morning there is a hint that Juncker may be pressurised to resign and perhaps there will eventually be change and reform in Brussels.  But tragically that’s too late for the UK.

Ultimately, though, we may disagree with one another regarding these perspectives, the vote and its outcome – and families and friends have been divided as a result of these discussions – and yet surely we can respect people who think differently to us?  Each person is voting from a combination of facts, experience, values and gut instincts.  Can any one of us on either side honestly say with 100% certainty that, whatever the short-term upheaval, ours is the best solution for our country in the long-term?    Discussing facts and perspectives in an open debate is one thing but we don’t have to copy the disgraceful name-calling that the campaign leaders threw at one another.  Insults and judgements don’t help us see a way forward.

What we do have to do is pick up the pieces of what is currently a mess and travel optimistically.  We need to do better than Peter Hennessy’s description of ‘muddling through’ even if that is how it seems today!  But Hennessy also points out that we are a mature constitution with deep wells of civility. There are racists in every country and it is important to educate people to see beyond the divisions.  As a Lithuanian friend of mine commented:  “Regarding the attacks on Polish people it just shows you how uneducated these people are but I don’t care what they say because to me they don’t represent England. England to me is a wealthy, educated and tolerant country and hopefully will always be.”

We need to go forward as united as possible.  A positive factor of the Referendum was that it went beyond party politics.  People in the Labour, Lib-Dem and Conservative parties spoke and voted together.  This signifies that there are potentially shared values and interests in common that can be built on.

There’s plenty to be gloomy about but if we get stuck in the negative loop of doom and hopelessness, which the media so enjoys, then the uncertainty will continue for longer and the financial markets, trade and relationships with the world will deteriorate further.  We shall shoot ourselves in the foot.  We need to pick ourselves up, shake ourselves down and decide that whatever the outcome of the next few weeks we can make it work for us individually, for our families, for the country, for Europe and the world.    That will require each of us to talk to our European friends and neighbours, build our global relationships and alliances and do whatever action it takes to protect the reputation of the UK, for all our sakes.


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