I began the original draft of this article on the night of the referendum itself. The result hung in the balance and, though I was relatively assured of a Remain victory, it seemed important to examine the nature of the referendum campaign, regardless of its outcome. When we were first informed of the referendum date after the General Election last year, it was common to assume that the Remain camp would easily be able to make a stronger and more compelling case than Farage, UKIP or the other assembled Brexiteers. It was a matter of course to state that Remain would remain in the lead, and that the referendum was much more a tool to calm dissatisfied eurosceptics on the right of the Conservative party and win middle England back than it was an actual debate on our continued membership of the EU.
On Thursday night, with the result closer than ever to call, I wanted to write about the nature of British political discourse, and examine exactly why and how the referendum had exposed the chasms in political debate across the country. It seemed to me that the white working classes, who had been affected more than any other group by a lack of public investment, a blinkered focus by Westminster on issues that only really concerned London and, at a push, a handful of other major cities, were now using the opportunity to vote as a way of demonstrating their dissatisfaction with government. Rather than a tool to cohere the Tories, my conclusion was that the frustrations voiced in the referendum campaign had very little to do with the UK’s relationship with the EU. This was always a debate that focused on British politics, British issues and the success and failure of a generation of social policies.
Even as I started to draft the article on Thursday night, it was obvious that, despite the result, the referendum campaign had been the opposite of the considered period of persuasion and debate that we had assumed would precede the vote. The article I had in mind now seems less relevant. That the referendum result was a stab at an established political elite by a disenfranchised and agitated social class is now a well-rehearsed argument, and I want instead to find a new way of approaching the problem that lies in front of us.
In times of unrest, especially during a violent and unexpected change in our surroundings, we tend to seek support from friends and family. A continual remain refrain in the days following the referendum result was that, as my generation’s future had now been thrown in to jeopardy, we should seriously consider leaving the country, perhaps for good. Even if we weren’t going to leave, the shock of the result tempted me to argue that I may as well have not taken part in the debate at all. Granted, I – along with everyone else – have a small and insular social circle that mainly comprises those I agree with. Yet it was no co-incidence that Google searches for ‘how to get an Irish passport’ spiked significantly in the hours after the result was announced.
It is understandable that, in a free society, those who feel that they have been disadvantaged in some way will try and alter their circumstances for the better.
A great many of those who voted Leave will argue precisely this, – that with increasing pressure on public services from increased migration, with an overbearing body of Eurocrats and foreign ministers diminishing British sovereignty (see my previous article), they were becoming materially and politically disadvantaged, and took steps to redress the situation.
Within my well off, liberal circle of friends, we too feel that we have been disadvantaged. The older generation have conspired with a dissatisfied portion of the electorate to deny us a vast number of opportunities, including the right to free movement, secure employment and wages and, if the SNP has its way, a truly United Kingdom. We live in a society that allows us to leave and vote with our feet. Why should we not, in that case, seek our own version of Leave? ‘Leave the UK, take back control’ is a refrain that could well be applied.
It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to imagine vast swathes of our educated, capable young people setting sail for more fertile countries. We wouldn’t have to face the prospect of low paying jobs or a government intent on rolling back the social gains made since the end of the war. Younger British generations deserve a country that values them and the values they stand for – freedom from persecution on the grounds of race or sexuality, a supportive and constructive welfare state and a society that encourages plurality and multiculturalism. We have already made one attempt to encourage the country in that direction, with 75% of under 24s voting to remain, but our voices are not the ones that swayed the discourse.
Perhaps much of this talk of leaving is just talk, but there is an important point to be made about values here. It has become a faux pas to bring patriotism into this debate, especially in the Remain camp. ‘Take Back Control’, the victorious slogan of the Leave campaign, has rightly been criticised as divisive and xenophobic, but there is undoubtedly, obviously, a core that appeals to the Leave voter. I would argue that at least some of that core is not nationalistic, but patriotic, ‘my country, right or wrong’, and not ‘my country is always right’. Though they may be thought of as misguided, many of those who voted Leave did so because they wanted to make Britain a better place, and even if their definition of ‘better’ isn’t one that resonates with me, the sentiment behind it does have some validity.
To describe oneself as a patriot isn’t the done thing, if you’re on the left. But it is unpatriotic to leave a country that voted against what you wanted purely because you don’t like it and because you have the ability to move elsewhere. Rather than seeking to undo what has been done, or to make complex constitutional arguments that declare the referendum void, as Nick Barber, Tom Hickman and Jeff King have done, perhaps it is time for those of us, especially young people, to think about the way Leave voters perceive Britain. We can take the opportunity to learn from the group that defeated us in the polls, and think about the ways in which we can use this result to our advantage. Like it or not, and I imagine that most will dislike it, we might try and see ourselves as being forced to fight against a force that will tear apart the country that previous generations have fought to build. Perhaps we should describe ourselves as patriots, for there is a lot to fight for.
Before the 23rd June, I would have described myself as proud, in some sense, to be British. Granted, there are obvious caveats, but the NHS, the BBC, the culture and history, architecture, art, music and values are clearly good things in and of themselves. After the result was announced, I felt a great deal of shame at the decision that had been taken and the way it would affect our friends in Europe and across the wider world. But if pushed, I would still describe myself as proud to have been born here, because the things that made me proud before last Thursday still exist, are still relevant and are still capable of making a lasting good to this country.
Britain will leave the EU, despite the murmurings on both sides of the parliamentary aisle and in the wider press. If there is any good that will come of that, it is that this referendum has dramatically altered our political discourse. Those of us who value the things I’ve listed above now have their work cut out, and we now have something tangible to fight for. If we decide to vote with our feet and take our skills elsewhere, this country will suffer, partly because it won’t enjoy the contribution that my generation can make to all aspects of social life, but also because the void we would leave would be filled by a corrosive set of values that have no place in our society. If we decide to physically remain but withdraw from political life, the outcome would be the same. Even though many people voted for Brexit because they didn’t like or were scared of immigrants (and they were clearly wrong to think that our current problems were caused by – and thus could be solved by leaving – the EU), these same voters can also be those who vote for increased funding for the NHS, for welfare support or political reform. Anyone can be convinced to fight for a society that supports multiculturalism, tolerance and diversity, but only if they are persuaded to do so.
It is up to those of us who support those things not just to physically remain in this country, but to remain within a discourse that supports the best things about the UK. Now is the time to draw strength from those around us, to mobilise and organise and fight to make sure that we can still be proud to have been born here.