Brexit must be a force for positive change

The next generation of leaders need to step up and shape Brexit’s political void

This week has been an immensely emotional and deeply worrying one. I’ve watched with despair as we voted out of a system which, however flawed, sought to protect peace, human rights, the environment, and allow free exchange of people and ideas.

Far from taking back control, it has felt like we — and our future children — were being stripped of our identities and rights as Europeans. At least part of the reason this result has felt so personally bitter is because it seems like somebody else has opted me out of an identity that I’ve held since birth. It’s an identity whose ideology I admire, whose principles I value, and an identity I don’t want to lose.

But worst has been the aftermath, watching social media and news outlets turn in to a forum for hatred and slander. The lack of empathy on both sides has been appalling.

This referendum has shown a deeply divided country. But this is precisely why we mustn’t conform to stereotyping and pigeonholing. No one demographic voted entirely in one direction.

There are elderly voters who elected to remain, and younger ones who chose to leave. People with degrees chose to leave, people without chose to stay. All will have had different reasons. But I’ve seen Leave voters throw racist slurs at Remainers, and Remainers label all Leave voters as xenophobic bigots. Both have accused the others of ignorance.

Is this the culture that we now choose to live in? Is the hateful rhetoric of the pre-referendum campaign going to continue like this? The divisions that the referendum have actually highlighted will not be fixed if we do not try and understand each other, and work together to create solutions.

Behind each ballot paper is a human being — and people within and without our “borders” are facing uncertain futures, for many reasons. Whether we liked the outcome of this vote or not, we are left with it. The only solution is to turn Brexit in to an opportunity.

At the last general election, Ipsos Mori polls showed that the EU was only voters’ seventh greatest concern. And in the 2010 election, it didn’t figure as a worry at all. The EU has been scapegoated by politicians in the last year, presented as a way for those feeling abandoned by Westminster to make their voices heard. Watching post-Brexit feedback, many Brexiters said they felt opting out of the EU was the only way to bring about change, long called for and long ignored. So they voted out. Why is this surprising?

Part of the absurdity of this entire debacle is that no clear vision for what the exit terms would be was ever offered by the Leave campaign. Those choosing Leave did not know what they were voting for, only what they were voting against.

This will cause obvious problems given the wide demographic of Brexiters. Left-wing Leavers are unlikely to be content with a solution that favours big business, in an attempt to stem the flow of companies relocating from London — a likely outcome now it looks as though either May or Gove will head the negotiations. And supporting commerce means buying in to the EEA — plus the free movement of EU citizens that come with membership. Right-wing Leavers have already expressed fury at Daniel Hannan’s admission that EU immigration is not about to plummet. Working out how to reconcile these grievances after a campaign united by what it didn’t want, not what it did, is only going to get more difficult.

This referendum has been an extraordinary wake-up call, and the political class need to listen. Of course, there will be some people who voted leave out of some misplaced imperial nostalgia for a ‘Rule Britannia’ Britain. But the more realistic reasons that many voted out must be respected in any Brexit negotiations, as must the views of the 48% who wanted to stay. Otherwise what will we have lost our EU membership for?

The onus is on the young now. Those voters who chose with an overwhelming majority to remain, who have so far lived their whole lives with the benefits of EU membership, and have grown up surrounded by the values that the EU was set up to try and protect. If we truly care about those values, put them in to practice now. Make Brexit our opportunity to group together. To listen to each other more closely. To understand why someone else is angry rather than dismiss their emotions as ‘prejudice’.

And most of all, if you care about something — show it. Simply voting isn’t enough. We might be about to lose the protection of the EU constitution on human rights, climate change, free movement… The Brexit negotiators need to know what the British public care about, and they need to hear about it loudly. If it matters to you, talk about it. Campaign for it. Work with others to come to solutions, and offer positive suggestions in the legal restructuring that will follow if Article 50 is triggered.

One starting point might be mandatory political education in all schools, to allow people to be better informed about the decisions they make about their future. There should never have been a decision of this importance with a three-fold spike in searches for ‘what is the EU’ after the votes had been cast.

Another will be for researchers to take this opportunity to scrutinise ourselves and our communities. This was for many an ‘anti-expert, anti-academic’ vote. There has clearly been a communication breakdown between those inside and outside the academy. Working out how we go about changing this — and where things have been going wrong — seems of paramount importance for rebuilding trust in expert voices.

In the spirit of practicing what you preach, I will be thinking about how I can helpfully contribute to this. I care very much about most of the changes that are about to happen, but have little expertise in any of them. What I do know about though are the arts, which have increasingly become the preserve of the wealthy in the UK. The restructure that is about to take place might be the opportunity for us to turn this around. Once the dust has settled and our next Prime Minister has been put in place, it will be easier to propose concrete ways forward for the arts communities who will be hit — hard — by leaving the EU.

Finally, let’s have some perspective. There are people the world over who are undergoing far worse than leaving the EU. Since Thursday, 14 have been killed in an attack in Somalia. The UN have reported that by 2030, 69 million children will die from preventable causes. We have been too concerned with the vote to care or even notice. The UN have also called for international cooperation against climate change, a goal we’ve potentially made more difficult by voting leave. All the world’s problems are still as acute as they were last Wednesday, perhaps worse as the UK’s dithering destabilises international markets. In the aftermath of the vote, international communities also must not be forgotten. We are all human, with pains, hopes and fears, regardless of where we were born. Perhaps Brexit can be our opportunity to build stronger links with communities outside the EU.

Back at home, we can work towards building bridges across the chasms currently dividing the UK. If leaving the EU is the price we have to pay to forge a UK that comes closer to EU ideals, then so be it. To paraphrase Gandhi: let’s be the change we want to see.

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