Our frac­tured coun­try has to rein­vent it­self to­gether

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - JENNY MCCART­NEY

One of the sur­prises of the ref­er­en­dum – in days con­tain­ing lit­tle ex­cept sur­prises – has been the stub­born re­fusal of so many Re­main vot­ers to ad­mit de­feat. In­deed, with great ra­pid­ity, a num­ber of Re­main ac­tivists or­gan­ised a pe­ti­tion de­mand­ing a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum. It proved so pop­u­lar that the web­site crashed.

The feel­ing of pro­found emo­tional shock on Fri­day morn­ing – among both sets of sup­port­ers – was cer­tainly un­der­stand­able. There was lit­tle warn­ing that the sta­tus quo was about to crum­ble. The of­fi­cial con­sen­sus was for a Re­main win; then, sud­denly, it wasn’t like that at all. The de­clared ma­jor­ity was for Leave. Ster­ling tum­bled, Cameron re­signed, Cor­byn floun­dered. The ra­pid­ity of the change left most of us breath­less. Pol­i­tics sud­denly felt in­tensely per­sonal and pan­icky.

The Brexit vote was partly fu­elled by the anger of work­ing-class Bri­tish peo­ple at the sharp end of glob­al­i­sa­tion, who felt buf­feted by eco­nomic in­se­cu­rity and aban­doned by the “met­ro­pol­i­tan elite.” Now we are wit­ness­ing the fury of those who say their own con­fi­dent vi­sion of a fu­ture in the EU has been stolen by the Brex­i­teers. Many Re­main­ers feel as Euro­pean as they are Bri­tish: be­fore, one didn’t have to choose. In Lon­don, a “Re­main” city, there was a tan­gi­ble melan­choly in Fri­day’s muggy air, a pop­u­lace sub­dued. Breakups are sor­row­ful, es­pe­cially when you didn’t ask for them.

On­line, how­ever, there was raw anger and other, more com­plex emo­tions. Al­though Re­main’s loss is frus­trat­ing – par­tic­u­larly for those more used to con­trol – it now has its own per­verse sat­is­fac­tion: the fu­ri­ous ab­di­ca­tion of re­spon­si­bil­ity. As in any di­vorce, the per­son who didn’t in­sti­gate the split wields the guilt from the fall-out. Since Re­main tends to dom­i­nate so­cial me­dia, the Twit­ter air is thick with vi­tu­per­a­tive re­crim­i­na­tion of the “well, you got what you wanted, hope you’re happy” va­ri­ety, com­plete with de­pic­tions of as­sorted forms of chaos: the worse the bet­ter.

Should short-term dis­as­ters and dif­fi­cul­ties lie on the hori­zon – as they un­doubt­edly do – Re­main vot­ers will loudly lament the id­iocy of those who got the UK into this. The al­ter­na­tive shapes that dis­as­ter might have taken within the EU, of course, will re­main spec­u­la­tive.

Yet where will any of this carry us? Each side, in the run-up to the ref­er­en­dum, staked out its moral vi­sion of it­self, of­ten damn­ing the other to its op­po­site. Re­main sup­port­ers saw them­selves as out­ward­look­ing, non-xeno­pho­bic and more so­phis­ti­cated in their un­der­stand­ing of pol­i­tics and eco­nomics. Leave, mean­while, de­picted their cause as lib­erty-lov­ing, boldly pa­tri­otic and ready to face up to un­com­fort­able so­cial re­al­i­ties. There were lies, yes – but also hon­est ar­gu­ments for both cases, for those who cared to make or lis­ten to them.

The re­sponse since the vote has re­vealed a frac­tured United King­dom in which many are clam­our­ing to go their own way. Yet if this coun­try is suc­cess­fully to rein­vent it­self, peo­ple of all views must ac­cept the demo­cratic de­ci­sion, try to un­der­stand why we got here, and pull to­gether de­ci­sively to shape a co­her­ent and de­cent fu­ture. For many, that will in­volve putting na­tional in­ter­ests be­fore per­sonal feel­ings: dif­fi­cult, I’m sure. Any­thing else, how­ever, is quickly be­com­ing a dan­ger­ously in­flam­ma­tory form of self-in­dul­gence.

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