Our fractured country has to reinvent itself together
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.