Britain seems like two countries right now. I don’t mean England and Scotland (apologies to Wales – and Northern Ireland, assuming you take a liberal interpretation of “Britain”). Rather we seem to be divided into two tribes, those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. And, like the UK and the USA, we are now two peoples divided by a common language, to quote Shaw (or was it Wilde?).
I’m clearly on the Remain side. I campaigned for Remain alongside the Lib Dems sole MEP. I’ve been whisked over to Brussels for training on how the EU works. I’ve said on the BBC (no less) that I don’t want to leave the EU – I think it will be, and has already been, damaging to our country both economically and diplomatically.
But I’m disregarded by the Leavites as part of the political elite, simply because of what I’ve said. My experiences and concerns are dismissed as being pessimistic. “Have some hope; chin up; stop talking us down.” These high priests of the UK’s second coming cling to, what appears to me to be, blind optimism. “There’s a big, big world out there. We simply need to get out there and do deals.”
There’s also talk of betrayal. People like me are seeking to undo the determined will of the people. The issue I have with this is that it sets “the will” into something concrete when we all know it’s something fluid – it changes with the weather. Even suggesting that the country should get a chance to either confirm or reverse its choice apparently makes me a traitor.
The narrative that politicians are all in it for ourselves is clearly embedded – we can thank the MPs’ expenses scandal for that. So I’m doubly in trouble – supposedly a traitor who wants to benefit from the backs of the downtrodden. Complete bollocks, of course, but the narrative is there and difficult to shift.
Claim and counter-claim are traded like blows in a boxing ring. Apparently the people were made clear that leaving the EU meant leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. The Leavites point to the many statements made to that effect by those campaigning for Remain, ignoring the opposite statements from the likes of Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage. It’s the EU who wants to impose the border in Ireland, despite leaving being a British decision on the basis of wanting to control our borders (amongst other things).
Arguments about damaging the economy are met with language about sovereignty. Arguments about immigration are met with language about improving access to our economy for our people. Arguments about democracy are met with language about damage to the economy. Round and round the circles go, neither side really listening to the other, each side constantly looking to land the killer blow.
If I’m charitable, I think our Prime Minister is trying to rise above this, with her speeches ineptly calling for the country to unite. Well, sorry Theresa, it’s just not going to happen that easily. You’ve got a number of people who are really afraid about what is happening to our country and their livelihoods – some now taking active steps to leave. You have a similar number of people who are terrified about having their victory snatched away from them. Then, more quietly, there’s a third group of people, small at the moment but growing, who are beginning to fear that they’ve made a mistake – that leaving the EU will be a bad idea – and there’s also a fourth group who voted to stay but just think we’ve just got to get on with it now the decision has been made. There is no shared language between all of these groups.
Unity is rare. Common purpose is more, well, common. The country is not like the Conservative Party. No simple rally with a leader’s speech and key members all saying how wonderful it is will paper over the cracks – although increasingly that’s not sufficient for the Conservative Party either. The country is complex, diverse, with a multiplicity of views and experiences.
What needs to happen, and (particularly for those who want to Remain) needs to happen quickly, is finding that common language – something that can bridge the gap. Rather than hammering in blows to widen the abyss, we need to throw lifelines to each other.
Finding a common purpose needs to start with a recognition that both sides want the best for the country. They just have diametrically opposed ideas of what that means in practice. Remainers are not traitors, and Leavites are not deluded. Remainers have largely done well out of the EU, Leavites generally haven’t. Remainers respect democracy, and Leavites have genuine concerns.
In my experience, gaps are only bridged through listening. If Remainers want to win this, we have to start listening to what is being said, and not to just the words being said. We need to find ways of winning hearts back, not just minds. We need to be the ones who find that common cause.