On 23rd June 2016 Britain voted to leave the European Union.
It is an historic, significant and important event which has already had a political, economic and cultural impact even within the first twenty-four hours of the announcement, and will continue to have impact for the years to come. Perhaps that is why as someone who has studied history I feel the need to document my thoughts today.
I voted to remain. The constituency where I live – a major UK city voted to remain. And yet, almost 52% of the total population of the UK voted to leave.
Shock and disappointment has been the reaction today within my community. It’s been a bit like tuning into the results of a reality talent programme and realising the favourite who could actually sing and go onto have success is out because not enough people voted.
But that’s not true here. Over 70% of the population turned out. We’re engaged in this debate, in this issue as an electorate.
Clearly the nationalistic rhetoric on taking back our sovereignty, the very real concerns people have around immigration and terrorism (leaving aside the more racist aspects of those arguments which undoubtedly were at the heart of some votes), and the inherent and historic bias against Europe which is so part of the British culture has all led to a winning vote for the Leave campaign.
The Remain arguments centred around economic strength, cultural liberalism and the position that we have more political leverage working as a member of the EU than as a single country – better in than out. It wasn’t enough.
Perhaps the forewarning of a negative economic impact was too general, too esoteric. Perhaps the cultural liberalism which appeals to city dwellers who see the living reality of a cultural melting pot in action on a day to day basis is not the reality of the majority of the population (most major UK cities voted to Remain). Perhaps cultural liberalism in a world which deals with the threat of terrorism does not provide the security blanket some feel is required. Perhaps the fact that even Remain supporters sheepishly concede that the EU needs reform and is perceived as a gargantuan bureaucratic money-pit was a gaping hole in the argument.
I’m sure the coming days will see a lot of dissection of why the Remain campaign failed to achieve a successful outcome; why the Leave campaign was successful. From my perspective it comes down to two things: security and identity.
People forget that the primary reason why Europe came together economically was to effectively tie ourselves so closely together (although admittedly France and Germany were the main targets of that binding) that a third world war would be too devastating to even consider. We went into Europe to maintain security.
But in recent years, Europe hasn’t been the main threat to our security. 9/11 changed the world. Terrorism rooted in Islamic extremism became the major security threat to Western civilisation. This was underpinned by the terrorist attacks that followed including the 7/7 attack in London. The rise of ISIS and the continued terror attacks across Europe in the recent year has increased concern about security, especially when media reports regarding the Paris attacks drew attention to the ease in which terrorists were able to traverse across borders within Europe. Compound this with a surge of refugees fleeing Syria and…and there is a valid and real security concern.
And security is important. To feel secure is important. It is an essential human instinct in order to survive. If we truly perceive our being in Europe to make us less secure than more secure now…is it any wonder that this need in the end proves stronger than by contrast an idealistic dream of tolerance, peace and harmony which is not the harsh reality in which we live?
Personally, I believe that immigration is an essential part of growing as a society as it brings skills and ideas to our economy, politics and culture – needed catalysts and impetus for positive change which brings us closer to that dream of a reality of tolerance; that compassionate immigration is a sign of a civilised and mature society. I believe strongly in Benjamin Franklin’s oft paraphrased proposition that those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.
To me, leaving the EU because of security is a sacrifice of our freedom. It is saying to the terrorists that we are terrorised.
But I understand the fear. I understand the concern. And I don’t discount the validity of either.
Undoubtedly there are some in the Leave debate who have taken this concern and played on those valid fears; have taken the argument further into racist and bigoted rhetoric. And undoubtedly there are people who sincerely agree with that rhetoric. As a mixed race woman who grew up in a school in the Eighties with only three other coloured children, one of whom was my sister, it’s safe to say I know racism exists and continues to exist. But I think it would be very foolish to believe that all Leave campaigners are racists. Unfortunately I also think the second key reason why the Leave campaign won, cultural identity, has been co-opted in recent years by a political party which is a racist and bigoted organisation.
I like the cultural melting pot; I’m a child of the melting pot. I like being able to eat from a different part of the world every night if I wanted to by simply walking down one street in the city in which I live. I like the fact that we acknowledge faith is important no matter what the religion is and that everyone has a right to their faith. I like that people can be open about their sexuality and have the same rights as heterosexuals. I believe social and cultural tolerance is important and strive to work to correct my own prejudices and misconceptions. I like being a citizen of Europe.
But I like being British.
I love tea. I like how the weather is always a topic for small talk. I applaud our queueing behaviour and silent disapproval with raised eyebrows and pursed lips when someone jumps the queue. I enjoy how every time there is a football tournament the country goes mad and we all get caught up in Wimbledon every year. I have a soft spot for the Royal family. I’m proud of our music, literature and art; our rich cultural history. I love how there is a core of British upper lip and inner strength within our people when something goes wrong; how we can all pull together in a crisis.
Identity is so important to every single human being. How we identify ourselves creates our world; it creates the perception of our world. And perhaps the truth is the majority of our population still identifies as British and considers Europe as ‘Other.’ There are culturally ingrained prejudices against Europe built over years of past conflict and skirmishes.
And let’s be honest; the paraphernalia of the European Union doesn’t help itself. There is a perception of a lack of transparency with bureaucratic dictates conjured up in the corridors of Brussels coupled with an impotent European Parliament that holds no real power. There is a cultural grumbling against European laws which make no sense; of the very real sense that we have lost our voice in the formation and implementation of many laws which govern us.
Despite my fervent desire to remain, I will concede I do believe the European Union needs to change and reform its machinery of governance and engagement.
And so I can understand why identity and the want to retain our identity through enacting laws in our own parliament and which we can hold our elected members of parliament to account for might be at the heart of many who voted to Leave.
In the end understanding the need for security and that we still hold such a strong sense of identity, it is perhaps somewhat explainable why the vote came out the way it did. Which is good because I needed an explanation and a way to justify this for myself. Whether I’m right or wrong, who knows really, but this makes sense to me.
Why do I need to justify this? Because I am at heart a democrat. I believe in democracy and the right for people to say to their law-makers ‘this is what we want’. I believe that someone has the right to stand up and argue for the opposite position to mine and that they should be heard no matter how much I dislike and disagree with their point of view. I believe that if we have a democratic process we need to follow it. We’ve voted to Leave. It’s not the outcome I wanted. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, economically, socially, politically, culturally. I’m disheartened and disappointed that this is the result. But as a democrat I acknowledge that Leave is the result.
So now we will need to put in motion the apparatus which will enact the reality of it. We will renegotiate our treaties and agreements; we need to enact a number of legislative bills where the UK has been covered to date by EU legislation, and we need to work out what it actually means for our day to day lives. We’ll need a new Prime Minister since David Cameron stepped down in the wake of the result.
Leaving will be long difficult process, and today has seen only the beginning of the impact it will have on our lives, on our economy, politics and society; on Europe. We are seeing history in the making, democracy in action. And that both enthrals and terrifies me in equal measure.