There are many on the Remain side of the vote who are now feeling, perhaps for the first time, the sense of alienation, economic uncertainty and anger that many on the Leave side have felt for 20-30 years. What has become even clearer after Thursday’s vote is that the debate has never been about Europe alone. It is also about the economy, equality, our place in the world and the changing nature of our communities.
But this is not how the debate has been panning out across the country. There is ugliness and downright division brewing. This article on anti-Polish cards being distributed in Cambridgeshire is just one sign of the racism that is being openly displayed by a very small minority on the Leave side.
The contempt being expressed by a similarly very small minority on the Remain side is sometimes harder to spot and more insidious, but it is real none-the-less. See, for example, Noel Gallagher arguing (before the results were out) that there should never have been a referendum because 99% of the UK population is “thick as pig shit”. Similar sentiments can be found on Twitter, ranging from the dismissive and ridiculing to seething disgust. See for example,
For those 51% of the EU electorate. This is your new prime minister. Good luck clever folks pic.twitter.com/7BsEqL4gtA
— Lord Sugar (@Lord_Sugar) June 24, 2016
— Janders Dean (@jandersdean) June 24, 2016
However, whether the result of the referendum holds, or the politics play out such that we end up remaining, one thing is abundantly clear; a significant minority of the country risks feeling even more alienated, ignored and vulnerable. This is not a recipe for a united country.
This was something we predicted the day before the election. At that point, at the end of the debate but before the vote, there was no way of knowing what kind of exit people voting leave wanted, and what kind of leave those wanting remain would tolerate.
Our position is no different in the aftermath of the vote.
What the country needs is real leadership now, that starts the process of healing the divisions. These were always there to some extent, but the referendum debate has brought them out into the open and deepened them. With some notable exceptions (such as Nicola Sturgeon and Sadiq Khan) it appears, right now, that this leadership is absent. David Cameron’s resignation on Friday morning has focused the Conservative Party inwards. And at the time of writing the Labour Party appears to be in tailspin.
We cannot spend the next four months of the Conservative (and possibly Labour) party leadership battle debating Europe alone. We have to debate the real issues I outline above, because only then can we successfully negotiate a new relationship with the EU that is built on some sense of a nationally shared settlement.
But this is not a debate that will reframe itself, even less so if our two main political parties are in the middle of leadership battles that focus on whether the main protagonists are pro-Leave or pro-Remain.
At the national political level there appear to be three main possibilities:
These options feel very much like I’m clutching at straws. Right now they seem unrealistic. No knight in shining armour is going to ride over the horizon and save us.
This means it is down to us, ordinary members of the public. We have to provide the leadership that is currently lacking.
I’ve spent the weekend worrying about what that means for me personally, and for Involve as an organisation. We have some valuable tools. Our core business is in reframing issues, providing tools and facilitators who can help people find a different route into – and potentially out of – challenging and divisive debates.
But we can normally see who is willing to work with us, listen to the debates we facilitate and take action based on what they have heard. Right now who this is just isn’t obvious – see above. But we can’t just sit back and wait for leadership to emerge, as I’ve already said, it’s down to all of us in the UK to lead.
In amongst the uncertainty, one of the things I am sure of is that there’s lots of expertise in our networks and while we may not be able to see our place in the situation alone, perhaps together with a crowd of facilitators we can.
Over the next few days we’re going to explore whether there is interest in coming together as facilitators, people who work in community development, stakeholder engagement and conflict resolution, to develop a sense of whether and how our tools might be useful in supporting citizens and leaders to develop a more shared sense of what the next steps might be.
If you are interested in finding out more do email me firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you as our plans firm up.
All of our experience demonstrates that this kind of inclusive, respectful debate, which can lead to a wider range of options opening-up, is possible. I believe that such a debate is an essential precondition developing a settlement with Europe that the majority can agree on.
Image credit: SantiMB.Photos, Flickr Creative Commons