I watched coverage of the EU Referendum until 4am on Friday morning, sitting on my couch and blinking in disbelief. In the last few months, the campaign to leave the EU has been characterised by hatred, xenophobia and some outright lies about both the EU and what life outside of the EU would be like.
Despite the volume and frequency of the “Leave” campaign’s propaganda, I had hoped that common sense would prevail and the “Remain” vote would win – securing the UK’s place in the union.
It turns out that common sense was sorely lacking the day the UK went to vote on this enormous topic. The fact that “What is the EU?” was the second-most searched topic online a day later illustrates to me that people had no idea what they were doing.
Voting “Leave” to “get our country back” and “write our own laws” as “the country is full” is representative of the vox pops broadcast by the media on Friday. From my perspective, the general public have demonstrated a sickening lack of awareness of both their own country and the EU to which they belong.
This has been a classic case of political spin winning the argument at the expense of facts. Michael Gove famously dismissed “experts” in the run up to the referendum, echoing some of the rabid anti-intelectualism championed by Republicans in the US over the last decade.
Facts in favour of continuing EU membership hugely outweigh the validity of empty political slogans, yet the slogans won. Sickening. Depressing. And illustrative of a failure on the part of politicians of all shades in getting facts front and centre in this debate. “Get our country back” is an empty slogan, not a plan for an entire country. In fact, the “Leave” campaign was characterised by the lack of any firm plan for what should follow exit from the EU. Vague promises about international trade deals are not a plan for a country.
Friday morning, I woke to a very dis-United Kingdom. The England-only focus of the Conservative Party and UKIP meant there was little to know thought given to the present context: both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. We now have the formidable Nicola Sturgeon vowing to keep Scotland in the EU – through whatever means – and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland calling for a poll on the border with the Republic. In effect calling for a United Ireland.
Northern Ireland has been a ‘troublesome annoyance’ to the Tories, illustrated by their approach to policy in the area and the calibre of the politicians they’ve asked to look after the challenging brief. The Good Friday agreement helped Northern Ireland turn a corner, securing peace and returning the place to a semblance of normality. This referendum result is the kind of shift that could destabilise Northern Ireland once again, especially no that ‘marching season’ is just weeks away.
I’m angry – can you tell?
This isn’t anger because I didn’t get the referendum result I voted form. This is because it was a badly executed referendum, called by a feckless self-interested politician, to hold off the political advances of UKIP.
I’m angry because the British public (2.3 million and counting) are now campaigning for a re-run of the referendum, now that they’ve realised the consequences of voting leave. I’ve read many accounts online of people explaining their “Leave” vote as an opportunity to give the government a ‘bloody nose’ or as a ‘wake up call’ to the EU.
This wasn’t a phone-in vote for ‘Britain’s got Talent’, it was a referendum on the future of the country.
I’m angry that Cameron unleashed a referendum on this country with what appears to be either a lack of consideration for the consequences of a “Leave” vote or a bullish belief that he’d win. Or both. He should have established a referendum commission to manage this, explaining what a “Leave” or “Remain” vote would need to look like (e.g. a majority across the UK or in each of the four constituent parts) and what percentage in either direction of the vote would need to be achieved.
Yesterday, at London Pride, I watched the parade from a vantage point on Regent Street. I overheard two guys next to me discussing the result. They had both voted “Leave” and yet didn’t want to leave the EU. They said they wanted to illustrate the need for reform to the EU and to demonstrate how unhappy they were. Both were also of the opinion that they could ask for another chance to vote in the next few weeks.
I’m angry that, less than 24 hours after the vote, the “Leave” campaign figureheads are already back-pedalling on their promises about funding for the NHS and control of immigration.
I’m also depressed about the future. I’m a gay foreigner who has lived in London for the last 16 years. My partner is also not from these shores and we’ve given significant thought to what this means for our status here. We’ve both contributed to this nation and been good citizens. The anti-foreigner rhetoric that UKIP and its fellow-travelers have spouted in recent months hasn’t just been about refugees. And it hasn’t just worried economic migrants.
The country is in no way full. But immigration has been handled woefully by the last four governments. They have failed to effectively make the case for the economic benefits of immigration while also failing to do anything meaningful to effect societal integration of those arriving.
The EU has overwhelmingly been a force for good over the last 40 years. But this debate has focused on bureaucracy and perceptions of being “told what to do”. Here’s the thing. The UK electorate has ignored the EU and its institutions, remaining apart fro the democratic process and electing people like Nigel Farage to the European Parliament. A man who has done more than anyone to stir up hatred and spread untruths about the EU. A man whose rhetoric and web of lies has convinced people “Johnny Foreigner” is coming to steal their home and their job.
My point? It’s up to individuals to educate themselves about issues and sift through arguments. If you don’t understand how the EU works, who the commissioners or MEPs are, that’s very much your fault. The EU isn’t a sinister cabal operating in secret, and everything you could want or need to know is available online. It’s lazy thinking to paint the entirety of the EU as an evil empire. It’s by no means perfect, but it has helped to unify and pacify Europe since its inception.
The “red tape” bemoaned by the Little Englanders of UKIP is in fact the collection of pan-European legislation that protects workers’ rights. You know, flexible working, protection of parents who work, health and safety. Do you really think that the likes of Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove want to protect these rights? Their fetishisation of “the market” in the last six years illustrates they’ll do whatever it takes to make profit for private business easier.
The average person here in the UK will feel the impact of this momentous decision when they have to pay more for petrol, when they have to queue for longer to get into their European holiday destination and when the region they live in no longer gets the EU funding that improves roads, libraries and other public amenities.
This is the very essence of cutting one’s nose off to spite one’s face.
David Cameron could well go down in history as the Prime Minister who destroyed the United Kingdom. There’s a very strong likelihood that Scotland will achieve independence within the next two years. Who knows what will happen to Northern Ireland?! The economy is already suffering due to the market response to the vote. And a multitude of other consequences yet to manifest.
All because the Conservative Party tried to out-UKIP UKIP. There’s an old saying: if you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. The level of political discourse in this country in the last month has frightened and depressed me in equal measure, as it has steadily regressed to the level of UKIP.
I don’t think we can legitimately sneer at the US elections and the elevation of Donald Trump when this referendum has been run on the basis of lies, bigotry and bravado. As I write this, I’m watching the disintegration of the Labour front bench. The next three months – for this is how long David Cameron has decided to grace us with his presence – represent a period of significant instability for they country and the remainder of the EU.
This isn’t the end of Brexit. It’s only the very beginning of what will almost certainly be a painful period for the UK.