It’s getting more embarrassing by the day to be English. And I’m not even talking about the football.
Two Old Etonians have fought a proxy war via the British public, and as in so many proxy wars before it, the casualties are mounting.
But here we are. A nation in shock – wounded, grieving, divided. A nation at a fork in the road. None of the roads stretching before us leads anywhere I want to be. I think we are lost.
One road leads to EU oblivion and who-knows-what for us and the rest of the EU. The other leads to potential civil unrest, if we ignore the biggest popular vote in living memory.
Or then there’s the long grass, lying temptingly between the two forks. Increasingly even the Leave leaders who never meant their campaign to actually succeed (for Bojo read Bozo) are drawn to kicking the whole thing into the long grass, at least until the shock and anger have abated. Can’t we just forget to post the Article 50 notification? Or claim it got lost in the post?
I don’t think the long grass is the answer. Too many snakes, too much uncertainly. The current market meltdown would continue.
So which way should we fork off?
To even think about ignoring the referendum result, I think it’s important to understand how we got the answer we did. The question on the ballot paper asked if the UK should remain a member of the European Union. But here are some of the questions I think people were actually answering.
Question: Do you wish Britain could go back to how it was in the good old days?
Many people mistook the polling booth for a Tardis which would take them back to the 1950s, when they knew where they were in the world. They hadn’t noticed that the world has moved on a wee bit since then. You might not like globalisation, trading blocs and population movements but that doesn’t stop them existing. You can’t turn the clock back even if you wish you could.
Question: Do you wish there were fewer immigrants and Muslims in the UK?
I continue to believe this was the question most Outers were answering. I know some of them. It might be unfashionable to call out the part that xenophobia played in this, but that doesn’t stop it being true. Being in denial about a nasty streak of racism in English society doesn’t help (especially if all our futures lie in making a new nation that consists almost exclusively of the English). We have to call out racism and discrimination long before we’re the people affected by it.
Question: Do you think the EU is in need of reform?
Some voters did have genuinely thought-out positions on specific areas of EU policies. But in holding these genuine positions, they aligned themselves with xenophobes. Why vote Out just because you are aware the EU is a deeply flawed institution? Why remove yourselves from a position in which you have a voice for reform? Why remove from future generations the chance to be part of a major force for peace, justice and rights, and jeopardize the EU’s very existence, just because you can see its flaws.
Question: Do you not even understand the question?
For some people, the answer to this was a clear no. My brother spoke to a young shop worker who pretty much picked an answer at random in the polling booth. It was Out.
Question: Do you think politicians are ignoring your needs?
Many others were punishing a political class they felt had ignored them. History is littered with the corpses, literal and metaphorical, of middle class elites who ignored and patronised the working classes. Cameron’s political corpse is now on the heap. I am appalled by many of his policies, and his folly and short-termism in calling a referendum in the first place. But does he deserve to go down in history as the man who broke up the Union and possibly the European Union too? Possibly not, but he certainly should have known better. But quite apart from Cameron, many ordinary people perceive politicians are serving themselves not their constituents.
In this context, where so many questions were being answered other than the one on the ballot paper, maybe there are grounds for a rethink.
Perhaps we need a second referendum with a subtly different question, so that rather than ignoring the first result we move on to asking what should be done about it.
Question: Do you want parliament to enact the results of the referendum and take Britain out of the European Union?
Pulling out of the EU on the basis of a non-binding referendum does seem quite perverse. MPs were elected to take decisions on behalf of their constituents. Sadly if we go down this road, I would imagine in the short term an even nastier response to migrants than we have already seen emerging. Many people who voted for the first time would feel utterly betrayed by democracy. There would indeed be trouble ahead.
I’m increasingly convinced this might be the lesser of the two evils now facing us. But with Labour committing slow-motion suicide, the Tories in turmoil, the far-right gloating and naked racism gaining strength daily, quite frankly anything could happen. The end of this script hasn’t been written yet; we need to collectively ensure it doesn’t end very badly indeed.