I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK.
Damn. I said it.
I spent the weeks and months before the EU referendum ridiculing this notion as puerile, vacuous. Now I feel it deeply myself. Oh, the irony.
My immediate reaction to the result was fury. I’ve had something stolen from me. I felt bitter. I feared for my family’s finances and my children’s opportunities. Leaving the EU was irresponsible; a reckless gamble no better in my eyes than that of the bankers who had risked and so damaged our economy in 2008. Worse still, it had given succour to extremists who had taken the Brexit vote as a legitimisation of their hate.
But shock gave way to reflection. I looked to those in my family who voted leave and see the world differently. My country is their country too. Some live and will die where they were born, like their parents, grandparents and friends. I love them, enjoy their company and they mine. But I would not choose their life, nor they mine. From time to time they visit my world and I theirs, like tourists, appreciating parts before returning to where we are comfortable.
They are socially conservative, enjoying our country as it was and is. They like to see that politicians are in their service with their ambitions held in check. But they are not political animals; neither are they extremists. They have a legitimate expectation that politicians will represent their views, but are far removed from the political classes. There is not a libertarian, a free marketeer or a radical among them and any attempt to characterise their vote in these ways is wholly inaccurate.
Until now, politics has not been challenging for me. My world view has more or less held sway all my adult life. I am at ease with the huge changes that have taken place over that time. But others are not – at least not with all the changes nor the frequency of them.
Critically, none of us were asked whether we wanted those changes. No general election gave us a choice about freedom of movement or when the EU would make decisions over Westminster. Many in my parents’ generation say that what they voted for in 1975 is not what they see today. In those circumstances is it any wonder that a good number of people have applied the brakes?
So why weren’t we asked? Maybe it was assumed that with time, education and economic gains we would all become global citizens and want the same thing. But this was wrong. 17.4 million people didn’t agree. Until now, their views have been heard but largely ignored; now they have their country back as I am losing mine.
So we are a family divided in a nation divided.
But this is only as it should be. For me, the challenge is not to get us all to agree, but to find a way for different world views to comfortably coexist.
Political parties state their positions and compete for our support. A majority wins, leaving the spoils for the victor and the losers disappointed. But what if, instead of articulating their position, a party articulated ours? What if they embraced division and legitimised our differences? What if a political party could give effect to our different views to help us co-exist? Could that bind our country together? I believe it could. Together, not in consensus, but in plurality.
But how does that relate to the EU?
Within the EU some countries have the Euro; others do not. Some countries are part of the whole single market, others have preferential access only to specific markets. Some countries have voting rights, others not. If there can be flexibility between states then why not within states?
When trying to work out our approach to Brexit, instead of simply stacking up all EU legislation into ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ piles, we could work out which aspects of EU policy – say freedom of movement – could be overseen by devolved, city and regional administrations.
In this way, we could allow some areas within the UK to ‘remain’ while others ‘leave’. We could give the option to further integrate or withdraw via the ballot box at devolved elections. Westminster would only oversee policies that needed national coordination, such as defence or climate change. People really could ‘take back control’, in a flexible Europe, without risking the minority feeling in tyranny to the majority.
Would EU accept this? At the moment almost certainly not. It would be a colossal task to modernise the EU is this way. But the referendum result in the UK is the first articulation of disenchantment that exists across the EU. For the EU to ward off contagion, it must find the political will to give effect to public opinion. Dogmatically enforcing existing rules risks public support and, ultimately, its own future.
Wouldn’t this approach be immensely burdensome and potentially unworkable? In truth, whatever approach we take to Brexit, there will be an incredibly complex task ahead of us. And I believe that if we do not take the opportunity now to reform our politics, the disaffected minority – on whatever side – will suffer and so too will our democracy.
The referendum has left politics in chaos: our politicians are frozen in the face of a disunited kingdom, our parties are split, unsure who’s side to take and fearful of alienating more voters.
But if we respect and give effect to our different views then no-one need be on the losing side.
The real question for our leaders is not which side to be on, but what they will now try to achieve. If they take sides, our country, our regions and our families will remain divided.
I believe that the party that learns to be excited by our diversity, embraces our complexity and makes those different views a reality, is the party that will heal our wounds.
Despite our differences, I believe that the vast majority of people don’t want to see our nation divided. We can all get our countries back, plural.
And that is a politics I think everyone in my family could vote for.