In the weeks before the EU referendum, I was more engaged with politics than I’ve ever been. I watched Question Time, Prime Minister’s Questions, I scrolled through the Guardian’s website reading opinion pieces, and I even read a few pro-Brexit pieces in the Daily Mail and the Sun. Yet despite being so close to politics, I’ve never felt more alienated by it.
Both campaigns were run despicably. On the one hand, the Leave campaign resorted to pure lies, whilst preying on nationalist sentiment and colonialist nostalgia; it is no coincidence that the last couple of weeks have seen a spike in racist and xenophobic incidents. The tone of the Leave campaign was epitomised by Nigel Farage’s abhorrent “Breaking Point” poster, and by the spineless scheming and backstabbing between Michael Gove and Boris Johnson since the referendum. As Alex Massie wrote so astutely in The Spectator following the murder of Jo Cox, “If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them […] then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap”.
At the same time, the Remain campaign was insipid and apologetic, dually characterised by David Cameron’s argument that “it would be a bit risky to leave the EU”, and Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hearted attempts to champion something which he had spent his entire political career hating. For many young people like me, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party presented hopes of a new kind of honest and selfless politics. But his failure to be frank about his true feelings towards the EU has damned him. His favour among Labour MPs is virtually non-existent, and his support from Labour members is slowly sapping away. His refusal to step aside for the good of the party following the referendum has left me feeling profoundly disappointed by the man I had so much faith in just a few months ago.
My disillusionment with this toxic political arena meant that I was forced to approach this referendum from a personal, emotional viewpoint. I have always felt international: I’m half-Polish and I visit my family there every year. I took languages at A-Level and Paris is one of my favourite places in the world. I even lived in Tokyo for two years when I was a child. For me, the EU is not so much about the institution itself, but about what it represents: co-operation, unity, and peace. Before the 23rd of June, it made me happy that Britain – a country which was still a colonialist power just decades ago – had chosen to stop looking at foreign countries as places to conquer, and start looking at them as equal partners.
But if you live below the poverty line in the abandoned Labour heartlands of the North, why would you feel any such connection to Europe? ‘What has Europe ever done for me?’, you might ask. The positive impacts of immigration are virtually non-existent in these areas, precisely because there are so few immigrants. If you can’t get a job, can’t keep up with your rent, and can’t get an appointment to see your GP, and then Nigel Farage comes along and tells you that the EU is the cause of all of these problems, why wouldn’t you believe him? For the disenfranchised, this referendum was a chance to rail against a system that perpetually ignores their voices: in the last general election, nearly four million people voted for UKIP, and yet they ended up with one lowly seat. This was an attack against Westminster politics, then, and however much I resent the fact that this single-issue referendum was allowed to become a forum for the general protest vote, lingering in denial about its outcome will do nothing to change that.
That’s why I have found the reactions of some Remainers damaging. Calling for a second referendum completely misses the point: this referendum was about the disenfranchised and the perpetually ignored working classes being given the power to enact change. Certainly, this change is regressive and counter-productive, and they were mendaciously led to believe in it by self-serving politicians who have now fled the scene of the crime. Farage’s cowardly resignation should probably come as no surprise, even to those of us who thought he might exhibit his last scrap of credibility by sticking around to clean up his mess. But disregarding the outcome of the referendum will only worsen these divisions in the UK. The people got what they voted for; reversing this will only contribute to the notion that politics is not worth taking part in if the establishment will always end up getting its way. In the same vein, sneering at ordinary people who voted to leave the EU is also missing the point. It was primarily a handful of politicians, not the electorate, who got us into this mess. I, like many others, wish this referendum had never happened in the first place. But it has, and although the result was technically only ‘advisory’, it wasn’t sold to the country as such. The people have spoken, and we should accept the result.
The job of the Remainers must now be to mobilise. It’s vital that we neutralise the effects of Brexit, by showing that Britain is an outward-looking, European, and multicultural nation in which bigotry and intolerance have no place. In-fighting in the Labour Party, contempt towards the working class, and petitions to reverse the referendum result will only weaken those of us hoping for a more progressive and liberal society, leaving the door open for the next Tory Prime Minister to negotiate and implement a fiercely right-wing Brexit settlement. If the House of Commons votes to keep Britain in the EU, I won’t be complaining. Meanwhile, however, we can’t go around insulting Brexiteers and protesting about the result. It’s not our god-given right to remain.
What’s more, if there is a snap general election – which there certainly should be, given that much of the Brexit campaign was about criticizing unelected leaders in Brussels – then we need to be able to elect a government who will listen to the 48 percent. Not a government that will try to disregard the result of the referendum, but one which will make the best out of this nightmare which we have stumbled into, and forge a more open and progressive society outside of the EU. With Labour undergoing an existential crisis, now may be the time to heed the calls of Caroline Lucas for a ‘progressive alliance’, made up of Labour, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru. What the left needs more than ever is unity. Such an alliance could well be an antidote to the searing divisions in our society, which Brexit has made so painfully apparent. This isn’t the future we hoped for, but if we put our minds to it, surely we can make it one worth believing in?