Dear Brexiteers, I come in peace.
My name is Tim and I’m what you probably call a “Remoaner.” Elsewhere on this website you can see examples of the “wishy-washy liberal lefty PC claptrap” I like to spout. Whether you like it or not, there are millions of other British people who think roughly as I do. But I hope you’ll agree that if Britain is going to succeed in the future, we will all have to work together. I wanted to write to you about how we might start to do that. I’m not going to be rude and I promise I’m not going to call you racist or xenophobic; members of my own family voted to leave the EU in June and they, probably like you, are neither.
Over the past few weeks, my social media timelines have been filled with members of what the Brexit Prime Minister brands the “Sneering Liberal Elite” trying quite hard to understand the opposing side of the unfortunate divide now searing the UK into two separate and seemingly unreconcilable populations. A great deal of discussion to this end was generated by Jonathan Pie’s characteristically full-blooded rant about how he believes too many of us have resorted to simply “calling people racist” to win arguments about the political direction of the country rather than debating the issues in a grown-up way. I recommend it if you haven’t already seen it; you might enjoy it, and you’ll probably agree with more of it than you think. I concede the points he made about “safe spaces” and “trigger-warnings.” These are indeed devices used too often to silence any dissent to the liberal ideology that dominates the sorts of environments in which they’re employed, most commonly university campuses. But, in the broader context of Brexit…I honestly think we do get it.
Globalisation and advances in technology have made Britain and its European neighbours change rapidly during my lifetime. The sorts of work people do, the products you buy in shops and the way that process is organised and the way we use our leisure time are all unrecognisable compared to my mostly happy memories of 1980s Enfield. The way we access news has changed and this has enabled a wider and more nuanced range of views to form about nationally-important issues among our population. Most pertinently, a wave of immigration far more substantial than any other in recent history has resulted in the culture of the UK, a culture of which I feel very proud, becoming intertwined with (and you may feel diluted by) the cultures of many other nations around the world.
Against this backdrop, a centralising economic model has exacerbated a feeling among some voters that this process of globalisation has been to the benefit to too few. The benefits have been obvious to a majority of those who live in the behemoth of London, centres of learning and culture such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and Brighton, dominant regional centres like Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Norwich, Bristol and Exeter and the maverick and increasingly reluctant partner that is Scotland. And yet the majority of voters in these places have been acutely aware of that very injustice, and at how unfairly our country is being governed. That is precisely why we didn’t vote for this at either of the last two general elections. We wanted action on the effects of deindustrialisation in northern villages with a proud past but uncertain future and the suppression of wages in once-peaceful Lincolnshire towns now unrecognisable to their longer-standing inhabitants. We wanted local housing to be readily-available to people who had lived in communities all their lives and wanted our public services to offer world-class opportunities to young people wherever they lived. None of what has happened over the past few years is what we voted for. And I know what you’re going to say: the Labour MPs we (apart from Scotland) did tend to elect incubated these problems while in government and, in opposition, have been completely ineffective at articulating a convincing, inspiring alternative. I completely agree. And I’m sorry about that.
And that, more or less, is how we got here, right? All of us, you and me both, have seen our hopes and aspirations for our country dashed by a system that seems to have completely run out of ideas.
But please, as we try to understand you, you must do the same. If Britain is going to succeed outside the European Union, it must be more united than it is at present. And you need to realise that we aren’t just throwing our toys out of the pram because we lost, and we aren’t just blind to the challenges of globalisation. What we are is scared. In fact, we’re actually bloody terrified.
A friend of mine not prone to exaggeration recently told me he might have seriously reconsidered having children if he’d realised the events that 2016 would bring. If the UK is going to have a future and if its two divided factions are ever going to be able to work together again, you are going to have to understand why the decision you made has left us feel such despair, not just for ourselves in our liberal or left-wing bubble, but for everyone in the UK if not the entire western world.
If I have children, they will no longer be allowed to study at continental universities or to move to other European countries without work permits, the terms of which have yet to be decided. However unimportant you think those rights are, you have taken them away from me and my descendants and I feel entitled to ask what you think you’re getting in return. The government itself seems to have no plan whatsoever and most of the promises Leave campaigners made during the referendum already seem to have been broken. The “TTIP on steroids” we can imagine disgraced former defence minister Liam Fox negotiating with Donald Trump’s “government” hardly seems appealing and the talk of ripping up the Human Rights Act seems like something from the Star Wars prequels. The unrest and increase in racially-aggravated violence on our streets since the Referendum suggests that the immediate effect on our social cohesion is concerning, if not quite as concerning as the plight of our currency.
Then there are the historical portents. I have become increasingly sceptical about the way World War II is used as the “Creation Myth of Modern Britain” but it is relevant here. We know from what happened in other parts of Europe in the 1930s that a seemingly-healthy democracy can collapse into tyranny and oppression terrifyingly quickly. Last week we honoured those who gave their lives to protect not just the UK but the whole World from fascism. For over a year three quarters of a century ago, our island stood alone as the jack boot trampled all over the face of Europe. One of the ways in which we express our debt to those who stood against those forces must surely be constant vigilance about the circumstances that give rise to them. Maybe for you, that means ensuring Germany can’t dominate Europe again, as I guess they do somewhat through the structures of the EU, but this is to miss the point. Germany, like so many of our continental cousins, had the opportunity in 1945 to completely reimagine its constitution and establish systems of proportional democracy that are far more representative and more conducive to long-term, pragmatic governance than our own.
Surely we understood that it would not come in fancy dress, stating all its own implications from the start? Clearly, it would come, just like last time, as a slightly embittered attempt to sell a pipe-dream of a better future to people based on very little but division and scapegoating. In the end, it would come as a charming chap in a nice suit having a pint down the pub. But Nigel Farage is selling you snake oil. He won’t give you jobs or houses or higher wages. To us, it feels as though he’s using you to advance the agenda he’s been peddling since he was at school. The vicious way he, and his allies in the right-wing press have campaigned against the independence of the judiciary recently is truly worrying, and coupled with Farage’s ambiguous statements about a violent uprising by those who share his right-wing views, it gives us legitimate reason to ask how much more of our country’s unwritten constitution might get swept up in this populist howl of rage.
So if I’m worried about democracy, you say, how can I defend the EU? The narrative about a corrupt, anti-democratic EU establishment is irresistible in the UK. And it is made all the more compelling by the fact that it is, I freely concede, partly true. The aims of the EU are unprecedented in their scale. 28 countries, all with their own priorities, ambitions and internal disagreements just as vibrant and complex as ours, attempting to collaborate and agree a shared vision. Yes, in the post-imperial age, it is an attempt to collectively act as a super-power to rival America, Russia and China just as Churchill himself wanted. This isn’t shameful for Britain and the other great imperial powers of two hundred years ago. It isn’t, as someone I know put it (very evocatively I thought), a case of several people who each used to have their own suite now being made to share a room. It’s the people of Europe doing what we should have been doing all along: showing moral leadership to the world on human rights and cross-border cooperation. What you call “creeping federalism”, I call a noble and necessary evolution. Idealistic, unachievable claptrap you say? Idealistic yes, but unachievable no. Of course the EU is going through a bit of turmoil but did we ever think it was going to be easy? We understand the need to ride the ups and downs in our own country’s history without opting out of the whole project of a united Britain. Why take a different attitude to our continent? The irony is that the rise of similar movements in almost every other European country (Le Pen, Wilders et al) shows just how similar we all are. And we who voted to remain dared to dream that all those magnificent European nations could solve Europe’s problems together. Hopefully they still will, but we’ll no longer be at the party.
And those problems always seemed overstated anyway. The democratic procedures of the European Council are clearly far from perfect and I don’t for a moment deny that they could be improved considerably. But to suggest that the people at the top of the EU are ultimately self-appointed and unaccountable is simply false. Those procedures are complex, yes, and that in itself is unhelpful in transparency terms, but the procedures are there if you look them up.
We are told repeatedly about oppressive EU laws we are “forced to obey.” And yet those who advocate Brexit seem unable to produce many, if any, concrete examples of what these are or how they affect our lives. The Leave Campaign’s lead spokesperson Boris Johnson was once paid to make up such stories about the EU for the Telegraph that would infuriate their readers into buying the paper again for more of the same. Actual fact-checked examples? Look around you. Honestly, where are they?
You ask us to get over it and just get on board. Why? This isn’t what we want and you haven’t explained a single benefit of it. You ask us to trust you. How? Your leaders lied repeatedly from the start and it seems safe to assume they’re still lying now. You ask us to stop scaremongering. Being genuinely frightened about the direction you are taking us in, what else do you expect us to do? Even leaving the country is becoming a less viable option until we know more about what sort of free movement, if any, will be possible for those willing to work or study in another EU member states after we’ve left.
Maybe I’m wrong about all this. But maybe you are too. In fact, isn’t it probably most likely that we’re both right about some bits and wrong about others? We’re trying to understand you, we really are. I want a bright future for the UK just as much as you do and I want us to work together to achieve it, but if your Brexit is going to be a success, you are going to have to try in an open-minded and intellectually honest way, to understand us too.