First published on ProgressOnline
It all feels very personal. It is not that I cannot believe it or that I hate my fellow country-folk. But I do worry about what our country is becoming. Leaving the European Union is a body blow to Britain, as we are seeing in the markets. I respect the decision but think it was a very wrong one for everyone.
On the tube this morning a group of friends were talking about Brexit, Boris and Trump in the same worrying breath. A mixed race guy told his friend that he ‘felt like an illegal immigrant in his own country’. The first cross word I have ever had with my grandma was over this divisive referendum and Facebook seems full of families arguing about who took what side. There is an unrest in the air that this decision is fuelling not quelling.
For me it seems to complete a hat-trick. I have three proud identities: being gay – shot in Orlando; being Labour and political – murdered in its most pure and brilliant form in Batley; being European – taken yesterday. Last week I attended two vigils in a week. This week our post-count committee room was its own form of wake. We looked on in disbelief.
I am caught between two potentially irreconcilable thoughts that will keep my mind occupied over the weekend.
The first, that this new terrible atmosphere won’t die with the disappearance of Ukip – because Ukip and its politics is set to continue even with yesterday’s result. Already the Be-Leavers are rowing back from the most salient parts of the vote Leave campaign – Nigel Farage has distanced himself from the £350m a week figure, but Dan Hannan MEP has warned that those who voted to leave to bring down immigration might be disappointed and backed remaining in the single market. We know Boris wants the same. John Redwood told Andrew Neil that there would be ‘no single act of leaving’. The argument that we ‘haven’t properly left’is exactly what will keep the Farage bandwagon going.
If Britain stays in the single market, and has to implement all the (now undemocratic) regulations (because we’ll have no say over them) that go with it and accept any form of freedom of movement, the public will go berserk. It is not the control they thought they were taking. Ukip will discover the post-referendum purpose it desires. It will appoint itself guarantor to the referendum spirit – like the Scottish National party did with ‘the vow’ agreed in the last few days of the independence referendum campaign. This could be the neverendum no one wants.
There may be some slim ray of light in the bleak prospect ahead, and one which stands squarely opposed to the Ukip way. This other, more optimistic, thought preoccupying me is that 16 million votes is not a bad target pool for a progressive party. As the Tories get overrun by Brexiters and the Nicky Morgans and Amber Rudds of that party get run out of town, the pitch will be free for Labour – led by a real remainer. A 48 per cent strategy would be a marked improvement on the lack of ambition experienced under Ed Miliband.
The 16 million should not be misread. It was not an enthusiastic backing for the EU. But it was, as Nicola Sturgeon put it, a vote for an ‘outward-looking country’ that works with others. Critically, this is a group of the voters that is not irreconcilable to immigration. We should be in favour of logical reforms which can be pro-immigration and the opportunities it brings.
Much has been talked about the ‘post-truth politics’ age we are living through. But in many ways these have been pre-truth times. For too long we have not been honest enough with our voters to say that, while migration can be managed, the reasons migration has risen will not go away. The pull factors are considerable: a stronger than most economy (until yesterday), the English language, an enterprising society. So too are the push factors: Putin, turmoil in the Middle East and desperate poverty in Africa. The factors that mean we have immigrants knocking on our door will not go away. This honesty would change the debate in the United Kingdom.
Yesterday was a long time coming but the best way to fight the Leavers’ untruths is with home truths. There are 16 million people, and many more, out there who will be willing to listen.
Richard Angell is director of Progress