[Note: I began writing this Friday 24th June]
Today is a strange day in the UK.
Yesterday the people voted in the referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union and early this morning we heard the results – and we have voted to Leave. Just after 8.00am our Prime Minister announced his decision to resign (you can listen to his speech here); by the Conservative Party Conference in October he will have handed over to a new Prime Minister who will begin to negotiate our exit from the EU. There has also been a vote of no confidence by MPs against the leader of the Labour Party.
I don’t normally write about political matters and I somewhat consciously choose to keep them out of this blog. It isn’t what I want the focus to be. In any case I never feel sufficiently well educated, informed and aware to make a view and comment (I know that’s not a good thing and I’m trying to change it). There was certainly no shortage of conflicting messages in the run up to the vote with each side foretelling disastrous consequences of “leave” / “remain” respectively. Another aspect of politics I find very difficult to get my head round is how the explanation of how our lives will be affected in practice by decisions so quickly gets deeply buried beneath interpersonal and inter-party conflict and attacks. If I listen to a political debate I usually get a clear picture of what each person does not want and who they hate but not a clear picture of what they want to make happen and how it will happen in terms of you or I. The fact I get lost when emotions run high (even when it’s other people’s emotions and I’m just observing) doesn’t help!
I can’t talk about the politics but I can say how it feels. Right now it feels very unstable with lots of unknowns. I think we’ve made a decision that’s going to have an impact far longer lasting than the choice of a Prime Minister in a normal general election. We haven’t just chosen our leader for the next few years. We’ve made a choice that affects our and our children’s future relationship with the rest of the Union and quite possibly wider than this. It’s a step defining how we want to interact with the wider world and our changed position will no doubt influence how countries much wider than the EU want to relate to us. Already this morning [Saturday] the consequences of our decision are clearly affecting other European countries’ attitude to us, with France among others demanding the immediate departure of Mr Cameron, the choice of another Prime Minister within days (it’s very hard to see how that could be achieved democratically, is it not?) and the immediate activation of the Article 50. In fact in the short term, for all the Leave campaign emphasised the independence we’d get by exiting the EU, these demands seem to suggest we may still be under the influence of the much less open attitude member states will now have towards us.
I switched on the news straight away around 7.00am Friday when the final count had come in. First of all I was stunned. Perhaps that was naive, but I was. I didn’t think the vote would be so close and I thought that in the end we’d vote to remain in the Union. As soon as David Cameron stepped out to address the press, I felt he was going to resign. I was not particularly a supporter of Mr Cameron but I felt real sadness at his speech. Clearly so did he.
A little later in the morning came a poignant demonstration of the impact the vote has had on people like you or me. A friend of mine is getting married next year and a substantial portion of the money she and her fiance had saved for the wedding and their planned house move was invested. This morning, this money was just gone, just like that, because of the instant effect the outcome of the vote has had on the stock markets. I’m not sure how much it’s possible she will get her money back now the pound is back on the up. As well as hurting for her in the huge blow she’s suffered, I was again stunned. Whilst I had long thought that leaving the EU would be negative economically, I didn’t have a picture of how quickly and how hard it could hit individuals. Was I very unaware? Maybe, but also, I don’t think I’m alone in that. I don’t think there was clear enough information on this kind of impact.
I know that instability and the reaction to the instability is inevitable when there’s a big change and that is not a reason in itself to steer away from a change. But this time I don’t see a clear path of what we are going towards. I won’t go on about the arguments for and against because they’ve been gone through at such length in so many sources already.
One thing that does worry me is that a petition has been raised by supporters of Remain [in the EU], demanding a constitutional change, which would mean that votes with less than a 60% majority and less than 75% turn out of voters were not valid and had to be repeated. This change would then be used to render Thursday’s referendum result invalid and to call another referendum (with the objective of an outcome favorable to Remain).
Now, in some ways I can see their point. It is sad that less than 75% turned out to vote on such an important matter. This may not have been because of indifference or even people feeling unable to choose how to vote – there may have been practical impediments, for instance, there were severe flooding and storms on Thursday afternoon which prevented a significant number of people racing the polling stations. This is most unfortunate. I don’t really know quite how it could be organised but I can see a case that we should have found a way to enable these citizens to cast their vote and have it counted. Still, I don’t know that this would have swung the vote the other way. The problems were not so severe as to account for anything near the 25% of British citizens who didn’t vote. Most of the flooding problems were around London, where locally Remain won the vote anyway.
I find the purpose and basis of what is being asked for in this petition to be very wrong. It has been raised by persons who are not happy with the outcome of a democratic vote in the hope of getting the outcome they want. They are refusing to accept the fact that the majority of citizens voted Leave. I wanted us to Remain but I accept that the majority choice was Leave. We are proud of our democracy. We can’t ignore the outcome of a democratic process just because we don’t like it. Before the vote, it was not stipulated that there had to be a certain percentage majority for the results to be valid. There was plenty of time to consider and apply this if we had wanted to. Again, the petition is calling for it to be introduced after the event to invalidate the democratic results because Remain supporters don’t like it. Plus, introducing a new regulation after the event and then using it to invalidate the previous event seems bizarre and unfair. The law doesn’t work like that. If a new law is introduced, we don’t retrospectively arrest people who “broke” the law before it existed. This should be the same. The only place it would be right to declare the results of a democratic election invalid, in my view, would be if there was reason to think the voting process was not democratic – if people were manipulated, personally threatened or coerced. We risk taking a leap into the territory of trying to control how people vote and manipulating results.
Another rapidly emerging feeling I observe is young people and young voters (teens through early/mid twenties maybe) angry and frustrated towards what they perceive as the older generation who they consider have messed up the future for young people who will have time live with the consequences of our exit the longest. I do not agree and do not think this view is very well founded at all or the accusation fair, but it is powerful. Even in my small circle on social media and at work, this anger is taking hold and turning to hate and angry, accusatory comments. I do not doubt it will soon go beyond comments and real division will be caused. Together with the fact that views are polarised between England and Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland, it seems we could be heading for a less-United Kingdom!
For me I think it’s clear we have made a lot of decisions based on fear – fear of uncontrolled immigration, fear of losing our identity and independence, fear of the future when so many people struggle materially day to day. For me, the past week has ensured I’ll work harder to understand what is going on in the government of our country rather than avoiding it feeling too intimidated by the acrimony and extreme views and scare stories that surround it.