When I woke up to the news that Britain had voted to Leave the EU, I was so shocked and horrified that the first thing that came out of my mouth was a sweary rant about “idiots”. Luckily, my husband is irritatingly good at pointing out when I’m not being so clever myself. “Really?” he asked. “You’re comfortable dismissing 17 million people as idiots?” I didn’t have a good answer to that, and if I was honest with myself I already knew that I had at least one intelligent friend who’d voted Leave after giving it some serious thought. So (after an initial few hours of feeling sick, shaky, and sad) I started to look for a more respectful and constructive response.
I do believe that we will have less political influence and poorer economic prospects outside the EU, and I had hoped that our children would grow up with the same freedom of movement that made our move to Luxembourg straightforward. My strongest motivation for voting Remain, however, was my belief that values such as peace, inclusiveness, and co-operation would be better served by staying connected than separating, especially given the EU’s origins as an attempt to make war in Europe unthinkable. To me, the Brexit vote felt like a step away from those values, not just by choosing to cut the UK off from the EU (and risk triggering the disintegration of both in the process), but also by appearing to offer a strong endorsement to those who ran such a xenophobic campaign in the lead-up to the referendum. One of the things I found most distressing on Friday was seeing people such as Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, and Marine Le Pen publicly drawing encouragement from the result. But the greatest division and conflict that has actually been caused so far by this referendum has been damaged relationships based on the incredibly hurtful things that people have been saying to each other about it, and we certainly can’t work for peace and tolerance by being aggressive and intolerant.
I’m not sure whether the timing of this blog post was deliberate, but it seemed to say exactly what needed saying on Friday. I agree that beneath all of the anger there is fear and sadness, and that each person views their own as valid, rational, and natural, and the others’ as “wrong”. I had my own similar lightbulb moment on Friday when I felt myself becoming upset by what I perceived as a friend’s insensitivity in dismissing the very natural fear and distress felt by EU immigrants in the UK now unsure of their future – but then suddenly I recognised echoes of my own dismissals of any anti-immigration sentiment. I still believe that immigration tends to bring net benefits, and in particular that our common humanity should make it impossible to turn our back on refugees, but I am one step closer to understanding the frustration of people who feel they aren’t being taken seriously when they raise concerns about threats to their own futures.
I think there are many reasons why it’s important for us all to listen to each other with open minds. As my husband pointed out, for 17 million people to have voted Leave, there are obviously real issues that need to be addressed, even if just as many of us feel that Brexit wasn’t the best way to tackle them. I sincerely hope that some research is being done into what motivated people to choose Leave – not least because there are plenty of reasons which are NOT in any way an endorsement of the vitriolic racism of some elements of the Leave campaign, and I think that’s important both because this result is not, and must not be seen as, a general mandate for xenophobic far-right politics, and because “we” in the Remain camp shouldn’t dismiss all Leave-voters as bigoted or gullible. And even for those few who do endorse views we find abhorrent, we still need to listen to the fears which underlie their opinions, and surely the only hope of influencing them lies in a respectful dialogue in which both sides listen to each other? As this article on the damage done by taunting Britain First supporters on Facebook reminds us, “people don’t change when they are attacked”.
Jo Cox’s statement in her maiden speech that “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us” has often been quoted since her death, and I think we need to take it, not just as a reminder of the need to stand against racism and build inclusive communities, but as a challenge to refuse to allow this referendum to create or reinforce lasting divisions within our society. With that in mind, let’s resolve to engage respectfully with those we fiercely disagree with, try sincerely to understand each others’ reasons and beliefs, and be considerate of each others’ feelings.