I didn’t agree, but I do understand.
Around midnight on Thursday night I was woken by my one year old daughter, who took some time to go back to sleep. Not an unusual occurrence and one that gave me a chance to find out how the EU referendum vote was going. Like much of the country I was more than a little curious to see the results of such a historical democratic engagement. As the minutes and hours ticked by and the individual counts began to trickle and then pour in each side’s fortunes fluctuated until the “Leave” camp started to edge ahead and take what ultimately would be a decisive lead. With a sleeping child I eventually nodded off some time after 3am with less than 100,000 votes in it.
When I woke up again to find the country somewhat changed I was, like many, shocked but perhaps not all that surprised. I expected the outcome to be close but I was struck not only by the size of the majorities, particularly for those places voting out, but by the number of local authorities that did so. Roughly three quarters of council areas in England voted to leave, a figure that rises if you group the 33 London boroughs — all of which chose to remain — together. Geographically that’s an awful lot of the country. I remembered back to the hours of darkness and the results that caught my eye: the town where I was born, the one I grew up in and where my parents still live, and three of the others I have called home since all voted to cut our ties with Europe. Both north and south, some more affluent than others with differing levels of immigration yet all making the same choice. And I began to wonder why that might be.
At this point I should make a disclaimer. I am 40 years old, well educated, widely travelled, and living in a place an hour’s travel from London that has few economic problems or migrants. It reflected those characteristics by opting to remain, like me. I had a strong conviction that remaining tied to the EU was the right thing to do and nothing has changed in that regard. And yet.
In the subsequent fall out, many groups have been blamed for the situation we now find ourselves in: politicians on both sides of the debate and from both main parties including the now departing Prime Minister, baby boomers, the elderly, the media, the racist, the ignorant, the stupid. While there are undoubtedly individuals who are culpable for spreading misinformation and exploiting negative feelings of fear and intolerance in the lead up to the vote, a greater number I believe were expressing their dissatisfaction with the state of Britain in 2016. The acres of newsprint, online fora and radio and tv interviews have shown people citing all sorts of reasons for voting leave, not all of which were relevant to the question we were all asked. There has been growing anger on the “Remain” side about this lack of conviction from “Leave” voters and while that is understandable a much more important question is simply to ask them “Why? Why did you make that choice?”
One of the great benefits of a referendum is it easy to understand—a binary choice of yes or no. One of its drawbacks is that it doesn’t allow a deeper explanation of the nuances of people’s feelings. I would wager that a good number felt frustrated that they were not able to articulate those feelings so opted for change. Rather than dismiss them it is important that all of us try and understand the underlying worries and fears that millions of people clearly have. That is the job of our elected representatives and one they appear to have failed to do in recent years.
Let me give you an example surrounding one of the key issues of the debate, immigration. In the UK today, 1 in 30 people were born outside of the country. In the small, provincial town of Boston in Lincolnshire the figure is 1 in 8. Unsurprisingly it voted to leave by a ratio of 3:1, one of the highest in the country. I heard a radio interview on Friday with a lady who had lived there for 35 years. She said that she had nothing against immigrants in principle but felt that there were “just too many” and “enough was enough”. She won’t have been alone. Without getting into a debate about immigration policies of various governments, 1 in 8 is a high proportion; particularly when not so long ago it would have been much lower. Now imagine you are in her shoes. In less than a generation you have seen people with different customs, attitudes, values and speaking a different language coming into your town, your workplaces, schools, places of leisure, using your services. In short changing the fabric of your society that you have been used to for a large part of your life. You might be uneducated or ignorant as to the reasons why they have chosen to come here. And you might feel deeply uncomfortable about that without really being able to express why. But it’s not entirely your fault. Because hardly anybody outside of your family and friends has bothered to talk to you about it either. And I mean really talked to you — found out your worries and fears about this huge change to your life and reassured you. Ironically in a country proud of its democracy, you felt disenfranchised because nobody was representing your views, giving you a voice. And so you expressed those fears, that discomfort, using the one opportunity you were given, by voting for change over a single related issue.
One might argue that Londoners have experienced the direct effects of immigration more than most, having lived cheek by jowl with dozens of nationalities for years, yet they chose overwhelmingly to remain. So why couldn’t the rest of the country be similarly welcoming and tolerant? My counterpoint is that this wasn’t always the case and London — and other large cities — have lived with immigration for decades, have had time to get used to those different tongues, customs, attitudes and values. It was noticeable that generally in England, the other areas that chose to remain were either places with a long history of immigration or where it is still low.
But the immigration debate is part of something bigger. It’s about not understanding, wilfully or otherwise, another group’s concerns. Concerns about inequality, jobs, security, money, religion, culture, freedom of speech. Not listening, not asking, not telling, not connecting. The referendum has been painted as exposing and enhancing divisions even within families. How many of us have asked our parents (or our children) why they voted the way they did? Or what caused them to make that choice? What they were angry about or scared of? A much shared graphic this weekend is the one showing the difference in voting intention by demographic; the conclusion being that the young were much more likely to vote to stay. Many younger people are angry at older generations unduly influencing an outcome that they won’t have to live with. Yet proportionately more young people didn’t vote at all, a trend prevalent in every election. Why didn’t they? Should we not have tried to connect with them more and find out why they chose not to?
We face many, many challenges in the near future and are relying on our politicians of all colours to navigate their way through a complicated situation. Many people are worried about the uncertainty that lies ahead, and have little faith that they will do so successfully. The wounds are still raw, fingers still pointed. Lots of questions and very few answers. But it is not only the “Leave” camp that bear responsibility for what happens next. We all have a duty to try and heal those wounds, close the divisions as individuals and communities. Promoting ideas such as a second referendum, encouraging parliament to block the result in some way, or parts of the country trying to somehow ‘leave’ the rest of the UK will only serve to slow that healing process and it is disappointing to hear some politicians backing these proposed courses of action. “Remain” voters have been quick to promote their solidarity with the EU in spite of the result, others that the UK is no longer the country they thought it was.
The truth is it is still our country just as it was before Thursday’s vote, only now we know something fundamental that we didn’t last week: a significant proportion of people hold views different to our own (on both sides), views they feel they have been unable to put across to those in power. “Working together” is a hackneyed phrase I have also heard a lot in the last few days. For it to be truly meaningful we all have to look beyond the placards and the banners, block out the shouting and the noise and start to listen, to ask, to tell and to connect with each other. I personally didn’t agree with the outcome of the result, but I can fully understand why it happened.