I was — still am — shocked by the result of the Brexit referendum, but not entirely surprised. The polls in the preceding weeks were reassuring, and I took comfort from the way the markets were moving (surely they were well-informed?), but it was impossible to erase the reactions of the audiences on Any Questions nor the nagging doubts left by seeing numerous Leave posters and not a single Remain during a short visit to southern England

I have to declare an interest. For me — born and bred in England but living and working in France for 30 years — and my children — born and bred in France, but living and working in England — Brexit is shaping up to be a catastrophe. That does not mean I do not hear the voices of those who feel they have been steamrollered by globalization, pauperized by free movement of labour and ignored by the political elite. But I am loth to give in to the mix of xenophobia, ignorance and lies which contributed to the result.

Xenophobia is not racism, nor is it nationalism, although it has allies in both. It is part and parcel of the instinct for self-preservation which we all share.

Lies can be debunked, but xenophobia — fear of the foreign, or fear of the strange — needs to be addressed.

A fleet of ships appearing over the horizon has rarely been a prelude to peaceful coexistence. The Anglo-Saxons in England, the Aztecs in Mexico, the Aboriginals in Australia, all might have done well to be more xenophobic — more fearful of their Danish, Spanish, British visitors. Few of us can be proud of what our ancestors have done in the name of civilization, and their mistrust was justified.

But in the twenty-first century we should know better: we know now that we are all one species, that we inhabit one fragile planet, and that we share the same human emotions and impulses. Xenophobia is one of them — but it belongs with fear of left-handers, of witches, of homosexuals. It belongs in the past. It must be overcome.

Ignorance is its lifeblood. That needs to be belied by experience, diminished by education, and conquered by trust. If it is not we may be heading back into a cycle of confrontation and conflict which will undo much of the progress made since the Enlightenment. Only the arms manufacturers and the undertakers will benefit.

Rebuilding trust means not only overcoming fear of the foreign, it also means unremitting war on inequality, on corruption and on lies. It means that global business should examine its conscience on tax, that the North (and the West) should evaluate the cost of their consumer society, and that I, and my friends, need to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to share the benefits of the comfortable lives we lead.

The Brexit referendum is a symptom of a wider phenomenon, and it should make us all think about why so many people still feel so threatened by what is foreign that they would rather build walls than take the risk of being open to the world of which they are citizens.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Richard Yelland’s story.