The world looks different today
I didn’t know it would feel like this, but it does. Only now do I see how thoroughly convinced I was that this would not happen. While I said I thought a vote to leave was possible, what I really believed was that Jo Cox’s killing must represent rock bottom; that we had to start to climb from there. I needed to believe that as I stood in Trafalgar Square with so many others from so many backgrounds, brought together by the idea that “we have more in common than that which divides us.”
But we have not started to climb.
Instead, the world looks different today. It looks different because I am different. I am now part of a collective that has made a choice that puts us on a path whose default destination is somewhere deeply horrible. That I as an individual voted to remain is irrelevant; the collective decision is now an unavoidable part of who I am. I love my country less, and I love myself less. We have chosen separation over unity-in-diversity; competition over collaboration; defensiveness over openness.
There are two things I need to dwell on.
First, I say “we” deliberately. I will not say #notinmyname, and I will not petition for a re-run. I recognise I am part of this collective. I am part of this decision, and I must accept it. This is not simply the vote of those who selfishly believe they will benefit, although undoubtedly that is true for the minority. If I believed it were so, perhaps I could reject it, and distance myself from it. But as it is, there are clearly enough people in this country who feel they have so little to lose on the previous path that they are prepared to choose this one instead.
As I see it, there is no point pretending this has not happened, or seeking ways around it. Instead we need to accept it, understand it and push ourselves harder and further, to see this as a moment to address the foundations of our society. This is not an aberration; it is an accurate reflection of who and where we are right now. And that means we need to change deeply, not superficially.
We need to change, and I need to change. I need to battle the temptation to anger against those who voted and campaigned for this disaster, the anger that rose in me several times at sight of flags of St George and red car stickers on my cycle into London today. I need to look at myself, at my failure to campaign meaningfully, to engage more strongly, at my comfortable life and my cosy position of staying away from party politics. I need to decide what I am going to do.
Second, I need to focus on the fact that while the default destination is hideous, it is only the default destination. We can still ultimately go elsewhere, and committing to make sure we do must now be the task.
The mandate this referendum has given for government is appalling: not only must we leave the EU, but the nature of our departure leaves little hope that we can retain any quality of relationship to it.
Freedom of movement has been put at the centre of the campaign; I cannot imagine we can preserve it. With it will go so many policies and structures and investments and collaborations, but the greatest risk is that the core idea of our common humanity will recede yet further as we move away. The path we chose today is that path of fear and anger; the next step from here is to hatred and suffering. It is all too straightforward.
But there are still choices ahead of us. The fact we have turned this way now is itself proof we can turn again. I don’t mean we will reverse this decision, though maybe one day we will. What I mean is that we can choose to make the best of this.
The space we have now will by default be made a space of control, of the accentuation of inequality, division and dissatisfaction that I believe had actually been held in check by Europe.
Even from those who voted to remain, we will hear arguments that make this more likely: not least the argument that referenda are inherently a bad idea; that the people have now proven that we can’t be trusted with politics. This is another step towards a world where we become more and more convinced of our own inferiority, more and more likely to invite the arrogance of elites to decide what is good for us, more and more complicit in concentrating power in fewer and fewer hands.
This next step is the one we must make sure we do not take.
Instead, we have to make this a moment of more democracy, not less; of more participation, not less; of more love, not less. We have to build a truly great democracy from the foundations up, using all the tools available to us in the modern world.
I want to believe it can be done: that in a decade we can look back at this moment and say that this was when we turned crisis into opportunity; that we harnessed the space created by fear to become a nation where new possibilities of true participation, creative expression, universal enfranchisement, and equality of condition were first explored; that we made our smaller stature a moment to experiment, and found the world a way to turn away from the fear that was spreading across it.
I want to believe we can. I am not there right now; I cannot make it coherent. The world looks too different, and I am too disoriented. But it begins now. It has to.