‘Why do you leave ?’
As has been noted by my colleagues Patrick Riordan SJ (‘Our common goods in the European Union’) and Frank Turner SJ (‘A momentous, perhaps fateful referendum’), the debate that preceded the vote was far from admirable. Dominated by financial considerations, the content of the arguments on both sides was speculative at best and misleading at worst. That is to say nothing of the tone in which the debate was conducted: it was aggressive and hostile, and the killing of Jo Cox MP has to be considered one of the saddest moments in British political history. However, what has followed the vote has been equally turbulent and in many cases unpleasant to watch.
In London, one of only three regions (along with Scotland and Northern Ireland) which voted to remain, the sense of bafflement is as palpable today as it was when the result was announced, only now it is accompanied by ever-increasing anger and disdain towards those who voted to leave. This vitriol is particularly strong when it is directed towards those most vocal ‘Leavers’ who have since declined any responsibility for devising or managing the mechanism by which their end goal will be realised.
The dissatisfaction with the result (which, if reports are to believed, extends to some who voted ‘Leave’ as a knee-jerk protest, without expecting to win the day) has given rise to legal challenges, petitions, protests, Facebook groups, etc., which make various cases for why the referendum ought not to lead to ‘Brexit’. The margin of victory was not large enough; the referendum was only advisory, not binding on Parliament; the public was under- or mis-informed by ‘Leave’ campaigners... and so forth.
Those who voted ‘Leave’ have been plagued with accusations of ignorance, racism and small-mindedness, and have been forced to defend their decision. Incidents in which migrants from EU member states have been abused have certainly not helped to quench the anger directed to ‘Leavers’, but the actions of a few should not be taken to represent the many. What should be obvious, but appears not to be, is that those who voted ‘Leave’ are as entitled to their decision as those who voted ‘Remain.’ The challenge of reconciling those who made different choices in the ballot box is immediate and enormous, and we would all do better to remember Ignatius’s counsel that it is better ‘to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false’ (Spiritual Exercises §22).
The task of reconciliation is not helped by the turmoil that has beset both the Labour Party and the Conservative government in the wake of the vote. David Cameron’s intention to ‘steady the ship’ before his departure from office does not seem to have materialised at all in this first fortnight, but it is to be hoped that the stormy waters through which the government’s ship is currently passing will quieten with the election of a new party leader and Prime Minister.
The upheaval in the opposition, however, in many ways crystallises the crisis of politics in this country. The revolt against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by the majority of his parliamentary colleagues, who claim that his voice was not loud enough in the ‘Remain’ campaign, is not endorsed by the grass roots Labour supporters who elected him last year. This is something of a case study of the disconnect between what happens in Westminster and the political concerns and discourse in the rest of the country.
The question of what happens now is no clearer to those of us in the UK than it is to our friends in Europe and around the world who have been equally shocked by this result. I have just returned from Ireland, where the immediate response from anyone I greeted, on hearing my London accent, was to ask me about Brexit: Why? Will you actually leave? Who will be your next Prime Minister? What do you think about Boris? Those (unanswerable) questions are bouncing around within the UK as well as coming from outside.
What is certainly true is that this referendum has aggravated the faultline between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ – those who are being reasonably well served by politics, and those who are not. This is the time, the opportunity and the challenge that has probably been a long time in coming to ensure that, whatever happens now, we build a society which closes that faultline and allows nobody to fall through the gap.
Editor, Thinking Faith