I woke up at 3.30am on Friday morning to watch the end of the referendum results and I couldn’t fathom the figures. When Dimbleby declared the result at 4.40am, I was profoundly depressed with a real sense of sadness, with a desire to disappear for several weeks or months. This may appear an irrational response to political machinations, even a decision of this magnitude, but this was a significant psychological shock to me and I know that many would have reacted in the same way. I have been trying to work through in my mind as to why this referendum result has knocked me for six in this way.
Before I do so, I want to make it absolutely clear that I respect every voter’s right to express their viewpoint democratically as these periodic opportunities arise, and I do not want to add to the mountains of extremely good commentaries that are dealing with the technicalities of this decision. I value all my friendships, leave and remain, and understand that everyone had their own considerations that led them to mark their ballot paper in the way they did. I also have absolutely no idea how this will turn out, in the short-term or the long-term, for good or ill, nor do I have an answer to the question on everyone’s lips, ‘After Brexit, what now?’ I am definitely not an economist or a legal expert. There is already some exceptional analysis out there. I have made absolutely no secret that this was not the decision that I thought was best for the whole of the UK, but I have also clearly indicated that we need to get on with dealing with the implications of this decision together, as a society, as devolved polities and as a nation. The complexities that define the nature of this nation, nevermind the complexity of the negotiations that will follow, demand the most capable team to drive forward towards an agreement that best creates an arrangement that is in the best interest of these new circumstances. I am not embarking on an exercise of wishful thinking. I now agree that there have to be definite steps forward. It is best for everyone.
So, why was I personally devastated by this result? I am a ‘liberal unionist,’ and in Northern Ireland terms, at times, you would be right to wonder if this voice is a significant force. I believe it is essential. In my heart, I believe in the UK. I also support fully the new arrangements put in place, through several negotiations, that allowed a devolved Stormont, within the UK and with excellent relations with the Republic of Ireland, politically and economically. Northern Ireland is a wonderful place. I have said it before, even despite the fact that I inevitably complain bitterly about them occasionally, we have a growing number of extremely talented local politicians, from all sides, who are working extremely hard to redefine Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, in considerably weakened economic circumstances, even before Brexit. This referendum result potentially weakens the union that is a key element of identity for all shades of unionist opinion. I genuinely agree that it was essentially bizarre that some interpreted this differently. I remain to be persuaded differently. I don’t believe that this will harm or hinder our embedded peace and there are positive voices that seem to be willing to work together to deal with the question, Northern Ireland, at the edge of Europe, what now? For me, despite my determination to support their efforts in these new circumstances, even through my inevitable grumblings at their lack of progress, I am still worried as to how other developments in the wider settlement will redefine my personal sense of identity, in an environment where it is no longer relevant.
Secondly, I am saddened that the campaign that led up to this referendum, created a sense in some communities that migration undermines, rather than enhances our country. Why is it a bad thing that people within Europe should seek employment and bettered circumstances across Europe? There are a million arguments that have been overplayed in relation to this. However, added to this, right across Europe and in the UK, a general sense of helping and welcoming people in distress is being eroded in favour of a rush to build fences and strengthen borders. Where is this coming from? I simply do not accept that we can’t cooperate to offer a new chance to people fleeing desperately from devastating conflict, often conflicts that we contributed to through our decisions. I am not advocating that we open our borders to everyone, I am pleading for people to reassess how they are interpreting these scenes. We have an absolute imperative to help and assist these people. I fear sadly, that people are wrongly interpreting what is really leading to the impoverishment of their localities, the lack of investment that has been targeted to those areas by our Government. The whole referendum campaign allowed itself to be hijacked by those peddling these fears successfully. The fact that these fears resonated with many people more than the countless experts that correctly predicted the chaotic post-Brexit economic environment is depressing. These same neglected communities will not necessarily see a Brexit dividend, because, it now seems, that nothing that was said to them was really true. Political amnesia has set in. Again, I can’t forecast one way or the other, but I can say that some aspects of this journey displayed the worst of who we are as a collective society. It definitely didn’t point to a positive direction. In connection to this, I also feel, that for all the failings of the European Union project, the message that it has essentially proved extremely successful and beneficial, was the central message that should have been promoted. The European Union has been extremely important in the Northern Ireland story. We have to hope that the renegotiation period and those who lead it make this absolutely clear to everyone. It is imperative that ‘true’ messages are relayed to the people at every stage of the talks.
Thirdly, what is entirely depressing is this, who will be the unifying figure that will unite the whole of this nation and society behind a positive renegotiation? Cameron gambled too far and has departed. Osborne, the ‘political chancellor,’ didn’t prepare the ground satisfactorily for this referendum, some Tories don’t want Boris, Gove is hardly a unifying figure, IDS is steering clear, so who? Nicky Morgan? This referendum was based on an endless Tory squabble and forced upon the Nation by a PM who believed that he would emerge unrivalled. It is absolutely horrific. By the way, against the odds, this was the very PM that delivered the Conservatives a majority. On the Labour side, Corbyn doesn’t seem to have any sense that he is losing votes at a catastrophic rate, the same voters who were somewhat duped by the Leave campaign, but voters whose gut feeling is that Westminster, both Right and Left sides of the house, do not represent them. This is a real crisis for a Party that legitimately represented the best interests of the working classes for one hundred years. I urge important voices within the Labour movement to take this seriously and consider the ramifications of not acting decisively. We have a deeply fractured society and we need a new centre ground to reintegrate society into the political process. All parties need to cooperate in this venture. This referendum has left 48% deeply anxious about the decision that the 52% have taken. Yes, the decision is final, but the way it is implemented needs to make it appear legitimate in the eyes of the 100%. These anxieties are playing out in desperate and frantic attempts to reverse the decision. If ever you wanted to see an exercise in the imperfections of referenda in determining matters of immense significance, this is the perfect case study. It will never be bettered. Nevertheless, the decision is made. What reassurance can this process offer the younger voters in society that this result has not irretrievably monumentally screwed up their future? I take these voices seriously, as a 21 year old who looks at this result and realises that this process, on top of the austerity brought on by the 2008 crisis, may not enhance their opportunities until after the renegotiation period and well beyond that. What a message and legacy to give to this generation and the future. We need to get on and fix this. All of the legislation relating to this renegotiation cycle will need to be timetabled in Parliament and the drafting process related to it will be extremely complicated. We don’t need to rush, but we do need to start.
Personally, I firmly believe that understanding is enhanced by the European cultural and educational exchanges that exist at all levels. I think it is massively important. I don’t think that this has to change. I just want to add that we have benefited massively from the enhanced historical understandings that are promoted and funded by Europe. This has to continue.
Finally, we will now embark upon answering the bigger question, what does this mean for Europe? I have significant worries that if we don’t work together in the same meaningful way that we have worked previously, we are entering a dangerous period. This may seem a perverse thing to say post-Brexit, but this vote reveals the necessity of working together with our European partners to maintain the long period of stability that we have had, by forging a settlement that works for all parties. It is extremely important that we all get this right. What alternative do we have? We should never have had this vote. Nevertheless, here we are, on the other side, trying to find a way back in again. It won’t be as good, it may have advantages and disadvantages, but what else can we do?
I feel emotionally drained by this whole experience. I have a lot of worries that this could have cataclysmic ramifications. I am definitely saddened and depressed by what some of the implications of this decision could be for the whole of society. Nevertheless, like other better commentators than me have noted, I simply don’t know how bumpy the ride will be towards the final destination, or how long it will take, or what twists and turns the whole European story will take on the way. At some stage, we will be inevitably drawn back towards Europe, diminished and outside the main club. Will this be better? I don’t think so. I am very happy for you to tell me that it is, when and if we arrive at that point. I am hopeful that this is not based on unfounded optimism.
One final thing. Seriously. Has anyone located George Osborne?