The die is cast. The United Kingdom will be negotiating its way out of the EU – though, with Scotland contemplating another devolution referendum, the ‘Kingdom’ may not be ‘United’ for much longer. Now that the EU vote is over, a number of voices have been calling for healing and reconciliation after a long and bruising election campaign. But now is not the time to work on reconciliation because the country is not ready for it.
Working for reconciliation now would be like putting sellotape on a septic wound. It may hold everything together on the surface, but beneath there is poison festering away, ready to break out once it has built up pressure and momentum. While we need to be kind and charitable to one another, aware of the deep hurt and divisions caused by this divisive campaign, we should not try to bring about reconciliation. Reconciliation can only happen when the roar of battle has died down, when all involved regard themselves as equal (there can be no ‘victims’ when pursuing reconciliation) and when people can talk to each other about their hopes, aspirations and fears. Reconciliation also requires all parties to be open to change for the sake of the other. To do all this requires an honest look at the campaign and a willingness to face up to some of the demons that were and are prowling in the darkness.
In a powerful article about the campaign in the Observer, journalist Nick Cohen begins his reflection with the words, ‘The English air is as foul as it has been at any point since my childhood. It is as if the sewers have burst.’ While Cohen has one particular side of the campaign in mind, both sides are guilty of tactics that have lowered politics to new depths. Politicians have been vilifying their opponents: they would frequently deny that these attacks are personal, but they clearly are. External enemies were even invented: millions of migrants from Europe, Turkey and further afield, waiting to enter the country is one example and economic meltdown is another. The ‘other’ (person and idea) has been depicted as being ready to undermine the British way of life and prosperity and particular groups within society felt that their jobs and livelihood were at risk. There was no big vision apart from seeing to our own needs. An atmosphere of fear and even hatred were created in the population, many comparing it to the 1930s. The demons of racism and xenophobia were unleashed.
In the middle of this atmosphere, a dreadful event showed another side of politics. Jo Cox MP, much loved by so many, was shot, stabbed and later died from a brutal attack. Her dedication, commitment, courage and ideals were an inspiration. This terrible event forced us to look again at politicians and reminded us that a large number of our MPs are dedicated and committed to their constituents and their job. In the middle of the depressing referendum campaign, we were shown an example of service, vision and high political ideals. We were promised something better in what remained of the campaign. But it did not materialise.
The distribution of the voting has shown a deeply divided society. For example, Scotland’s vast majority in support of Remain contrasts with many in northern England voting Leave. There was a tendency for the young to vote Remain (apparently 73% of 18-25 year olds) while the older population voted Leave. Inner London (and most other metropolitan cities) voted Remain in contrast to suburban areas. In addition, it has become apparent that a strong vein of anti-establishment feeling and a frustration with the political system have also influenced the way some have voted.
Now is not the time for reconciliation. The referendum has shone a spotlight on the polarisation of British society. In the turmoil there is an opportunity to look more deeply on what is happening in our culture and society. Before the work of reconciliation can begin, a process for examining questions around divisions within society and the ethics of conducting political campaigns need to be established. Let’s learn to speak to each other. Beginning reconciliation too early will paper over the cracks and store more problems for the future.