Back in the autumn of 2016, in those few months after the the EU referendum before everything went completely hatstand, I wrote something that described the UK’s leaving of the EU as being akin to a lobster leaving a lobster pot. The idea was that whilst many people who believed in the UK’s departure from the European Union seemed to regard membership as a binary state, in or out, the reality seems to me to be a state of transition, a linear path, and that the UK being outside of the EU in the early 2020s will be nothing at all like the UK being outside in the early 1970s. The world has changed, the institutions have changed.
As the “debate” of the last few weeks has intensified, I’m realising that the same now applies to the nature of belief of membership in the UK. Whilst in 2016 it might have been possible to reverse the decision (with who knows what consequences), the time that has elapsed since means that even with a second referendum, the UK cannot go back to being a member of the EU as we were up until the vote in the summer of 2016. We’ve changed, the EU has changed. And the world around us, seemingly a much more protectionist and isolationist place, has changed too.
We as a nation have changed dramatically. The defining point of the British electorate now appears to be more strongly “leave” or “remain” than it is “Conservative” or “Labour” or “Left” or “Right”. In his book The Road To Somewhere, David Goodhart describes two tribes, Somewhere People and Anywhere People, that appears to offer a way of thinking about that divide that goes beyond just the question of European membership.
Amongst all of the challenges that we face as a nation going forward, resolving entrenched positions is going to take years, sensitivity, and a type of diverse collaboration which appears to be the polar opposite of a government that is purging itself of people who do not tow the party line (a tactic that it appears factions in the Labour party also approve of too).
For people to step back from political positions that they have taken, “hills to die on”, we (to mangle metaphors for a moment) need to think about providing them with off-ramps. How can people step back from the extremes in ways that enable them to maintain a sense of dignity and self-worth? This goes for both sides. Died in the wool Europhiles need a way to step back from their positions as much as the most “get it done” no dealer.
And yet what we have is the language of war. Saboteurs. Collaborators. Surrender. These aren’t off-ramps. They’re incendiary insults.
At the beginning of this week I was as the receiving end of that most racist of racist tropes. I was told, by a complete stranger, that I should go back to where I came from. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I was told that I should go back to Eire, when I actually was born in Northern Ireland. The complexities of that difference were beyond a series of hurled insults on Twitter.
I’m about as privileged as you can get. White, male, middle-aged, middle-classed, straight – but the experience has still had a big impact. What is it that is making people so angry, so livid that they will hurl the harshest of insults at complete strangers? And how can we start to unpack that anger that exists on all sides so that we can start to come together and address a bunch of issues that are now haunting us all.
What are the off-ramps?