For the whole of my life I have been part of a privileged elite. My family is not wealthy, nor is it especially well connected. But I attended good schools that gave me access to lots of opportunities, including the encouragement to apply for a good university. When I have worked hard, I have seen the rewards. Even throughout the past eight years of economic turmoil I have seen my income and quality of life steadily rise.
In short, I have belonged to the segment of the British population for whom the system has worked.
The parties I have voted for have not always won elections. But, despite this, I have always felt that the government of the day has broadly represented my interests, and I have always felt secure in a belief that the majority of people feel the same way. I have always had reason to be hopeful that if I continue to work hard then within the society we live, I will reap the benefits.
At an emotional level, I believe part of my reaction to this week’s EU referendum result has been a deep-rooted disruption to this comfortable status quo. In some tiny way, as a passionate ‘remain’ voter, for the first time in my privileged life I have the experience of being in a minority. I have the experience of feeling that the system which for so many years has affirmed and delivered a set of values and policies I can broadly agree with, has taken a giant lurch in a different direction.
I feel disempowered.
It is in this very experience, however, that I can begin to empathise with many of the people who voted this week for us to leave the EU. There’s a fascinating chart which illustrates how over the past 20 years, not everyone has had the same experience of the world as me.
What if I hadn’t grown up with a good local school? What if my parents had found themselves out of work due to the loss of local industry and global economic forces far beyond my control? And what if the in the midst of this crisis, the final line of psychological defence – a clear sense of home – came under threat by a culture changing rapidly with the arrival of many different ethnic groups. I look at the life my parents live, and look at my life and the prospects for my children, and all I see is the same struggle repeated.
In this scenario I would feel disempowered. I would conclude that the system does not work for me. That regardless of who I vote for in any election, the interests of me and my family would continue to be ignored.
And so, faced finally with an opportunity to over-turn the system; to stick it to the cosy, self-interested consensus of the privileged elite; to take a fresh new approach to dealing with the problems I see around me, then of course that’s the course I would choose.
With this realisation, far from alienating me from ‘the other half’ of the population who voted to leave the EU, in some respects the result gives me a greater sense of empathy with them (not that I’m suggesting that the angst I’m experiencing this week is in any way a genuine hardship in the same way). It provides an explanation for why ‘leavers’ tend to be older, poorer and less well educated. This is not a consequence of selfishness or ignorance as some have provocatively suggested – rather it’s a perfectly rationale response to a lived experience.
Of course this does not describe the situation nor the rationale for everyone who voted ‘leave’. There are many people who have voted leave from the perspective of a similar set of life experiences to my own. I believe there’s still a conversation to be had about whether we differed fundamentally in our view of the sort of society we should be building (the ‘ends’); or whether we simply differed in our view as to whether membership of the EU was the right way to achieve this (the ‘means to the ends’).
To what extent are generosity, global responsibility, and opportunity for all ‘British values’ we all subscribe to? And what are the policy decisions we should be taking in our domestic and foreign affairs that will bake these values in to the fabric of society? In the high stakes, emotionally charged run-up to the referendum, these questions became confused and the overall quality of debate was poor.
When the dust settles, and the initial political turmoil subsides, there are two important responses we must collectively make.
Firstly, we must take a serious look at the parts of our society who feel disempowered and disconnected. There is every chance that leaving the EU will not change this situation, and so we ignore this problem at our peril.
The elite have not only a moral responsibility but a self-interest in paying serious attention to this group – without an EU to blame, and a referendum as an outlet, who knows how future pressures will be released? We’re taking a giant foreign policy step, but we need to examine our domestic policy – not least the unintended and disproportionate consequences of years of austerity on many in society.
Secondly, we need a mature debate about the type of society we’re looking to build. This debate cannot be conducted solely among the elite, but must engage and reflect the experiences of the whole of society.
We need political leadership with the moral courage to steer us away from lowest-common-denominator responses to the challenges we face. We also need leadership that builds consensus around a fairer distribution of the sacrifices we must make to play our part as a responsible member of the global community of nations.
The EU referendum has provoked a national conversation like no other that I can remember in my lifetime. That conversation must not end now. Over the coming years as the UK moves to leave the EU, there remains much unfinished business.