I have long reckoned that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that it’s better to see things as they are, rather than illusions (no matter how comforting those illusions might be). For many, the outcome of an election is when they realise that the country they thought they were living in isn’t actually what they thought it was. (Edit to add: this thought is expanded on here.)
In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, it is clear that the UK is divided against itself. Rich versus poor, city versus country, young versus old, highly educated versus poorly educated – with all these divisions, in what way can the country think of itself as ‘united’?
Yet within these apparently antagonistic pairings, there are splits. Certainly, the majority of over-65s voted to leave the EU (58%), but a sizable minority chose to stay (33%); and although 64% of 18-24-year-olds voted to remain, 24% voted to leave; so I cannot tar all pensioners with the same brush. (Edit to add: updated statistics can be found here.) Likewise, I cannot dismiss all Leave voters as stupid or ill-informed when there are some highly articulate and intelligent people among my friends who had reason for voting the way they did. (Edit to add: a good analysis can be found here; but the outcome owes more to voters’ personalities than anything else.) What’s done is done, and scapegoating is an ugly business.
Yet… if the end result of a decision is the same, does it matter what our reasons are? Part of me feels like it does (for example, there is a huge difference between Churchill allowing the bombing of Coventry in order to keep using German codes, and Churchill allowing the bombing because he didn’t care or didn’t like the place). Whatever sound economic or political reasons a Leave voter might have had, they were joining their voices with those of parochial, xenophobic, racist ones. Aside from the uncertainty and economic turmoil that’s been created, I think there are other good reasons to be concerned about what this means. (Edit to add: a compilation of accounts of increasing racist and xenophobic incidents since the result was announced can be found in this Facebook album.)
I believe it is always better to turn foreigners into friends and neighbours, than it is to turn friends and neighbours into foreigners. This sentiment is why I voted against Scottish independence in 2014, and in favour of remaining in the EU in 2016. In the event of a new Scottish independence referendum, I would be in a lose-lose situation; but the scenario is so different that I could, now, be persuaded to break up the United Kingdom (but I would need to be persuaded).
(A brief diversion into crystal-ball-gazing fantasy: what if Scotland became independent? That would be the end of ‘Great Britain’ as a political entity. And without the EU as guarantor of the Northern Ireland peace process, what if Ulster – the majority of which opted to remain in the EU – decided to reunite with the Republic of Ireland? So much for the ‘United Kingdom’. In that event – the final breakup of ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ – David Cameron will have shown himself to be the most disastrous Prime Minister since Lord North lost the American colonies; perhaps the most disastrous of all.)
Predicting the future is a bad idea; nothing is certain. And as a favourite fictional character of mine often says, “There are always possibilities.”
It is positively fascinating to note that Denmark consists of three territories: the peninsula and archipelago between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea; the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic; and Greenland in the Arctic. Yet, only the first of these is part of the European Union. This raises an intriguing possibility. Could Scotland remain in the EU without splitting from the rest of the UK? If that happened, could Northern Ireland? If the precedent has been set, why not London too?
An unmapped journey
In the modern world, more and more people are living and working or studying outside of the countries they were born in. For them, national ties aren’t so important. But others are unable, or disinclined, to see beyond ‘their country’.
A work colleague who voted to leave the EU said there were too many differences between countries for it to work – Scandinavia was too different to Greece. But, I replied, there are also differences within each country too (I used Scotland as an example) – does that mean we should start splitting up countries as well? (Neither of us had an answer.)
What if countries did break up? It’s already been pointed out that, culturally, the USA is far from being a homogenous nation. What would replace nation-states? One thought is that regions of the world are dominated to varying degrees by cities or conurbations, which look to fellow cities rather than their immediate back yards. This certainly appears to be born out in the case of London and England. What about the rest of the world?
Instead of arbitrary lines drawn across the land, or along old river courses, perhaps the future will see further development of networks of economic hubs and hinterlands. Hubs and hinterlands would operate by very different rules and assumptions, with only glancing acquaintance with each other – much as the ‘super-wealthy’ with the rest of us perhaps? Those who operate in the world of the hubs value things like accurate information, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement. Those in the hinterlands (perhaps less informed than in the hubs) just want to live their lives untroubled and uninterrupted by things they find to be uncomfortable, remote and counter-intuitive (hence the dismissal of ‘experts’). The hubs drive change; the hinterlands follow at their own pace. It’s the next phase of the transition from agrarian to industrial to post-industrial society; the eternal the tensions between town and country; the self-selection of socially-liberal types tending to move to cities while ‘traditional’ authoritarian folk stay behind.
In 2016, I think what we’re seeing in the Brexit, the US election, and the rise of the Far Right in European politics, is a reaction to (or perhaps cementing of) this change. Part of the appeal of the European Union to those who voted to remain (apart from a desire not to bugger up the world economy) was to be part of something greater than a mere nation-state (I’m not sure I can generalise to the same extent about why people chose to leave).
To repeat something I said in the aftermath of the 2015 UK election, it is too early to say what the ultimate outcome of a Brexit will be. The uncertainty and associated economic turmoil will be agonising, but – eventually, even if it takes a generation – this too shall pass.