Across the United Kingdom, many Remainers — like me — are in shock. The dominant perception is that they went to bed Thursday evening living in a united, tolerant and cosmopolitan country and woke up on Friday in a country they did not recognize: outside the European Union, facing the imminent secession of Scotland, with triumphant flag-waving nationalists on the streets, and unprecedented constitutional and economic uncertainty.
It’s no wonder that the Remainers’ response resembles the five stages of grief. Initially, denial: Remainers have signed a petition calling for a second referendum; then anger: seeking to attribute blame to Prime Minister David Cameron for calling the referendum, to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for a supposed lack of leadership, to older voters for denying opportunities to a younger generation and to working-class voters for apparent ignorance. Next, we will begin bargaining.
As with grief, a constructive response relies on two things: clear understanding of why the event happened and a clear vision for the future. To achieve this, Remainers have to move beyond a sense of victimhood and write themselves back into the narrative of past failure and future opportunity.
Correctly diagnosing the problem
Looking at the Brexit voting map, it occurred to me — a liberal internationalist and Oxford professor — that I have spent a really small proportion of my life in blue areas of the map. I've spent a combined total of four days in the top 50 "leave"-voting areas. It also occurred to me that a huge proportion of the shocked Remainers perhaps don't know this country all that well. I had never heard of Fenland, Bolsover, Tendring, South Holland or Castle Point, and I am not alone.
The vote itself teaches us many things about this divided British society. The patterns of voting show stark divisions along the lines of class, generation, geography and education. It demonstrates that the fault lines of contemporary politics are now about globalization rather than left or right, or tax and spend.
The global outward-looking elite in Europe has systematically left people behind. It has failed to find a narrative that explains globalization and mobility in ways that people who haven't traveled much, attended a university or grown up with the Internet can understand. Yes, we believe they are positive forces, but have we found an effective way to explain that to a broader audience?
Yet the entire liberal political elite in Britain shares varying degrees of responsibility for that failure. Outside Scotland, the only politicians who have found a narrative that resonates are populist nationalists. If anything positive is to come out of this, it has to be based on a recognition that this was not sudden; it was systematic and structural, and the failure is a shared responsibility. (Calling the referendum was risky but incidental to the underlying division and alienation in the country, which was the prime minister's and our political elite's real failing.)
If we do not get that — and understand it quickly — we will end up with a sad Little England. And other parts of Europe may follow. But that's not inevitable. If we do learn from this, and the shock of Brexit teaches liberal elites that they (we) cannot live and speak just 'for the 48 percent,' then those of us aghast at the prospect of right-wing politicians like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove shaping this country's future might be able to offer a better and more inclusive vision.
What should happen next?
Britain is now democratically committed to invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to begin an exit from the E.U. It will then have 24 months to legally and politically disentangle itself. But this tells us very little indeed about the precise terms of our withdrawal nor about the future vision for the country. It literally leaves everything up for grabs: our relationship to the E.U., the future of our own union, our constitution, the legislative framework in key areas and even the name of our country.
Yet at the time of most profound historical change faced by our country since the Second World War, there is a leadership vacuum. The prime minister is a lame duck, serving as a placeholder for three months. Conservative politicians are jockeying for position in a pending leadership contest, Corbyn faces revolt and motion of "no confidence" within the LabourPary, and the leaders of the "leave" campaign appear overwhelmingly unprepared for what comes next.
Furthermore, social and political divisions seem to have been exacerbated by the vote. Reports of racism and xenophobia toward European and non-European migrants and ethnic minorities have grown. There is visceral animosity across the "remain"/"leave" divide among friends on social media. A small proportion of the "leave" campaign has contributed directly to stoking hatred and fear.
In Britain, what is needed more than ever is unity and a healing of divisions. We face some of the biggest constitutional choices our country has ever faced. And they cannot simply be left to party politics. Everyone must look at the bigger picture.
This has to be a time to set party politics aside. One suggestion would be a national unity government, as used around the world in countries facing moments of profound constitutional change. It would be an interim, cross-party government, perhaps drawing proportionately from the political parties based on their number of seats in the House of Commons, and including members of the House of Lords. It would seek broad-based consultation and dialogue and would culminate in a general election once a road map has been established.
For the rest of Europe and the United States, the key lesson has to be that the liberal political elite cannot leave behind those who are suspicious of globalization. It cannot disengage from those whose worldview it intuitively dislikes. It must walk the delicate tightrope of addressing alienation and fear without giving into ignorance and nationalism.
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