How bad would you like it to be?

This is a guest post by Paul M

I can’t tell, from my side of the Atlantic, whether the vote to leave the EU will prove to be a good thing or a bad one, so the following is meta-commentary, a few thoughts that came from listening to the debate, not the merits/demerits of Brexit itself.

• A major theme of the response to the referendum has been that this is a victory for racism, xenophobia and ignorance. A minor theme has to do with old farts throwing the future of their children under the bus because they—the old farts—won’t be around long enough to suffer the consequences. If you really want to see Britain torn completely apart, it seems to me this is the way to go about it. Whatever the future holds, you’re going to have your work cut out coping with it even as a united country. I wouldn’t reckon much for your chances if you decide to pursue an uncivil war instead.

• Pay attention to the numbers. On a turnout of 72%, 52% voted leave. If, to you, that’s just racism speaking, you’re saying that somewhere between 40 and 65% of Britons are racists, or else political infants capable of being seduced into racism by demagogues. If that’s true, you’ve got bigger worries than merely maintaining your standard of living in the post-Europe winter. Better start thinking about how the British came to be so bigoted, and what has to be done to unwarp their minds. How did old people become so callous about the kids? In my experience it tends to be the young’ns who rush into the unknown without a thought for the dangers, and us old coots who fret about the world we’re leaving behind for them.

• It’s easy to get agreement for saying that the besetting sin of the western world is polarisation. Perhaps it’s time to start acting as if we mean it by resisting the temptation ourselves. If it had been Remain that squeaked a victory, they would have seen it as sour grapes and bad faith for Leave to accuse them of ulterior & dishonourable motives. Maybe Remainers now should consider the possibility that most Leavers were actually trying to act on a rational assessment of their legitimate self-interest, or their sense of what is good for the country as a whole, just as they themselves were. This might be true even if Boris Johnson really is the Devil’s buffoon, you wouldn’t buy a used car from Nigel Farage & Michael Gove is in league with Putin, Trump and the Illuminati.

• Conversely, Leavers have tended to dismiss Remainers as fear-mongering fat cats and rich kids who couldn’t care less about what happens to the poor buggers int’mills so long as they can party in Berlin and get to their holiday homes in Provence without inconvenience at the borders. But they’re now the winners. They have no strong incentive to continue vilifying Remainers—but they’re more likely to reconcile if the Leavers show some grace in defeat.

• A fair amount has been made of what a bad thing it was to have a referendum at all, but consider: The leadership of both the Conservative government and the Labour opposition were pushing for Remain. So were the leaders of Europe and the EU itself, not to mention the president of the USA. Staying in was the path with a safe, predictable outcome and, all things being equal, safe & predictable is what people choose. They go with what they know if it’s working for them. If it’s not, second choice is a safe, predictable alternative. Throwing all the cards in the air is the last resort; it’s what people do when they’re angry or afraid or see no hope in any other course. Yet that’s what half the country chose to do. Would not holding a referendum have made these people more hopeful? When the explosion finally came, how much worse would it have been? The frustration that produced the leave vote is the same emotion that Donald Trump is riding for his own benefit, and that has propelled Bernie Sanders through Democratic primaries and left Jeremy Corbyn blinking, like a deer in the headlights, at the head of Labour. It’s a real thing, and a good chunk of it comes from the unwillingness of opposing sides to work together or even acknowledge that the other side has a point. Gridlock in the US Congress and economic & social stagnation in Britain don’t go away if you ignore them. Neither does a feeling that people have no control over their own lives.

• Anyone—even from your side of the Atlantic—who says they know what Britain & the EU will look like in ten or twenty years is lying. They don’t know, any more than Britons voting in support of the Common Market 40 years ago foresaw this referendum or the path that lead to it. Now would be a good time to experiment with a little humility and consider that you might be wrong. If you’re a Remainer, toy with the possibility that Brexit could ultimately turn out to be a good thing even if you can’t see how right now. Perhaps the people who voted for it will be right—even if by accident—and you will have been mistaken.