Warning: The article below is over five years old. It may be badly written, poorly considered, immature, obsolete, no longer my opinion, or simply flat-out wrong.

The EU Referendum: A Retrospective

I have tried for days to write about the referendum, but I keep getting overwhelmed by the immensity of it. Will we actually leave, or prevaricate forever? Can we negotiate reasonable trade deals, or will the EU make an example out of us? Will companies still open offices in the UK now we're no longer a gateway to Europe? Will Scotland become independent? What happens next in Ireland? Will our most deprived regions keep their funding? Will workers' rights be protected? Any one of these would be Pandora's box; we have opened many at once.

All of these issues are important, and all of these are beyond my control. They're also beyond my foresight: I have no idea what happens next. The stock market is suffering and the pound is at a thirty year low. These falls came from the decision to leave, but the fluctuation comes from the uncertainty. Uncertainty is the UK's greatest national resource now. We can certainly export that to the world.

A collage of anti-EU, anti-migrant front pages from UK newspapers.
Nothing says tolerance, compassion, and decency like calling people "Ethnics". Collage via @gameoldgirl.

Everyone promptly found out that the "leave" campaign was a Potemkin village, but its shoddy foundations were laid over the previous decades. The tabloid press constantly pumped out anti-EU & anti-immigrant froth, and nobody found a way to combat it effectively. Politicians found they could use these fears to their advantage, so why try to dispel them? Besides, it would invite the wrath of the press.

Without this backdrop – a nation flooded by freeloaders, powerless to prevent pointless meddling from Brussels – the UK would never vote to leave. It would have sounded preposterous. It was our government alone that failed to invest in the NHS, to build houses and schools, to make sure our post-industrial regions weren't dependent on grants, and allowed employment to become more precarious. Nothing to do with Europe. But it's no surprise that the people on the losing end of rising inequality would vote against the status quo.

As a user, given that I have a time machine...

I've grappled with two questions since Thursday night: "What should I1 have done differently?" and "What should I1 do now?". I'd kept my own counsel in previous elections but I spoke up a little this time. Some of that was amongst friends, but I also made a small website that laid out the benefits of European co-operation. I tried to back up all my claims, but my goal was to change people's feelings – not their minds. I wanted undecided people to see this long list and think "Wow, I never realised that the EU had a part in all this". People in the UK think of the EU as faceless, ineffectual, meddling bureaucrats who force legislation upon us; I hoped to replace that with some affection.

The site was a small success. It reached a couple of thousand people, and sparked some discussion showing it reached folk who weren't voting "remain" already. But I can't shake the feeling that my aim was off. Older people are more likely to vote, and more likely to vote "leave" – but they're harder to reach through the internet, and I don't have a voice in traditional media. People outside of large cities were more likely to vote "leave" – but they're harder to reach as my social circle is very urban. What could I have done differently to reach those groups? What medium should I have used? Would a different message have resonated more?

This campaign seriously impressed me. It's so simple, but appeals directly to the viewer's sense of identity. Just three words and a picture of Churchill speak volumes about persevering through tough times and standing with our neighbours.

Or is this the wrong question? Instead of asking how to reach a different audience, perhaps it's better to convince my audience they need to vote. My gut says that's a harder problem – people have been trying to motivate the younger generation to participate in politics unsuccessfully for years. Transforming online activism into real-world action is Herculean. I don't know what I can do as an individual, but Facebook's "I voted" feature is the strongest encouragement I've seen online.

What do we do now?

I doubt we'll see a second referendum. We'd need to negotiate a new deal with the EU – one different enough to merit putting it to the vote again. But Europe wants us out and doesn't need to negotiate with a gun to its head. We already had many exceptions to EU rules but voted to leave anyway. So Europe has no motivation to offer us a deal, and no pro-EU politician will want to risk a second "leave" outcome. We might hope for a stalemate – the UK never invoking Article 50, the EU not finding a way to force us out – but I expect some combination of economic uncertainty & European resentment will result in Britain leaving the EU.

Journalists and politicians will try to identify the effects of leaving, but conclusive evidence will be scarce. You can't see the corporate headquarters that gets built in France instead, nor can you see the uncreated jobs from a lack of economic growth. Businesses don't fail for one reason alone. Infrastructure takes at least a decade to become obviously dated; too slow to recognise and attribute.

Individuals can't change the UK's situation, but we can make our communities better. I have four concrete suggestions:

  • Stand up for others when you see abuse and prejudice.
  • Talk with your friends and neighbours about your beliefs. Don't proselytise; just listen to what they say, and gently try to move their opinions a little. Be compassionate and polite. You're trying to show people that there's a huge range of perspectives in the world, and to dispel myths & fears.
  • Lobby your MP to focus on their constituency instead of party politics. MPs need to support job security and job creation. They need to protect worker's rights and the social safety net. Let them know you expect this of them.
  • Hold the people who got us into this mess to account. They convinced us to leave, but don't want the responsibility of figuring out the details or standing by their pledges. And don't forget the disgusting parts either.

I also have an idea for another project. Something that makes it easier for people to engage with the politics that affects them, not the Westminster soap opera. I don't know if it will see the light of day, but I'm trying to use my anxiety about the future to propel it forward. It might not help after all, but anything's better than just looking on in horror.

  1. "I" really means "we": "what should an individual citizen, acting in their country's best interest, have done differently?"  ↩