I am making a once in a lifetime exception to my self-imposed embargo on blogging about politics or religion, on a day that I feel may be marked by the historians of the future as a memorable day. Undoubtedly today is a watershed, perhaps a watershed on the scale of the Norman Conquest, Henry VIII’s capricious decision to divorce Anne Boleyn, or the loss of America as a colony. You are probably aware that these were not events that resulted in peace, prosperity and religious freedom for all. Whether today will be memorable for good or ill remains to be seen. In a recent Facebook post, I referred to one of the historical quotations that adorn the headers and footers of my website. Now I would like to draw your attention to the one at the top of the home page, George Santayana’s ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it’. Time will tell quite what we have condemned ourselves to fulfil in the wake of the whole referendum debacle. I am not writing this as a passionate advocate or adherent of either ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. To be so would be to ignore the all too apparent flaws in one scenario or the advantages of the other. As the campaigns lurched uncertainly into action I sat firmly on the fence. I tried, I really tried, to balance emotional gut reaction with economic reality. Both sides bombarded us with rhetoric, invective and contradictory information. As a historian, I am all too aware of propaganda and spin and we had both in good measure. My working life requires seeking evidence, verifying sources but it seemed that, for much of the information, there was none. It all boiled down to a frying pan – fire decision. The EU is clearly restrictive and broken but the isolationist alternative was fraught with uncertainty and bigotry.
I am actually not so concerned about the outcome of the vote, hardly the overwhelming endorsement some would have us believe. In the end, after much thought, the ‘winner’ wasn’t actually the outcome that attracted my X in the box but that is largely immaterial; I could see pros and cons to both options. My fear, concern and profound sadness today is because the campaign has been accompanied by so much intolerance, bigotry and downright hatred. No one, on either side of this deeply divisive debate, can feel that the run up to what some are terming ‘Independence Day’ has been anything but dirty. The prejudice and fanaticism has been fueled and proliferated by that double-edged sword, social media. Even people I believed to be perceptive have seemed to accept what was clearly errant nonsense as the inveterate truth.
I can respect anyone who cast their vote, in either direction, following thought and deliberation. Sadly many have voted on the basis of scaremongering, or have made their choice because of the alleged charisma of the leading advocates of one cause or the dislike of those fronting the other. Unsupported statements have been hurled by both sides, things got personal, childish, ridiculous. Where was the evidence? The convincing data? Twentieth century political history has never been my favourite period but it doesn’t take an historian to draw the parallels that have already been drawn with the blinkered adulation of Herr Hitler, who was hailed as the saviour of post world war I Germany. He was going to make Germany great. It seemed such a good idea at the time. Now are we heading for our own hate-fuelled Kristallnacht or have the ultra right-wing, who tarnished others who believed ‘Leave’ was the right option, been placated by today’s result? If so, for how long?
I can’t help feeling that those claim that Brexit is the solution to all our problems are being blinded by euphoria. Leave or Remain – either route would have been beset with uncertainty, faction and the need for hard work and compromise. The divisions in our country have become a chasm and it is far from being over yet. There is a mutual back-patting amongst those in the Leave camp and talk of ‘getting our country back’. Beware of what you wish for. We have not ‘got back’ the country of the halcyon pre EU days. Days which lie largely in the imagination. The country we have ‘got back’ is a shadow of its former self; diminished by what will inevitably and understandable be the defection of Scotland. A country fractured by the attitude that those of different opinions, cultures and faiths are somehow of less value. A country where distorted stereotypes are applied to those of a particular ethnicity, belief or sexuality. A country where political hatred sees the murder of a woman who was working for what she believed to be the greater good. A country that seems to have forgotten the concepts of compassion, of compromise, of caring. As for one gloating Leave activist who commented that we had won the country back without a shot being fired, insensitively ignoring Jo Cox’s murder, in one respect he is right, a war has been created. War is never pretty, there are no winners and we can only speculate on who will be the casualties that Brexit and the aftermath will leave in its wake.
If the new Britain, for it will be many decades before it can become Great, is to work it will need every iota of forgiveness and fortitude that we can muster. We will have to learn to accept others who are outside our comfy ‘exactly like us’ sphere and learn to work in harmony. We need to stop moaning about what is wrong and strive to put it right. America is no longer the land of the free, Britannia has long since ceased to rule the waves. World events of the past weeks are destroying people’s faith in humanity. However much you wanted to leave the EU, this is not a time for unadulterated elation. When cloud nine bursts it will become clear that we are embarking on a hazardous journey without sat-nav, survival kit and for some, without a moral compass. We may have done the right thing, this may be an unremitting disaster, while it all unravels and it become clear which of those alternatives is the actuality, the UK needs the healing balm of kindness, understanding and forbearance.
Rant over. If anything is ever normal again normal service will resume shortly.