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In the Aftermath of the Brexit Vote: Staring Into the Void

Manufacturers of the ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ t-shirts can at least look to a rosy future, as that slogan is about as near to a plan as anyone has yet mustered.

At some stage we’ve all woken up to an unpleasant morning after, but nothing quite like this. Then again, it’s not every day you wake to find so much has changed and in such a profound way. For some the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union is the culmination of a life’s work, a great taking back of sovereignty from faceless bureaucrats. It’s welcome proof a disconnected metropolitan elite doesn’t always get its way. For others, myself included, it’s a devastating personal blow diminishing the world we thought we knew. That it’s all unfolding in the middle of a giant political vacuum should terrify everyone.

A split has certainly opened in the UK. With a 52-48 percent vote in favor of leaving the EU, the margins could hardly have been much slimmer. Even a bare four percent winning total doesn’t really tell the story. In many places across the UK the percentages one way or the other were massive. Parts of London hit nearly as high as 80 percent in favor of remaining. Scotland, Northern Ireland and a number of cities delivered robust majorities to stay. Across the aisle there were plenty, and ultimately slightly more, heading the other way. Large areas of England in particular couldn’t have been much clearer about their feelings.

Except trying to put those feelings into practice has begat only chaos. That initial morning after is stretching on. No one seems to have the slightest idea what to do next. For all the taking back control bluster, it appears that no one from the Leave campaign really wants to. The United Kingdom’s possibly deceased membership in the EU offers up a mess that will continue to keep giving.

Shock still reigns as the feeding frenzy commences, everyone jumping in to try and make what they can from the massive uncertainty rendered by the vote, but it’s a very odd kind of frenzy. The winners appear to be running away, backtracking on all the things they claimed to want the most. The losers are in meltdown, casting around for the most convenient back to stab. What state the UK will be in after the dust settles is impossible to say. What state we’re in right now is almost as unknowable.

To say it didn’t have to be this way is to express something so blindingly obvious it’s almost likely to be missed. What if the British Prime Minister could have controlled his own elected politicians via less drastic measures that didn’t require gambling with the future of the country? How about if the leader of the main opposition party hadn’t have chosen this campaign as the perfect time to go AWOL, vacating the field and squandering in all likelihood enough votes to swing a tight referendum? The same process can be repeated a thousand times over because a thousand factors contributed to the mess we’re now in. Expect a thousand postmortems to come.

For those on the losing side, the urge to lash out is strong. A ridiculous petition attempting to retrospectively undo the referendum is circulating, signed by millions. I imagine most voted to remain. Would they look so kindly on a similar petition if the result were reversed? Talk is circulating of the British Parliament overruling the vote, or Scotland somehow blocking it. There’s no quicker way to permanently alienate millions of citizens who already feel cast aside than by appearing to steal a vote right out from under them. In the meantime, financial markets are in freefall, European leaders are alternating between calls for calm or stringent punishment, and no one has any idea what’s coming next – in the short term, anyway.

Time appears to be the one thing everyone is crying out for. What’s astonishing about a vote of such importance is the people who orchestrated it don’t have a plan. Not even an inkling of one. By announcing his resignation the morning after results came in, British Prime Minster (at least until October) David Cameron has either increased uncertainty by also abandoning the field, or forced the hand of opponents, hoping someone else will deal with the consequences of their actions. The Leave camp turned much of the campaign into a referendum on immigration, yet ex-London Mayor and quite possibly the next Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, one of the most prominent figures urging an end to EU membership, already appears to be endorsing freedom of movement between the UK and EU. It appears much of what’s been promised might be undone, not that there’s any comfort in the way everything is unravelling.

The long and steady decline of the left hasn’t helped, either. Instead of presenting a clear and positive vision for Britain’s place in the EU, the opposition Labour Party scrambled around dodging questions and sounding half-hearted when anyone pinned them down. This has gone on for years from a political left struggling to find a place for itself in a neo-liberal world. Now, while its rivals on the right are walking in confused circles, the left is busy trying to purge its own ranks. A string of sackings and resignations have beset a Party busy trying to topple a useless leader without any alternatives in sight. Manufacturers of the ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ t-shirts can at least look to a rosy future as that slogan is about as near to a plan as anyone has yet mustered.

This political wrangling is likely to seize the headlines and distract from what has just happened. Profoundly different competing visions clashed over the course of the referendum, exposing divides we in the UK all knew were there but have largely sidelined in favor of traditional party political battles. The ground has shifted and we’ve finally had a clear and resounding demonstration of what that means. Many in the UK feel cut out from the decision-making process, stuck on the margins of a fast globalizing country that has little interest in ex-industrial heartlands and the pastoral paradise of quiet country lanes. The Leave campaign preyed mercilessly on this feeling of alienation, whipping up support to cry out for a change that won’t fix any of the problems that have made so many people so unhappy.

In contrast, the Remain campaign failed to get close to addressing the disingenuous claims of their rivals, leaving space for enough anti-EU feeling to ferment. Not that it’s all the fault of the Remain campaign. A long history of disengaging from parts of the country, using the EU as a scapegoat, and failing to make a case for the substantial benefits membership of the European Union brings didn’t help. Usually decisive establishment support and the strong benefits of the status quo couldn’t win out. Even if every Leave voter were an ignorant racist only interested in expelling the foreign looking types (and they certainly aren’t, though some undoubtedly are, just as all Remain supporters aren’t the oblivious elite, though some clearly are), it still begs the question how has this situation been allowed to grow and fester? Again, a thousand factors, a thousand mistakes, most of which will be ignored in favor of gawking at the entertaining spectacle occurring in Westminster.

All of this is piling on top of a feeling very close to grief for Remain supporters unsure where there country has gone. Already disturbing news of an anti-foreign backlash is spreading. Isolated incidents yes, but something has been unleashed that goes against the heart of what many felt the UK is. It’s something I’m certainly feeling. For full disclosure, I am exactly the kind of person benefiting most visibly from Britain’s membership of the European Union. I grew up in the London commuter belt, and have lived and worked in the largely, and in many areas massively, pro-EU capital. I’m also married to a Swede. My ties run deep. I realize many don’t feel this even as others do.

My morning after was spent reaching out to friends and family, feeling the need to connect to others as shocked and flat out sad as myself. It doesn’t fix the deeper problem, it probably only entrenches it, but it proved cathartic for a while. Some of the people I spoke to were furious, others were numb. Some were British citizens struggling to deal with what had happened, others came from across the continent and were now left facing the fact the country they called home had very loudly declared they were no longer wanted.

Even as I was doing this, I knew there was another side to the story, a side wrapped up in joy and celebration, one that feels they’ve finally been listened to. Engaging with that jubilation, or even many of the practical problems, was initially too much. I accept we’ve voted to leave, but I couldn’t get up and shake hands immediately. Not over something too important, too personal. That was for another day. Emerging from initial mourning, the problems are far worse than I expected. Bridge-building is urgently needed, with other countries and within my own. An awful amount of details have to be worked through and there is no one standing up to do it.

This is no political parlor game we’ve stumbled into. Something very real is at stake. I wish everyone could have benefited from EU membership the way I have, and it’s deeply sad they might not have the chance. Were I ten years younger, facing life in a country outside the EU, I might not go on to meet my wife. I might not meet my many friends from across the EU living in the UK, who’ve made my life infinitely richer. Born a decade later I don’t know where I’d be, but the way things are looking I can’t believe it would be better. How can I not be sad? I’m British and I’m also European. The two are increasingly incompatible and no one is taking responsibility. It breaks my heart.

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