In 20 years, I wonder if it will be clear where the rot began? Where did everything start to fall apart so badly? Was it when the George W. Bush called intervention in the Middle East a ‘crusade’? Was it when the lines started to gather outside Northern Rock, or that time the UK voted not to take in unaccompanied child refugees? Or was it, perhaps, the 23rd of June, 2016, the day that the world’s third largest aid donor, one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council and nine nuclear weapon states, opted to give up on the very ideal of internationalist cooperation?
I woke up this morning, and for a blissful few minutes, I forgot that yesterday the UK voted on whether to leave the European Union. Then it came back to me, and I struggled to get signal while trying to control my fear. And I read. I read that, by a margin of less than 4%, the UK had voted to shut itself off from its key trading block, its shared history, its international partners. I read that we had been offered a choice between the evils of a campaign built on lies and a campaign built on fear, and chosen the lies. I read that the pound had dropped to its lowest level since 1985. I read of a global crisis brought about with willful madness. I read the statuses of friends, speaking out of terror or desolation. Then I started to wonder what happens now?
I started contemplating visa marriages, and looking carefully at my family tree, though neither seems to offer a simple solution. One friend has proposed writing to our MPs, calling on them not to follow the (non-binding) result, given the scant margin of victory. I may do that, because if we can cling on to our place in the EU we must. But I fear it wont help. It may be a small mandate, but it is bigger than any government has had for a long time. To ignore the result of the vote would only cause more turmoil, and give parties like UKIP a stronger platform. No Conservative government would risk that. The Prime Minister has already accepted defeat.
No, I fear that with this decision we have left the EU for good. Our departure will certainly weaken the Union, which will turn inwards, to shore itself up against countries like ours who wanted to be in the EU, but not have to be properly in it. They certainly wont be welcoming back this fifth column of a country. It also means the end of our own Union. Scottish independence is the inevitable result of yesterday’s vote. As for Northern Ireland…
What makes me especially sad is that this whole thing is a political gambit gone awry. The Conservative hierarchy never wanted a referendum. If the general election forecasts had been right, the referendum policy (put in to assuage the Conservative right and keep UKIP at bay), would have been cast aside in coalition negotiations. It should never have happened. And yet, somehow here we are. Well, we have made our bed, and now we must lie in it.
The question is, what exactly does that bed look like?
There are two paths ahead of us. I’ve mentioned the path the Leave campaign seemed to want before. The narrow-minded vision of England, where anyone who has lived here for less than two generations is an outsider. Where we believe our unrepresentative parliament ought to be the only authority to which we are beholden, regardless of its regressive and flatly illegal judgments. I mean, it doesn’t matter if our human rights are flouted, so long as the people doing so aren’t foreign right? If we take this path we turn inwards. We say, to hell with the world’s problems. We’ll just shut the gates. Here begins dystopia.
But there is an alternative, if we have the drive to grab it. The EU might be closed to us, but we can still back the kind of politics which shares the EU’s vision of cooperation over isolationism. We can continue to contribute to the economic union as a member of the European Economic Area, which will mitigate some of the more severe economic damage (though I fear we will still have a hard road ahead of us – today my savings dropped so much that I have abandoned the idea of ever owning my own home). We can change our political direction. We can become the kind of country which welcomes refugees from Syria, Iraq and from the rest of the world. We can accept the fact that housing shortages and stretched public services are not the fault of some mythical other, but of the very government we believe is superior to European cooperation. We can increase foreign aid spending and reduce military investment. We can continue to support international cooperation in academic research and industry. We can continue to praise the immigrants who keep the NHS afloat. We can accept both the horrific reality of the world ahead of us, and our duty to not just play a small part, but lead global action on climate change, on food and resource shortages, on population upheaval. We can send in diplomats and doctors, rather than drones. We can save the civilisation from itself. But only if we put our backs into it.
This wont be easy, but it is not impossible. 48 per cent of voters want this path. And that 48 per cent includes our best educated, and our youngest voters. People I know and love. If I were to poll my Facebook feed, it would be 90% remain! That gives me hope. We have to be the change we want to see in the world, and we are the people who can be. That is something to cling to.
I began by asking if, in 20 years, this will be seen as the beginning of the end. It may well be. But only if we let it. And that is not something I plan to do.