Time for us all to grow up

Brexit is a terrible indictment of our political culture. We have all, on both sides, refused to behave like grownups, to take responsibility for our mistakes and misjudgements, and to be prepared to spend time understanding the issues, and recognising that change takes time. Watching a video of a woman in Lancashire in tears, berating some Remainers with “my father fought a war against the Germans, and they are walking all over us” reminded me sharply that on both sides people are experiencing extreme distress, the issues are as much emotional as practical. We are a deeply divided society, and the Prime Minister’s assurance that “65 million people want us to get on with it” is a straight and deliberate lie.
Human beings naturally tend to take recent achievements for granted, and complain about the things which have got worse. Those who hark back to the time before joined the Common Market forget how cold it was, how limited our diet, how poor most people’s education was, and how (by today’s standards) feeble our health services. We lived with the real risk of a nuclear war which might destroy the human race. Life expectancy was much shorter, and much work was hard, dull and damaging to people’s health. We had polluted rivers and poor air quality, only two TV channels, six month waits for a telephone line, few foreign holidays,
However, although most of these things are immeasurably better for almost everyone now, we Remainers failed to pay attention to what was happening in many communities which lost their sense of purpose in the 1980s. For them, the past has looked rosier than the future for a long time (partly because we were all younger then!). We have had a long time to think about it, but when the economic and cultural tide was swinging in our direction it felt as if all was well with the world, and we failed to see the need to take action. This was not just about a fairer distribution of money (though that might have helped). Money matters, but meaning and respect matter more. What was needed was an idea of how we create meaning in the lives of individuals and communities which had been founded round a clear purpose – mining, fishing, manufacturing, seaside holidays – which was not longer there. We still have no clear answers, but Brexit will certainly not provide one.
On the other hand, the Leavers, and the political representatives of their communities, failed to recognise that change comes slowly, some changes are irreversible, and all change involves compromises with people we disagree about, or with different interests. Nothing our government can do can bring back coal and steel, and there are no simple answers. Demagogues and populists offer simple, easy to understand, recipes, but they never work because the world is not like that. In its Article 50 letter, the Government is already proposing a Brexit which offers much less than the leavers promised. The referendum campaign focused around two major issues: free trade with our biggest trading partner and nearest neighbours, and the control of immigration. It was always clear that we could not have both, and the Government is now proposing to abandon the first in favour of the second. On the first, the loss of free trade will affect everyone. On the second, either we have a significant reduction in immigration, which will cause severe economic and social damage, or we don’t (as the Government is now hinting) in which case the leave campaigners will feel betrayed.
At the end of March a YouGov poll suggested that most people believe that Brexit will reduce immigration, but also that they will be worse off, prices will rise, and the UK will have less influence in the world. The people of the “left behind” communities will not have more influence over a Conservative government in Westminster than they have over a combination of Westminster and Brussels. When Brexit brings recession, these are the communities which will suffer most. Putting it right means working at creating change, and putting effort into real politics – thinking about alternatives, and working to bring them about.
People have always distrusted politicians, and the right wing media actively campaign to undermine trust in political institutions, because when they work well, they constrain the power of the rich and powerful. But politics is how we bring about change, and it is more than turning out to vote for a party every few years. We have failed to treat political education seriously in our education system, partly because of a crowded curriculum, and partly because of fear of indoctrination. But if people don’t learn about how change happens, and how it can be influenced, the sense of powerlessness persists, and feeds resentment and anger. It is not about how many MPs there are, it is about understanding how to find the facts, how to make the arguments, and how to make change.
It’s time we tried to be more grown up and to do the real work which citizenship requires.

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