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Healing Our Divided Country

by: Nick Lowles on 19.12.18 | In: Comment | Tags: ,
by: Nick Lowles on: 19.12.18 in: Comment tags: ,

Brexit is paralysing Britain. Parliament is deadlocked and the British people appear equally divided. They are frustrated and angry. And all the while, other key political and economic issues are ignored.

Paralysis

And this paralysis is set to continue for years to come. Even if Prime Minister Theresa May manages to get Parliament to agree her Brexit deal, which is currently looking highly unlikely, the real negotiations on what the final deal looks like will take a minimum of two years to complete and be as every bit as divisive – if not more so – than what we are experiencing now.

Not only will our political discourse become even more fractious and acrimonious, but the relationship between the British public and its political institutions to continue to decline. A recent poll in the Sunday Times showed only 11% of people thought our politics was working. A poll commissioned by HOPE not hate and Best for Britain in July found that 61% of people felt that there was not a political party that represented their views.

The combination of this loss of trust in the political system, the impasse over Brexit and a bitterly divided nation is a gift to the far right and extremists generally. If people do not think that the political system can deliver, they will increasingly look elsewhere.

We can’t go on like this.

A polarised society

Of course, there is no simple solution to our Brexit divisions. It has polarised opinion, divided families and communities and generated anger and optimism in equal dose. What is striking about the issue is just how polarised society is and how little apparent appetite there appears for compromise.

In a 10,000 sample YouGov poll commissioned by HOPE not hate and Best for Britain in July, we asked people to rank on a scale of 1-100 whether they thought of themselves as a Remain voter or Leave voter. An incredible 58% of respondents saw themselves as either the most hardline Remainer (1-10%) or most hardline Leaver voter (90-100%).

With such hardline views on both sides, perhaps we should not be surprised that Parliament is deadlocked too.

But somewhere the deadlock has to be broken because otherwise we could be heading for a ‘no deal’ Brexit with all the economic and social consequences that will bring. And this is going to require some dialogue and compromise amongst those who hold very different views.

While HOPE not hate has strongly opposed a hard Brexit and more recently we have been campaigning for the British public to have the final say on any deal, we also recognise that if we overcome these divisions and polarisation and avoid a no deal Brexit then a way needs to be found to bring people together, both to get resolution through Parliament but more importantly to bring to heal the divisions within society.

Many of those campaigning for a second referendum have done so simply as a means to overturn the 2016 result and keep the UK in the European Union. Understanding and addressing the issues to what led to Brexit in the first place and healing the divisions in society have been largely ignored in the pursuit of keeping Britain in the EU, exacerbating the anger felt by many people who voted Leave in the first place.

There are many notable exceptions to this and certainly there has been a growing understanding that we need to address the causes of Brexit, including groups like Best for Britain, and the working group brought together by Hugo Dixon’s In Facts team, who recently produced the Common Ground report. But too many Remainers have been largely indifferent to how reversing Brexit will be seen by those who voted Leave.

While some of the apocalyptic vision of riots on the streets might not materialise, there will certainly be huge anger and a feeling of betrayal if Brexit is simply reversed as if the anger that led to the 2016 referendum never existed. Some might see that as a price worth paying for avoiding the economic slump that will come with Brexit, especially a no deal Brexit. But we will be left with the same causes of Brexit, alongside a collapse in trust and a rise in people’s anger.

Remain Dividend

One idea that HOPE not hate has been pursuing is that of a Remain Dividend. If Brexit is going to cost Britain £100-200bn, then it could be put to the people that this money would be better spent on a special renewal plan, a British Marshall Plan, to rebuild and Britain’s crumbling and forgotten communities. In this way, some of the underlying issues of economic decline and political abandonment that led so many working class people to vote Leave could be addressed. We must address the problems those communities face anyway, but in addition, to win, Remain must have a radical offer for voters. To win, Remain cannot be the status quo option as it was in 2016, at a time when the status quo was not working for so many people.

If there was a simple re-run of the 2016 Referendum without any fundamental change then Remain is likely to be defeated again, and the divisions in society will only get wider.

The argument for a second vote has moved on since the People’s Vote campaign was launched 12 months ago. The political situation has fundamentally changed. With Parliament deadlocked and no one solution seemingly being able to win the support of MPs, putting the issue back to the voters to make the final decision has some merit. It could also be attractive to Leave campaigners as a public vote might be the only way they could secure their vision of Brexit given that more MPs favour staying in the EU to a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

There is now an argument to say that a second vote is actually the best way to break the deadlock. With so many people disliking Theresa May’s deal, with our polling indicating that just 5% of people “strongly support” it, there is likely to be widespread disappointed if it is passed, a new vote could be the best way of ensuring that there is popular endorsement for what happens.

Nick Lowles is Chief Executive of Hope Not Hate. A longer version of this essay appears in their forthcoming magazine. 

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