This weekend’s political coverage has been dominated by the aftermath of the Richmond by-election where Zac Goldsmith’s 23,000 majority evaporated into thin air in the early hours of Thursday morning. The Liberal Democrats and many parts of the media have attested the upset to the people of Richmond’s rejection of so-called hard Brexit, despite the absence of any hard brexit negotiation package on the table at present. Meanwhile, white, black and grey Brexit have also entered the political lexicon. Everywhere the terms remainer and leavers are omnipresent in our brexit-saturated national ‘conversation’. Nearly six months on from the referendum on our membership of the European Union, this is toxic, and I, like millions of others, detest being labelled in one camp or the other of a new artificial identity politics.
I voted and campaigned to Remain, my instincts always leant that way, but I carefully considered the options, like most people I was not 100% convinced by either side of the argument. On balance I decided that our medium-term economic and geopolitical interests were best served by our remaining in the European Union for the foreseeable future. Once I made that decision, I did what I always do on a political issue that I care about, I hitched on my walking boots and started pounding the pavements to campaign for Remain. Like many other Remain supporters, I went through the full gamut of emotions in the hours, days, weeks and months after the vote to leave, shock, anger, nausea and depression that felt unlikely ever to lift. At no stage however did I refuse to accept the result. Sadly the same cannot be said for all of my fellow remain supporters. I understand and share(d) the pain of defeat, but millions have given their lives for our freedom to hold democratic votes, and in real democracies like our own sometimes your side loses.
Whatever your view on the outcome, the June 23rd referendum was a great exercise in democracy, the highest turnout at a UK wide vote in twenty years saw millions of voters who normally don’t engage in the democratic process turn out and vote. Many of them, and a majority of all voters in the referendum, rejected the advice of her majesty’s government, and many other leading political and business figures and voted to leave the European Union. That is as strong an expression of a free country as it is possible to get and their will must be respected. The Prime Minister, a remain supporter, gets that and has promised to deliver brexit. Sadly many others have been less magnanimous, at times the sneering and lack of respect for those who voted leave has stunned and saddened me.
Do people really believe there are 17 million racists or 17 million incredibly stupid zombies in Britain? Do they really delude themselves that every person who voted remain did so with greater comprehension than those who voted leave? The people have given their verdict – do those aggrieved at the result genuinely want to live in a country where the government holds referendums and ignores them if they don’t like the result? Disappointed remain supporters calling for a second referendum need to think long and hard about what they are effectively calling for, an end to British democracy as we know it. Sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.
In Scotland a deeply depressing situation is currently unfolding where the nationalist government under Nicola Sturgeon, having initially accepted the result of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum as decisive for a generation, appear to be rowing back on that pledge. Consequently the wounds of that referendum are unable to heal and the SNP seem determined to continue to rule the country by dividing it. Scottish politics, like Northern Irish politics before it, seems to be increasingly defined by identity of unionist or nationalist. That is a sad and unsettling situation, and not one anyone should wish to see repeated in the rest of the U.K.
Over the weekend I heard many people, particular those from the Liberal Democrat party, proclaiming that the Richmond result was a specific vote against hard brexit, this in spite of the fact that Richmond voted 70% remain, and the official ‘remain’ candidate, Sarah Olney, polled less than 50% of the vote on Thursday. If the Liberal Democrats are correct then surely they should be panicking about a massive bleed of support for Remain. The reality, hopefully, is that politics in the UK has not yet been defined in the way the Liberal Democrats would like it to be, that people in Richmond voted on many issues, from Heathrow to the economy, to the very fact they were being forced to go to the polls barely 12 months after re-electing their MP. History suggests that voters rarely treat politicians calling premature elections kindly.
The Liberal Democrats, who previously supported and then opposed holding a referendum on our EU membership, are attempting to come back from the political dead and to do so they seem entirely willing to play the politics of division and rip the country in two. The decent silent majority should not allow them to play that game with our country. Journalists and politicians on the leave side, particularly UKIP, who seek their own electoral gain in Labour’s northern heartlands in ripping the country in half have been just as guilty as the Liberal Democrats in playing up post-referendum divisions. Such people play into the hands of our nation’s opponents, ultra-federalists in the EU already disliked Britain as a block on their ambitions, now they see us as a geo-political foe to be treated as such.
Britain has always been an incredible melting pot of people and ideas, we have always worked better united than divided. People feel understandably bereft at the prospect of losing many of the personal benefits of EU membership such as free movement and there is nothing at all wrong in fighting for those benefits as part of an exit package. Both sides of the referendum campaign should play a part in defining our future relationship with the EU, but that does not mean overturning a democratic verdict. It does not mean defining people in perpetuity by how they voted on June 23rd. Instead of remainer and leaver, how about just British?