I was going to start this blog with a cliché like, “Now that the dust has settled on the referendum vote to leave the EU”, but then it struck me that the dust hasn’t settled at all. As anyone who read my blog for last Thursday will know, I voted for Brexit. This brought divisions within the family: one son actively campaigned to leave; one daughter voted to remain (while her husband, from Northern Ireland, voted to leave); another son-in-law, who is from an EU country, now feels he is unwelcome in the UK. My youngest daughter’s carer, who is in her 40s, has voted for the first time in her life: for Brexit. And so on.
Living in a village in Buckinghamshire I did a small bit of leafleting for Brexit on a former council estate across the road. Four out of five people made it clear to me that they were fed up with Brussels; “We want to have our country back” was their view – not so different from the highly educated Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. I only met one dissenting voice, an annoying lady who, whenever I tried to put a statement of fact to her, such as “When we joined the Common Market in 1973 we saw it simply a trade agreement”, or “The euro has been very bad for Greece”, glibly replied, “That’s your opinion”. You can’t argue with people like that.
It is a slur from the disappointed Remain camp to infer that those who voted for Brexit are “racist”. One of the keenest people who worked for my son’s campaign in a London borough was an 18-year-old Pakistani youth, the son of immigrants, who believes passionately in our country’s sovereignty. Three French people, two Italians and a Pole also helped him spread the Brexit message. Yet the members of my Book Club – middle-class, older women graduates and Guardian readers – all voted to remain, apart from me. So it is a complicated picture and it will take time, generosity and tolerance for the deep divisions in the country that the Referendum has opened up to be healed.
As Charles Moore wrote in the Telegraph on Saturday, “Democratic self-government – parliamentary democracy – is what the modern British nation is founded on… It was slipping away from us. Now we have reclaimed it.”
He concluded his article, “By the deep cultural instinct of a free people, this amazing, unprecedented restoration was accepted without riots, or police or revolution. It is the most momentous thing I have seen in nearly 40 years covering British politics, and the most moving.”
It reminded me how fortunate we all are, whatever our disagreements, to live in a country as politically peaceful as the UK. I am reading Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, a Russian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Her book is a collection of multiple eye-witness accounts of what it was like to live through the momentous events that led to the collapse of communism and the end of the USSR in 1991. There may not have been revolution (having suffered an appalling revolution in 1917, how could they have borne another?) but there were certainly riots and police in evidence, alongside social breakdown, unemployment, food shortages and poverty, all on a massive scale.
Russia has never known anything like our peaceful parliamentary democracy. The privations and sufferings of its people are unimaginable to us here in the UK. It is worth bearing this in mind as Leavers and Remainers continue their arguments in the coming months, at the same time as we look forward to the election of a new Conservative leader and possibly a Labour one as well. We can vote our government out if we don’t like it. Reading the haunting accounts transcribed by Alexievich gives one a different perspective on the disagreements and divisions we have experienced over our referendum. In Russia in 1991 the whole known, safe and familiar world fell apart, almost overnight; that hasn’t happened here and it isn’t going to happen.
Our parish priest provided the most important response to the EU debate when, in the Bidding Prayers yesterday at Mass, he asked us to pray for “the re-evangelisation of Europe.” It reminded me that St John Paul II had once pleaded with the EU to recognise its Christian roots and had failed in his appeal. Now that we are leaving the EU, perhaps we in this country can remember our own Christian roots and traditions. Without them our new-found independence will prove to be a pretty poor thing in the long run.
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