Notebook

Melissa Kite: Our referendum divisions may never heal

Leavers and remainers now need to unite in the name of our common humanity (PA)

Whichever result we have woken up to this morning, the EU referendum has been a campaign that has set neighbour against neighbour. How the politicians now work to unite the country when they have alienated so many people with the tactics they have deployed, I do not begin to know.

All I do know is that as the campaign drew to a close, with only a few days to go before polling day, I had the most unpleasant encounter I have ever had in my neighbourhood. And I do not believe it was because my neighbours spontaneously decided to scorn and attack me. I believe it is because they were left with no choice but to do so by the poor leadership of those they look up to.

While walking my spaniel, I ran into three female dog walkers I know who asked me how I was going to vote. I said I was going to vote leave but, in an attempt to keep the conversation civil, I said I had nothing but respect for those wanting to stay in. They then began to rant at me that I was “on the side of the murderer”.

I tried to explain that the way I saw it, the murdered MP was a democrat, and I was voting to leave because I wanted to preserve democracy. I was sick to my stomach about it. But I tried to explain how frightening I also found the anti-democratic EU. I didn’t want to persuade them, you understand, I wanted them to allow me to have a view.

“I don’t understand any of the detail of the EU,” said one of the women, “but I know whose side I’m on.”

“Yes,” said another, “we are on the side of the good people. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Green Party and all the big business leaders. You are on the side of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the murderer. And ISIS!”

There was no arguing with such a statement. I had to walk away, because we were reaching a place of no return, when we would no longer say hello to each other as we walked our dogs on June 24.

But it is an important question: where do we go from here, now neighbour has accused neighbour of being vile and abominable? And who in authority gave good moral leadership when hysteria was taking hold? It would have been so easy for our leaders to issue a joint statement saying they did not believe anyone campaigning to persuade people to vote this way, or that, had done anything other than take part in democracy. But they did not. They allowed the impression to gain pace that you were either on the side of right or wrong – on the side of good or bad.

To me, a place of deep division has been reached, unless we begin some sort of unifying healing process. I was left genuinely baffled by suggestions that we call off democracy to honour someone who lived and died for democracy.

And yet several commentators did call for the referendum to be cancelled. And our political and religious leaders allowed the impression to take hold that only one side was on the side of the angels, when in truth the issues are so complex that any number of views and interpretations of why and whether we should be in the EU are perfectly valid.

Those who put up leave posters with all good intentions, thinking that they were doing the right thing for their country, only to have their neighbours demand they take them down or be seen as “haters”, will have gone to the polls more deeply alienated than ever they would have believed possible.

Regardless of who has won, those who have voiced derision and contempt for each other’s values will now need to unite in the name of our common humanity.

Melissa Kite is a journalist and author