On the 23rd June 2016 the UK electorate voted to leave the European Union (EU) by a margin of 52% to 48%. The result came as a surprise to almost everyone, with both polls and bookmakers predicting a solid swing to the ‘Remain’ camp in the final hours of polling. Indeed in the days following the result it seemed even those that voted ‘Leave’ did not expect it to actually happen, otherwise – many say – they would not have voted for it. Nonetheless, in one of the biggest displays of political dissatisfaction and defiance of the status quo seen in a developed Western nation for decades, the UK voted to go it alone.
So far what has followed includes: a sharp devaluation of the British pound, turmoil in stock markets (including a sharp fall in the value of private pensions), a downgrade of the country’s credit worthiness and an almost unprecedented destabilisation of British government. In less than two weeks the UK has lost its Prime Minister, its EU commissioner and the large majority of its Labour shadow cabinet. Meanwhile, almost all of the so called ‘Brexiteers’ have withdrawn from the fray, most prominently Conservative MP Boris Johnson, who has elected not to run for party leadership, and former leader of UKIP Nigel Farage, who resigned on 4 July, as – he claims – his work is done.
Breakdown of civil society?
However, for many – including the author – the most important, and most devastating, result of the UK vote to leave the European Union has been the way in which it has unleashed a seething underbelly of racial and xenophobic hatred among some segments of society. Regardless of what some of the Leave camp may have claimed, a large proportion of the UK voted to leave the EU based on a largely misplaced hatred of the immigrant ‘other’ – a fact evident in even a cursory glance of some of the regions most in favour of leaving (largely UKIP and extreme right wing heartlands), as well as the 57% spike in hate crimes up and down the UK following the vote.
Moreover, the vote has exposed deep fault lines between the generations, with 73% of voters aged between 18-24 electing to stay in the EU, while only 40% of those aged 65 and over voted to do so. It is no surprise to see the Leave vote rise steadily with age – as the oft cited and falsely attributed quote goes: “If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35, you have no brain.” However, this particular schism also has at its heart anger and resentment against the post-war ‘baby boomer’ generation that has enjoyed an unprecedented historical period of peace and prosperity. This generation is now retiring in style in their long ago paid-for homes with pension pots that could collectively eradicate world hunger, while younger generations stagger from economic and political crisis to economic and political crisis.
Bringing communities together
This has led a number of not for profit organisations to identify the re-unification of British society as the most important task ahead for the charitable and voluntary sectors. In its post Brexit briefing, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) outlines its view that, as a sector with roots in local communities and communities of interest, voluntary organisations must play their part in bringing people together to discuss their hopes and concerns for the future. Commenting on the Brexit vote, Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of the NCVO, says: “My message today is that you should consider what more you can do to bring communities together. Outreach and inclusivity matters now more than ever […] The sector’s voice will be essential in speaking up and shaping the future.”
Exactly how this can be done is – like so much about the situation we in the UK now find ourselves in – unclear. The NCVO suggests that post-Brexit negotiations and elections could bring about opportunities for voluntary organisations to raise issues that affect their beneficiaries, ensuring that the voices of all communities are heard, highlighting public spaces and museums as potential spaces for community debate and action. It also outlines how charities will need to forge relationships with new ministers and shadow ministers as well as find a route to feed into EU negotiations to ensure the funding that the sector currently gets from the EU is replaced.
At the grass roots, it is encouraging to see action already taking shape; the March for Europe that took place in London on Saturday 2 July was attended by around 40,000 people from all over the country all supporting diversity, tolerance and defiance of the right wing, protectionist rhetoric that has become deafening in recent weeks. Smaller protests are also popping up across the capital – with Londoners posting signs in support of immigrants in stations including Kings Cross and Brixton, while #NoPlaceForHate is galvanising support across the UK via Twitter.
The words of British Labour MP Jo Cox are also resounding throughout the UK. Former head of humanitarian campaigning at Oxfam Jo Cox was elected to parliament just a year ago, yet just days before the referendum she was brutally murdered by a right-wing British extremist naming himself “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. In her maiden parliamentary speech, Jo said: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around [my] constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” In the dark day that lie ahead, let us hope that Jo was right and that organisations like those she worked for and believed passionately in can help to unite a fractured country.
Rebecca Jones is former deputy editor of Money Observer magazine and a regular commentator on issues surrounding sustainable, responsible investing. She has been writing about finance and investment since 2011 and is a big fan of cats. You can find her tweeting at @rebeccaejones.
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