On leaving the EU, and joining up Britain

Hi. I’m Sarah and I’m an EU citizen.

It’s odd to think I won’t always be able to say that. The chances are that if you’ve read my blog before you know which way I voted in this week’s referendum. You probably also know that I had no time whatsoever for either of the official campaigns. And despite all of the drama that built to this referendum, all the worry that it caused me, deep down in the pit of my stomach I kept thinking that we’d vote to remain in the European Union.

Waking up to the news that my hope was misplaced was a sucker punch. You’ve heard all the gripes of Remain voters by now and I won’t repeat them here, but consider this: David Cameron resigned yesterday, and I wasn’t even happy about it because somehow, he had become the least worst option overnight.

The country is split overall, yes, but the picture isn’t that clear within each region. It’s now clear that the arguments that pushed people towards the exit are prominent in virtually every part of the country I live in. I’ve never been so disappointed in Yorkshire and England, and I know now that in my hometown two out of three people voted to leave (check yours at the BBC site). Walking around on a Saturday morning, the only issue you heard being discussed was immigration.

I’ll admit that I had a tear in my eye when I realised that my Polish neighbours woke up in a state, and indeed a city, that had basically said they weren’t wanted – though in my corner of the country, I guarantee they’d already got that impression from a small but vocal minority.

I know that both sides in this debate had valid arguments, and that many or even most of those who voted to leave did so on the basis of important issues like sovereignty (whatever that is in the 21st century) or the perceived economic benefits of independent trade agreements. But the whole referendum campaign was so ugly and so divisive that whatever the outcome, I would have felt worse about my country than I did before. I also fear the other factors that we know influenced at least some Leave voters: the arrogance of the empire mentality (“Make Britain great again! We don’t need anyone! We used to own your shit!”) and the fear of the foreign.

It would be cruel and disingenuous to say that all Leave voters are racists. I know a lot of them, and they’re not. Equally, it would be naive and dangerous to ignore the number of openly racist and/or extreme right-wing groups who will see this result as wind in their sails. It will give them a boost. And if the economy declines, which is likely at some point in the next few years, we know we’re at risk of creating the conditions for more extreme views to develop.

That’s the biggest challenge that will face us as a result of the referendum. Maybe the economic damage won’t be as bad as Remainers thought – Mark Carney did wonders to stabilise the pound yesterday and nations worldwide are generally being supportive of our trade links. Maybe the University I work for won’t face massive losses in income and talent when it loses access to EU research funding. Maybe the Tories will see enough sense to retain all the rights and protections we currently enjoy under EU law. But what we absolutely know is that we face a society more divided than ever, and some of the worst people in it just had an early Christmas.

We’re entering a time of political, economic and social uncertainty that poses serious risks as well as opportunities. Whichever way we voted, the people of the UK (or whatever is left after a flurry of independence referenda) will need to come together to reach out to those on the margins of both society and the political spectrum. We need to try to heal the divisions in our society that were always there but rarely acknowledged, and which were flushed out and worsened in such spectacular fashion.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to look up my local food banks, I’m going to see what Hope Not Hate are doing where I live, and I’m going to find out what I can do to support the services working with refugees and immigrants around me. Soon they’ll need all the help they can get.

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