After 47 years of membership and almost four years of political wrangling and turmoil, the United Kingdom has left the European Union (sort of). As soon as Parliament gave the green light to hold a General Election before Christmas, I knew that the 31st January would be immortalised as the day our EU membership ended. The election result was never in any doubt. The absence of a credible alternative to the Conservative Party coupled with an electoral system that is wholly undemocratic and unrepresentative was only ever going to produce one result. That effects of that result only began at 11 pm last night.
Despite my being a remainer and a Liberal Democrat, I don’t feel in any way, the utter sadness and depression that so many of my peers appear to. I feel an overwhelming sense of liberation and relief. The debate is finally over. The “remainer” vs “leaver” labels are defunct, and that means that I feel able for the first time in this whole debate, to share what I think.
I, like so many Britons, have never felt strongly about the European Union either way. For me, it’s always been a thing that just ticked away in the background, never really affecting me one way or another. I enjoyed making use of the freedom of movement, and I clearly benefitted economically from our membership. But before the referendum of 2016, I’d never given the EU a second thought. Its institutions and its powers seemed so far removed from my everyday reality; I couldn’t even tell you who my MEPs were.
The referendum for me was always about choosing what I thought was the better of two ideas. There were merits to both sides of the argument, but I just happened to believe that, in the end, we were probably better off remaining. The political upheaval and chaos that ultimately did ensue along with the economic risks weren’t worth the ability to strike our own free-trade deals and to regain full sovereignty of our law-making powers. So, I voted remain.
One of the things that became very clear, very quickly, was how the campaign to leave the EU and Brexit as an idea, was hijacked by racists, xenophobes and little-Englanders. This polarised the debate, and it was no longer possible to a Eurosceptic-remainer or a reluctant-leaver. Whichever side of the discussion you fell down on, you had to sign up to the extreme creed that allowed no room for compromise or sensible debate. For Brexiteers, this meant making ridiculous claims about the benefits of leaving the EU and accidentally legitimising racism. For remainers, this meant conveniently remembering that you’d always been one of the strongest advocates of the EU and accepting the notion that anyone who voted leave was a racist bigot, whose voice was less worthy of being heard because they didn’t have the intellectual capacity to butter a slice of bread, let alone be given the opportunity to participate in the democratic process.
One of my biggest gripes throughout the whole Brexit process has been the sanctimoniousness of the liberal left in the UK. The Liberal Democrats were anything but liberal or democratic, and so many Labour MPs decried the concerns of their leave-voting constituents as xenophobic and racist. If you didn’t sign your life away to the idea of marrying Europe; if you didn’t identify as European above being British, then you couldn’t be a Liberal Democrat. For those in Labour, you’d as well have had posters of Maggie Thatcher at home.
It was impossible to be to unbiased; indifference was not an option. Compromising was derided, and sensible debate shrugged off. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party found that out the hard way.
For the last three-and-a-half years, I fell into the latter camp. However, I seemed to be in a minority of remainers that was capable of recognising the cult we had found ourselves in. I never did and still don’t consider leave-voters as racists or morons. I mean, some of them are of course, but then there are many remainers whose passion for the EU and apparent disregard for the sanctity of the nation-state is equally as sickening. The conflict between my own personal feelings about the Brexit debate and “loyalty” to the side I’d chosen was incredibly difficult to reconcile, especially during the 2017 General Election campaign.
I chose to stand as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats, one of, if not, the most pro-European party in UK politics. Not because I felt so passionately about our membership of the EU or because I wanted to undo the result of the referendum, but because I genuinely believed that the only proper and correct way to bring the Brexit debacle to a conclusion was to refer the issue back to the British people. As then-leader Tim Farron would often say, the people voted for departure, so too should they have voted for the destination.
I still think that a confirmatory referendum was the best way to solve the issue and yes, I think the choice should have been between a credible leave option and remaining. But this wasn’t meant to be, because Jo Swinson and Ian Blackford decided to take a gamble that backfired spectacularly.
When Anna Soubry says that we were on the cusp of a so-called People’s Vote, I think she’s spot on. The number of MPs supporting the idea was increasing, and the confirmatory referendum would have provided a definitive answer to a definitive question. But the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party had other ideas, and it’s because of their utter lapse in judgement that we’re now stuck with a Conservative majority government for the next five years. Although being realistic, it’s probably more likely 10.
So, when I say I’m not depressed or sad about Brexit, I’m perhaps a little dishonest. Of course, I’m unhappy about it. I didn’t want it to happen. I don’t want people to think I take part in the legitimisation of racism and xenophobia. I want people to know that I’m a liberal to my fingertips: inclusive, an advocate of diversity and a celebrator of difference. But Brexit should never have come to be a way to identify oneself. It should have been a debate on foreign policy, but instead, those on both sides weaponised it and turned it into an issue of identity politics.
I’m relieved and liberated today. I am relieved that the three-and-a-half years of vitriolic debate has come to an end. Liberated because I no longer feel like I have to live by the remainer-creed that goes against everything my liberalism stands for. It really is time for the country to come together and put this whole sorry affair behind us. At the end of the day, we have to live and work with each other, and liberalism is all about defending the rights of free individuals to hold views with which we may or may not agree.
In order for us to come together, both sides of the debate must recognise the concerns and fears of their opponent. Leavers must accept that there are risks that come with Brexit and that remainers are not any less patriotic for voicing those concerns. Remainers must accept that leavers are no less intelligent than they are and that their vote must be respected.
It’s up to Boris Johnson and the next leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to heal the Brexit wounds. But on this day of relief and liberation, I also feel a sense of trepidation, because I’m not sure either side will be able to put aside their differences and move on.