There was a sober tone to Boris Johnson’s and Michael Gove’s response to David Cameron’s announcement that he would step down after the EU Referendum, as well there should be, after the painful campaign we have had. What became apparent over the past few months, was that this referendum was a proxy, not for or against austerity or Cameron’s government, but instead it was about what sort of country we wanted to be.
Concede, Confront, Clarify
Politics has to change, particularly when we look at the debates around immigration, migration, culture and tolerance. Leaders need to concede where they have been wrong, where they are not in touch with public opinion and recognise that there is pain and disunity in the UK today. That’s not to say that the populist view is always correct; so what are the ‘red lines’? There will be times when leaders will still need to confront beliefs and attitudes. But this means persuasion, not some limp statement about ‘our message is not getting across’. Politicians need to dare to change minds. Finally there needs to be a lifting of the fog – to clarify what will happen and what choices we have. Many people have said to me that they can’t trust what they have been told, there is no objective agreed truth and that everything is opinion. This referendum has been dominated by ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’.
Here are some practical ideas for the way ahead.
1) Don’t talk down the electorate
What this makes very clear is that voters are not unthinking ‘sheeples ‘ to be dragged either way by party or other allegiances. There are already some damaging comments being made about how the referendum shows we are a more closed intolerant nation. As I gathered with some old friends for breakfast in a pub in East London on Friday morning, I found that two have them had voted differently but for the same reason. That is, both wanted a Britain which took a lead in the world, had moral purpose, kept up our promises to international aid. But both had concluded the best way to do this was to vote in an opposing manner. People had two choices on their ballot paper, no more than that, we must not make assumptions.
2) Don’t talk down the pound
…in fact, don’t talk down anything else for that matter! It was rather surprising to hear a number of Remain campaigners, who I’m sure at heart are patriots, not give anything but a gloomy picture of the UK’s future. The point is we don’t know what will happen, the strong argument of the business and banking establishment didn’t sway the majority of the voting public, so there must not be negative prophesying of economic collapse induced by sour grapes. The exaggeration and rhetoric needed to end as the ballots closed at 10pm on Thursday night.
3) Reinforce what is good about the UK
Let’s take the opportunity to shed the negativity of this campaign and talk up our country and describe some ‘sunny uplands’ both of our home nations and of Europe It does not have to be either or. We have a strong economy, we are living up to our commitments in foreign aid. We will continue to relate positively to Europe, to be part of NATO and we have an opportunity to make more of the relationship with Commonwealth.
4) Take a breath
So what should happen next? It is good that David Cameron is neither leaving office immediately, nor has he yet triggered article 50, to leave the European Union. The nation, and to that matter the political establishment, has come through a period of difficulty in the campaign and have suffered a shock result. The last thing we need is for anyone to throw their toys out of the pram and act rashly.
5) What did the people tell us?
What did this referendum say about how we, the public, view ourselves as a nation? What do we aspire to be? We also need to recognise that this was a referendum not a general election, every vote counted – there were not safe seats, no marginal, this is surely why there was such a strong turnout… our votes – everyone mattered. So technically Scotland didn’t all vote for Remain. If they had, remain would have won! Scottish and Northern Irish votes caused this result as much as anyone else. Something for the SNP to consider when threatening another referendum.
Some people’s comments were contradictory and divisive, but much was an expression of jadedness, a desire for something more than economic pragmatism which seems to only benefit someone else – ‘the other’. Hence we need a period of calm to concede, confront, clarify.
Trust has to be built again, away from campaigning and spin. We need some ‘anchor institutions’, trusted places which have the confidence of the people, because of their longevity and inherent integrity. Obviously faith communities can be a key stablising factor and already have a connector role in society as anchor institutions outside the political fray. The Archbishop of Canterbury swiftly released a statement after the results were known. But we know the real significance of faith communities is how they affect and support people at grass roots, providing a place to come together aside from political tribes and opinions.
Indeed there are some people who could be seen as ‘anchors’ in the same way, who could be called upon to aid the government in this time of transition. Stephen Timms MP is a Labour politician respected across parliament, with his knowledge of local communities, as MP for East Ham and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society . His experience in the treasury in the difficult days of 2008/09 is surely an asset for this next season. If we are looking for a compelling ‘One Nation’ narrative then Jon Cruddas MP has proven credentials. He has tangled with difficult issues and seen off a surge of BNP support in his Dagenham Constituency. Blue Labour championed by Cruddas (like the Compassionate Conservatism & Red Tory of Steve Hilton and Phillip Blond) describes a vision for Britain more in tune with those who feel disenfranchised by the last 2 decades. Charlotte Leslie MP was a late arrival to the Leave campaign, which probably makes her quite representative of the country as a whole. She wrote a great piece earlier this year on why she was on the fence and could therefore be someone who may have a unifying role as she has shown herself to be able to consider both sides of the argument. Whether we need a Government of National Unity or just a cross-party EU extraction team there must be a role for the likes of these.
It is time to lift the fog and describe a vision for tomorrow.