Healing Brexit Wounds: the voice of five young activists

Healing Brexit Wounds

Akhila Singha and Alexandros Zachariades, 89 London

Last month, 89 London hosted a panel of 5 young Brexit activists for a discussion on their vision for Britain 2030, featuring the topic “UK 2030: Healing Brexit Wounds”. Since the approval of the 2015 European Union Referendum Act which enabled the Brexit referendum, the UK has been split into camps of Leavers and Remainers. The electoral campaign that ensued, split the country in two while the outcome of the referendum did little to mend fences between the two sides. Instead, the questions of what type of Brexit, as well as, the calls for a second referendum increased the divide. Within this deeply entrenched political climate 89 London decided to bring together young activists, members of the generation that will live with Brexit and its outcomes, to debate ways in which they can bring the country back together.  

Our first speaker, Darren Grimes, is the founder of BeLeave, a group campaigning for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. Darren began his speech by highlighting the importance of listening and understanding each other instead of constant arguing. Grimes highlighted the wounds caused by a lack of trust in British politics and people’s mistrust of each other. In his view, any healing process must begin with putting a rest to the denial of the result of the 2016 referendum, which he described as “democracy creaking at the seams.” He highlighted the potential positives of Brexit, e.g. new opportunities for internal trade, continued participation in collaborative research, and programs like Erasmus. He argued that there can be no democracy without equal participation and that reconciliation requires humility, time, and patience. Darren emphasized the need to shape the future, not argue over or, “pick the scab off” the past. To heal the wounds of Brexit, we must first accept the referendum results and then “move Britain forward towards fostering and sustaining excellence” in Darren’s words.

Our second speaker, Guy Russo, stood as the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Enfield North during the past election. Guy started off with his 2030 plan which depended neither on the UK staying nor leaving the EU. His three-point plan to guide Britain focused first on accepting the wounds through political pluralism. Voters, according to Russo, no longer align to the left-right axis, instead there are shifting factions. The new reality is that Britain is divided and in such a background of factionalism, proportional representation would serve better than any old adversarial style of politics. Guy highlighted the need to strengthen democracy through the fundamental power of people’s voices, i.e. our votes. This, according to Russo, underpins representation and is necessary to heal the Brexit wounds. He spoke of democratising the parliament and shifting focus to the much-neglected regions in Britain. Too much concentration of power in London had led to regional wounds and this could be healed by devolution and democratization that would shift power away from London. Secondly, Guy touched upon the structural problems in the economy, emphasised by the desperate need for ambitious investments in infrastructure across the country. Giving the example of high-speed rails boosting regional economies, Guy touched on the housing crisis as a driver of economic discontentment and encouraged the growth of new garden cities and other innovations to look after the most vulnerable in our society. He encouraged moving away from ‘benefit bureaucracy’, highlighting the NHS funding crisis. He spoke of the NHS needing long term investment, especially keeping in mind his vision for Britain 2030, with ballooning support needed for Britain’s aging population. Guy also touched upon the importance of the climate emergency, highlighting how important an issue this would be in 2030. Regional divides would be exacerbated by the climate emergency and Guy reminded us that we must think of a Britain 2050 and Britain 2100. Guy’s last point was a bit more personal. He challenged us to remember the pride in British culture by asking families to find a piece of British culture and enjoy it together over Christmas. The emotional work to heal Brexit’s wounds is incumbent on all of us and he reminded us that we might not be as culturally divided as we have been led to believe.

Dominique Samuels, our third speaker, is from Turning Point UK. A conservative who believes in the power of the free market, Dominique believes the future of Britain 2030 depended on the December 12 election. According to her, in 2016 democracy did its job with politicians highlighting the, “once in a lifetime opportunity” and the importance of the referendum to voters with statements like,” there’s no going back”. Dominique’s stance is that we are now defined by whether Britain leaves or remains. She highlighted the concerted effort to delegitimise the EU which has led to further division in the country and hostility on both sides. Healing lies in the collective concern for three things according to Samuels. Firstly, Brexit must occur and Remainers need to accept they have lost. Secondly, Britain needs reasonable control over its immigration policy. Thirdly, we need to be ambitious about politics, with British control over its own laws allowing much needed radical change. Brexit can be seen as the catalyst for widening debate and discussion that has been fundamental in exposing an underlying social divide. Dominique highlighted that a second referendum being touted as credible is a dubious claim. She questioned why people would vote again when their voices hadn’t been heard the first time and pointed out that a change in demographics with the voting age of EU nationals changing would make this referendum unrepresentative of the true voice of the people. Further on, with an ambiguous deal being the promised outcome and the leave option possibly not meaning Britain leaving the EU, this result could be called illegitimate. The UK has been described as paralysed and its political system weak with a second referendum threatening a possible further fall of the pound and economic growth. She highlighted the understated strength and resilience of Britain and the vast opportunities for trade, immigration, and counter-terrorism. Dominique ended on the point that with long term positive prospects, we cannot begin to heal the divide until Brexit is delivered.

Our fourth speaker, Madeleina Kay, is also known as EU Super Girl. The Young European of the Year in 2018 started off her speech with saying that Brexit represented the politics of division. Brexit has increased xenophobic attitudes and racist behaviours with people becoming more entrenched in their views leaving little space for compassion and understanding. Madeleina believes few are actively working to build the bridges and seek the elusive common ground. There is a dire need to change politics for good. Brexit has damaged Britain’s international reputation and led to months of political paralysis. Madeleina stated that good leaders do not promise what cannot be delivered as, “the devil of any good plan is in the details.” Summing up this idea, Kay said that simplistic slogans – like the ones used by the Leave campaign – can sell an idea but cannot deliver. To move forward there is a need to consult with all the stakeholders and for there to be a stop to the ‘political soap opera’ which is off-putting for the apathetic unheard third of voters whose needs will not be met while still unexpressed. Kay talked about the need for change from the top, highlighting the toxicity of discourse in the parliament – the cradle of British democracy. She warned of the parallels to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. She put forth the need for a modern parliament with a circular setup that would foster discussion at the centre of the UK. She said, “Too long has British politics centred around London with other parts of the country unheard”. According to Madeleina, the question is not as simple as leave and remain. It has become obvious to her that “our electoral system is not fit for purpose and tactical voting is fundamentally wrong.” There is an urgent need for British values to be represented so that they can then be scrutinised. Kay reminded us that coalition is not a dirty word, diversity is a good thing and that increased participation must be represented in the media. She spoke of her own experience growing up with a lack of political literacy and highlighted the need to improve education and give voting rights to 16- and 17-year olds to instil the moral duty to vote. Madeleina ended on the powerful note of describing joy as the greatest act of defiance and saying that compromise and cooperation are what is needed to heal Britain’s wounds.

Mercy Muroki, our final speaker, is a columnist for The Times RedBox. Mercy first set out to bring us all up to date on the data realities at the ground level with startling facts like 45% of those who voted in the referendum wanting to leave the EU to strike a balance between independence and cooperation and 26% wanting better migration. Thus, the main driver of the Brexit vote was self-determination. Even though popular discourse on Brexiteers portrayed as racists, one in three voters were Asian and one in four were black. Mercy highlighted the growing disaffection, calling the narrative of young versus old being unhelpful to open discourse. Every vote matters equally and Muroki spoke of how to move forward; we cannot pretend the vote didn’t happen. A re-run of the referendum would be an, “affront to democracy”. Mercy reminded us that more people voted in the referendum than the EU parliamentary elections, showing the internal engagement and external disaffection of the voters in Britain towards the EU. The core of the issue, according to Muroki, is democracy and self-determination and to move forward, one must first respect the referendum and then take advantage of the opportunity it provides. Young people will live in a Britain that can shape itself according to the needs of Brits, with laws made by the British representatives for British citizens without what Muroki called “EU protectionism”. Mercy accentuated the idea of an independent Britain. She addressed the views about controlling immigration being a racist idea and said that Brexit is about concerns regarding the citizen’s ability to shape society and policy. We can either have a more divided Britain or accept the result and move forward.

In conclusion, all speakers argued that the healing process needs to be based on dialogue and reconciliation. A key point here is that both Guy Russo and Darren Grimes argued that British culture could serve as a pillar and a starting point for this reconciliation process that would eventually mend fences and bridge the divide between Leavers and Remainers. However, we need to be mindful of not using the idea of British culture as something that will bind the Brits together in a way that would also separate them from all other Europeans. Nonetheless, speakers from the Leave side of the debate argued that without Brexit there could be no start in the healing process since it would leave the winning side of the 2016 referendum disgruntled and disillusioned about the validity of their vote. A reversal of that outcome would deal a blow to British democracy. On the other side, both Russo and Kay emphasised the need to reform the British electoral system from a first-past-the-post mechanism to proportional representation. Such a change, they argue, would eliminate tactical voting while creating the need for coalition governments that would enable the much-needed dialogue and reconciliation to heal the wounds of Brexit. What both sides seemed to point at is that there is an overwhelming need to draw a line between the past discussions and the future – be that through actual Brexit or an electoral reform – Britain needs to move on.

You can watch the full live stream from the event here.

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