Time turns flames to embers: Reconciliation in the age of Brexit

Happy New Year. And Happy New Decade! The end of the ‘teenies’ and the beginning of the ‘twenties’ has seen plenty of politicians and others in contemplative form, setting out their hopes, fears, dreams and anxieties about the next ten years. Perhaps the most interesting was the letter signed by, amongst others, Matthew Elliot of Vote Leave and Will Straw of Stronger In, calling for a ‘decade of reconnection’ after the past few years of division and strife. Are we even close to that happening?

Different groups are at loggerheads all over the world: rural conservatives vs metropolitan liberals across much of the former Soviet empire; US Republicans vs Democrats; Sunnis vs Shias – the sources of conflict are manifold and varied. Sticking to the UK, the debate about Brexit has brought into sharp focus pre-existing differences between the generations, between successful cities and struggling towns, and between England and Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. Can calls for reconciliation even vaguely cut through the rancour and bitterness uncorked over the past few years?

Not yet they can’t, because as it stands each side barely acknowledges that the other side has a right to be upset, let alone that anything should be done to assuage their concerns.  I read today a letter in the New European calling on Remainers to march on the day after Brexit Day to express their love for Europe and the hope we will be let back in – or to put it another way, to demonstrate that Brexiteers are wrong, that this is all an aberration, and we will eventually end up back where we belong.  At the same time many Brexiteers (including all too many now representing the Conservatives in Parliament) have adopted a stance of truculent triumphalism, effectively telling the 48% to stop being sore losers and just get on with life outside the Union.

Until we acknowledge that both sides are angry and disappointed, and start to grapple with why they feel the way they do, the ‘decade of reconnection’ is going to be a damp squib.  As the plethora of ‘how to avoid Brexit arguments over Christmas dinner’ articles have revealed, Leavers and Remainers are often unable to speak to each other making it hard to see how they are going to learn to understand one another. With this backdrop reconciliation feels a long way off.

Perhaps Boris Johnson has the answers? In fairness to him, he is trying. The promise to splurge on disadvantaged areas, to focus on key public services like the NHS, and generally to give a sense of momentum, optimism and hope after Brexit is sensible. But the worry is this will focus on quick fixes and razzle dazzle announcements about difficult big projects (bridge to Ireland, anyone?), not boring things like improved bus services, better education and training, and genuine devolution of powers, to city mayors and also to schools, hospitals and local councils. And an even bigger concern is that the greatest challenges, such as the fundamental unaffordability of the NHS and social care, the UK’s productivity crisis and, of course, climate change will be swept under the populist carpet. So although the Prime Minister is trying to bring people together (for his own electoral advantage, of course), this could easily end up being divisions delayed, not healed; stopping the bleeding, not stitching up the wound.

To really reconcile we first need to forgive, and to understand, starting with Brexit and then the underlying causes of the vote to leave. Remainers (including me) have to stop explaining how dumb Leavers have been, and Brexiteers have to admit that those who want to stay in feel just as strongly, and are just as angry, as they are. Both sides have to recognise that (1) we are leaving and it actually won’t be the end of the world, but (2) we need to do so in a way that takes people on the journey, rather than rubs their noses in it (as a starting point, how about not getting Big Ben to ‘bong’ to mark our departure?). It will take an enormous effort, but we surely have to try?