A Legacy of Divisions and Uncertainties
For many of us the EU referendum vote and its follow-up have been deeply disturbing. We have had a lot of sleepless nights.
It has created huge tensions between people who voted in different directions, leaving a legacy of split families, strained friendships and divided communities. It has stirred up resentment and distrust in our normally tolerant society.
Many families have found that the only way of coping with these divisions is simply to avoid talking about them. But this will leave the differences simmering on, eroding family harmony. It also makes people inhibited about expressing their own views, fearing that this could worsen matters.
These problems are exacerbated by uncertainties about where the process is leading. These are making it difficult for us to go about our normal lives – especially when we have to take big decisions, such as whether to move house, to change jobs, or where to place our savings.
David Cameron called for the referendum as a way of healing divisions in his own party. Instead, those schisms are still there and the rest of the country has also become divided.
A Time for Healing
It is time to try to heal the splits, starting within our families. To being family life back to normal, we have to understand what went wrong.
Before the referendum process, most British people had no big problems with the EU. Even Boris Johnson was able to write about the European project in admiring terms just two years ago in his inspiring biography of Winston Churchill, saying
“When Churchill looked at what was unfolding in Europe in the 1950s, he didn’t have any particular feeling of rancour, or regret, or exclusion. On the contrary he looked at the developing plans for a common market with a paternal pride. It was his idea to bring these countries together, to bind them so indissolubly that they would never go to war again – and who can deny, today, that this idea has been a spectacular success?”
Both campaigns, and the polarised media that supported them, sought our votes by playing on our fears. The “remainers” warned us of the perils of a “leap in the dark”. On the “leave” side, Boris and others told us that we had to “take back control” by freeing ourselves from the bureaucrats of Brussels, restricting immigration and opening up new free trade markets for British goods. They implied that voting for this agenda would be an act of patriotism.
Many people who voted to “leave” had looked seriously at the implications of staying in the EU and their vote reflected their deep and sincere misgivings. But lots seem to have fallen for the “ take back control” slogan without giving much thought as to whether, in their own lives, they had actually been directly affected in a negative way by EU membership. Had they ever personally felt the restrictive effects of a specific EU regulation? Or had they suffered directly from the actions of EU migrants?
Figures on voting behaviour show that the majority of older people voted to “leave” while most of the young opted to “remain”. This may explain why so many of the family splits are intergenerational and reflect this pattern. They are probably also the easiest to heal because of the opportunities for reinforcing the instinctive closeness of relations between grandparents, their children and grandchildren, and building on the natural desire of all generations to see their young grow up in a happy and stable family environment.
This implies that we need to discuss how to “take back control” over our own lives through restoring our former bonds of affection, trust and respect. This has to be based on calm discussion within the family, exploring how to bring the tensions down, especially in the interests of the very young. It is not a time to call on anyone to abandon the values that shaped their voting, but it is clear that family harmony can be most easily restored if members of the older generation signal their respect for the choices made by their young even if they may not personally subscribe to them.
It is always difficult to begin such conversations and, if positions have hardened, there is a risk that they may back-fire. In spite of this, shouldn’t we at least try to break the deadlock?