Unlike in Greece when it almost did a Grexit, most people in Britain – other than those at the extremes of the political spectrum – seemed quite comfortable living within the European Union. However, when, out of the blue, they were asked by David Cameron whether they wanted to stay in the Union or leave it, they found all sorts of good and bad reasons to think that it was better to be “out”. Much of the expressed disgruntlement had more to do with local issues than with the merits or otherwise of the EU.
There was no need for Cameron to ask the question in the first place, except as a means of placating some members of his own Conservative party. It was highly irresponsible for him to engage the whole British population in resolving a party issue – essentially to consolidate his own position.
In the period leading up to the vote, both sides blatantly deceived voters and slanged each other mercilessly, leaving many confused and often angry. In the end, much to his surprise, Cameron got a stupid answer to his stupid question. He ran off the stage as fast as he could, leaving a deeply divided Britain to sort itself out.
The costs of these divisions and the related uncertainties which have followed, whether measured in economic, social or emotional terms, are enormous and are still being notched up. The value of the pound sank to record lows, many of us hesitate to take important decisions about our own lives, and, worst of all, the United Kingdom risks disintegration, political parties are in turmoil, communities are split, friendships have been destroyed and deep rifts have emerged within formerly tranquil families. We often forget that the affair has also created big problems for many of our continental neighbours who are naturally getting fed up with our behaviour.
If we were in Brazil or South Korea, Cameron would be held accountable for the damage and face impeachment.
Mrs May found herself in his empty seat. Most politicians, when faced with a stupid answer to a stupid question, play for time. Instead, before she had even sat down, she fell for the stupid answer, crowing that “Brexit means Brexit” even though neither she nor its champions had a clue as to what it implied. In so doing, she not only bestowed legitimacy on the result of a referendum that only had advisory status but also locked herself into driving along a road into unknown territory, into which even her guides had never trod and still have no credible map. And she told all of us, including the ultimate guardians of British democracy who represent us in parliament, to sit still and be good little girls and boys while we waited for her to pull the rabbit out of her hat.
Sadly, she missed the moment when she could have emerged as a stateswoman who could have brought unity to the country, based on the acknowledgement that the race was essentially a draw and that she had to do her homework, involving both sides, before she could judge what was best not just for her party but for Britain as a whole.
That moment, however, could arise again. It seems that a “hard” Brexit is all that is likely to be offered by the other EU countries to Britain and that, as the full implications of this strike home, public support will diminish. Perhaps the time will come when, rather than invoke article 50 and embark on negotiating an exit, she might see that Britain could get a better deal by changing tune and negotiating terms and conditions for it to stay on board.
The prime minister could find strong support for such a volte face if she was to listen, as all older people should, to the young people of Britain – the 70% of the population below 55 years old. Politicians seem to be so taken up with short term issues that they have failed to grasp that Britain’s future inevitably hangs on its younger generations. It seems obvious that, if they are not comfortable with what is eventually decided, they won’t give of their best to make it work.
Many of the young live quite happily in an increasingly multi-cultural society, don’t see the regulations coming out of Brussels as repressive, and believe in staying in a single market on their doorstep rather than searching for elusive free trade deals in India or arms sales in Arabia. That is why most under 50s, including over 70% of 18 to 24 year olds, voted to “remain”.
Their agenda is not about the shape of a Toblerone bar or where their neighbours come from. It is about the overall environment in which they and their children aspire to pass their lives – the opportunities to get good education, find a decent job, buy a house, travel internationally, live in a green economy and, above all, enjoy freedom from conflict.
Our call is not simply for a greater voice for young people, especially the under 30s, in shaping Britain’s future. We are also convinced that many older people would throw their weight behind younger family members if encouraged to revert to their instinctive role of promoting harmony amongst their offspring and of supporting the younger generations in achieving their aspirations, even when these differ from their own.
Hopefully, if our current leaders don’t soon put the future of our country ahead of their party games, a true statesman will emerge from the younger generations and give us a sensible answer to a stupid question!