More in common

I’m tired and upset, and that probably isn’t the best time to write about what I think of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.  But here goes anyway. I reserve the right to think something different after I’ve slept on it.

I refuse to be drawn in to bitterness, recrimination and division.  We have more in common than that which divides us, as Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in the House of Commons.

The people who voted to leave were expressing real frustration, and with good reason. Wages are not increasing for median workers, as the incomes of the super-rich continue to soar.  Public services are being destroyed by austerity. We have failed to invest in housing, leading to rising prices that make housing unaffordable. Unbalanced growth has favoured London, bringing growing inequality and a sense that the wealthy have acquired too much political power, at the expense of the rest of the country.

The Leave campaign has successfully blamed these problems on the EU and migrants. They are wrong, but they are not the first political campaign in history to scapegoat “others” for our shared mistakes, and I fear they will not be the last.

Though my very strong preference would have been to remain in the EU, I believe we must now make the most of the situation in which we now find ourselves.

There are many who have advocated exit from the EU who have objectives that I share. They want a country that is more global and less inward-looking within Europe; that trades freely with more countries; that does not subsidise agriculture at the expense of developing countries, consumers and taxpayers; that is open to more migration from outside the EU; that is subject to bureaucracy and regulations only where necessary; that is entrepreneurial and inventive; which believes in science, evidence and progress; and where decisions are made by local decision makers, accountable to local communities, wherever possible.

There are others in the Leave campaign with whom I profoundly disagree. These are the people who want Britain to be more inward looking; to be protectionist and isolationist; who distrust people who speak in foreign languages on public transport; who do not want a Bulgarian family to move in next door; who deplore foreign aid or any other sense of common purpose and humanity with those beyond our shores.

Our task now is to make common cause with the first group, to build a Britain outside the European Union, if that is where we must be, that embodies our values: open, tolerant, fair, generous; that promotes entrepreneurialism while protecting the vulnerable and tackling inequality.  Even outside the EU we can be a country that cooperates with others to tackle climate change, prevent conflict, and promote sustainable development.  A country that lives up to our values at home, and stands up for them abroad.

I understand, of course, that it was immigration wot won it. I realise there is no public appetite for the more open approach to immigration that I would like to see. (Indeed, arguably it was the commitment of people like me to more open borders that provoked many of our fellow citizens to vote to leave the EU).  I believe their grievances are real, but I do not agree that immigration is the cause of them. Nor will I pretend to agree with this, for the sake of finding common ground or for political expedience. In my view, the divisiveness of blaming immigrants for problems that are not their fault is far more dangerous in the long run, than loudly disagreeing with opportunist, xenophobic campaigns that scapegoat people who contribute so much to our society.

Now is the time for healing and finding common ground. We do have much in common. People have real grievances, and we must both acknowledge and tackle them.  We must not let the Little Englanders win with their divisive, nasty scapegoating.  Instead we can, and now must, make common cause with those whose vision for Britain outside the EU embodies the open, fair, tolerant nation we have always been.

6 comments on “More in common”

  1. Owen,

    Whilst I both admire the sentiment and agree with most of what you have written, I am not ready to give up our EU membership just yet.

    I feel that the Brexiteers won the referendum for several reasons.  They ran a better campaign; there were lots of protest votes; and they convinced lots of people that life would be better outside the EU.

    In my opinion, they have a mandate to take us out of the EU, provided that they deliver on what they claimed could be achieved in the exit negotiations.  This includes:

    Free access to the single market;

    Zero or minimal net payments to the EU;

    Supremacy of the UK’s supreme court to decide matters not relevant to the single market;

    Ability to determine who can enter and work in the UK and what benefits they might receive; and

    Control of fishing rights in the UK’s territorial waters.

    There may be some other issues which I have overlooked, but these are the main ones I can recall.

    If they are not able to deliver on all these issues, they ought to be obliged to seek a further referendum at which the British public is given the option to choose whatever they have negotiated, or to remain members of the EU.

    Multiple referendums regarding EU issues have been used in the past (Republic of Ireland, I think I recall and maybe others), so this would not be setting any sort of precedent.  It would allow a fully informed decision to be taken, whereas the vote yesterday was between something poorly understood (current membership) and something un-defined (new relationship outside the EU).

  2. I don’t think its likely, but another argument for a second referendum: the polls by age group and ONS population projections suggest remain voters are likely outnumber leave voters even before the UK leaves the EU (assuming the turnout pattern doesn’t change and that no one changes their mind).

  3. Quick comments from an outsider watching all this:

    1) You snooze; you lose. The younger demographic with the lower turnout may wish to consider the merits of being more engaged within the democratic process. In Canada there was a survey several years back with highlighted the following demographic divide: older people regarded voting as an obligation; younger people saw it as an option. The UK appears to show the same type of disconnect.

    2) Since the younger generation appears to fall mainly within the Remain camp. If this holds then the long-run game is that England will either remain or rejoin the EU.

    3) This may be a wake-up call to the EU and its institutions including the European Parliament in terms of becoming more engaged with and accountable to voters within the respective member states.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and