The inevitable referendum blog post - what now?

I'm really sorry

A former colleague of mine is researching whether he's entitled to German citizenship because his Dad was born in Leipzig. His Dad was brought to the UK aged 3, to escape Nazi persecution. The colleague is looking into this because his own young daughters are aghast at having their opportunities to live and work in the European Union so drastically curtailed. The layers of irony are inexpressible. 

A young woman I know lives and works in London.  We met this morning, and she was in tears. She's German. She's fearful about her job and her life here. She's feeling alone and unwelcome.

Social media is full of examples of people being openly and aggressively racist towards white Europeans, and also towards the more familiar victims of such abuse: headscarf-wearing Muslims, people of colour, foreign-looking or sounding.  The result seems to have given people permission to unleash their worst selves. It's hard to practice assuming good intent.

Like another former colleague, I feel the need to keep apologising to friends and neighbours: it wasn't me, I voted remain, I stood in the rain handing out leaflets.  I'm really sorry.

A little bit of theory

In conflict resolution, there's a neat conceptual framework which helps explain how to find common ground in the face of irreconcilable positions.   PIN - Position, Interest, Need - basically invites you to ask 'what would that give you?', when faced with a positional statement. By telling each other about their interests and needs, the common ground shared by seeming opponents can be found and potentially expanded.

A referendum is a positional situation par excellence.  The question has two - and only two - possible answers, which are mutually incompatible.  

‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’

It's designed to oblige people to declare a position with clarity, to be definitive.

It's clear now that people had many distinct, different reasons for voting 'leave' - some of which were tangential to EU membership.  But the binary referendum question doesn't make nuances and reasons explicit - we have to guess the motivations.

What we need are conversations which help us understand the interests and the needs.  And I think it's best if the conversations are about the future (what country we want to become, what we want our relationship with EU to become) rather than the past (why we voted (or didn't) how we did) and who misled who.

understanding each other

I have heard a lot of remain supporters talking about the need to heal, reconcile, understand the complaints of leave supporters.  And at least one notable leave supporter, Dominic Raab, spoke on BBC Question Time today (Sunday) about the need to reach out to the 48% who are 'nervous' (14m50s onwards). 

This is not a question of wise, insightful people in one camp understanding the baffled and misinformed in another camp so that they can persuade them more effectively.  That is doomed to fail.

As Karen Armstrong says,

Do not enter into dialogue unless you are prepared to be fundamentally unsettled.

That kind of dialogue only works if people from all the perspectives want to enter into it. If they want to better understand each other.  If they actively want to find common ground and move forward together.  If they want to test and discover the

...far more in common than that which divides us.

The purpose of a new conversation

I think there is a role for deliberative conversations about two related questions.

  • What kind of relationship do we now want with the EU?
  • What kind of country(ies) do we want to build and how shall we do that?

The first is important because the mandate to leave didn't contain within it any detail about what kind of leaving people were voting for.

This second is important because leaving EU won't solve the all the problems that leavers hope it will solve, just as remaining wouldn't solve all the problems that remainers want it to.

Who could convene it?

Some people have been enjoying the idea that no-one wants to hold this particular dirty-nappied baby.  "You touched it last" is being played and it's giving rueful remainers a good laugh.  Who should lead the Article 50 negotiations?

I'm attracted to the idea of a national unity Government of some kind, a thought echoed by Giles Fraser on the same edition of Question Time.  Whether or not that is what we get, some body with the power to implement the mandate and which has some degree of credibility with leavers and remainers of many perspectives, could convene or commission this kind of process.

And if we are in the business of organising or convening those conversations, we need to be careful to scrutinise our own assumptions - 'they' only voted like that because they were misled by campaigners or the media, because they are old or poor or badly educated, or because they are young and wealthy and have degrees. Patronising and looking down on others is not a good way to enter into dialogue. If you can't keep your personal perspectives out of the room, then join in as a participant, not as a facilitator.  The facilitators will have their work cut out, helping people listen to each other with respect.

Whether or not the negotiators choose to listen to the deliberations, we need to understand each others needs and concerns with compassion and empathy which outshines what we've managed over the last few weeks.

Petitions, legal technicalities and clutching at straws

I - bitterly sorrowfully - regret the result of the referendum.  I wish it hadn't been called.  I wish the campaigns had been more honourable and honest, less shrill.  Less about rich white men deciding which of them gets to run Daddy's estate.  But I think the campaigns to seek a re-run or treat it as advisory are futile and a bit dangerous in themselves: perpetuating the positional divisions and putting off the time when we being to find common ground again.  Remain supporters look like sore losers, and that will cement the views of those who voted leave as a response to feeling disenfranchised and alienated.

What the result changes, and what it doesn't

The laws, taxes, spending programmes, climate change commitments we end up with will continue to be negotiated and decided on by politicians influenced by campaigners, lobbyists, the media and more-or-less formal test of public views.  This will continue whether we are in the EU or not.  I'm not convinced that trying to stop Brexit is the right strategy. (I reserve the right to change my mind, unlike referendum voters.)

Far more important to me, right now, is the agglomeration of individual conversations and interactions we have with each other - person to person. The referendum has shone a brutal light on divisions in our country, which are echoed and repeated across Europe and elsewhere.  How shall we live together, in an increasingly frightening and resource-constrained the future?  How shall we distribute power, agency, resources more fairly?

How shall we make sure that when the floods come, we rise out of the water carrying each other and not carrying guns?