Over the past four years I’ve been on both sides of the Brexit divide. In 2016 I watched the referendum result from a hotel room in Brazil where I had been working. I flicked anxiously between the news channels as the results came in. When the BBC finally called the referendum for Leave, like many people, I was distraught. I felt a disconnection from my country for the first time. Nigel Farage represented a version of Britain I didn’t understand. During his victory speech Farage proclaimed that Brexit was won “without a shot being fired”. My boyfriend was German, I’d previously lived in Madrid and I was surrounded by an international group of friends and colleagues. The idea that anyone would want to fire shots to leave the EU seemed dark and surreal.
When I returned to my hometown of Oldham I congratulated my leave voting parents as sarcastically as I possibly could. I signed a petition calling for another referendum, looked for marches to attend and wrote to my MP. I wanted to register my fear, concern and anger. However, as the days and weeks went on, to my own amazement, my perspective started to shift. Being in my hometown of Oldham, a post-industrial town that has so often felt like an after-thought, was part of this shift in perspective. I understood why towns like Oldham had rejected the status quo EU membership represented. There was also a sense that the Stop Brexit movement valued some votes more than others. This made me feel protective of both my Leave voting hometown and my Leave voting parents.
I felt increasingly alienated from the ongoing Remain campaign. People who had previously articulated how I felt now started to sound disconnected. I found myself arguing against a second referendum and became increasingly annoyed by the generalisations and stereotypes made about Leavers. The longer I spent trying to argue with people I had previously agreed with, the more pro-Brexit I became. Rightly or wrongly, it felt like there was an ageist and an elitist undertone to the ongoing Remain campaign.
Now I feel I’ve seen the world from both sides of the Brexit divide. As a Remainer the EU felt like a safe haven and a shelter, it represented hope in a volatile world. Leave felt like an act of self-harm. As a Leaver the EU looked indifferent, unrelenting and opaque. It almost resembles the Borg from Star Trek, wrapping itself around and assimilating democratic institutions. If you already feel like a forgotten outpost, as many people do in towns like Oldham, you’re unlikely to want another layer of government above Westminster.
As both a Remainer and a Leaver the UK seemed to me to be broken. Like an old stately home that needed to be gutted and stripped of its rotting wood. If immediately post-referendum, we had embarked on a program of national reform and renewal, Brexit could have been seen by both sides as a vehicle for national change.
This opportunity was lost, and the UK is shackled by an ongoing national identity crisis. Many Remainers have clung ever more tightly to their EU identity. This acts as confirmation to Leavers that the EU was much more than a market, community or a cooperation of nations. Ironically this level of commitment to an EU/European identity had not existed in the UK pre-referendum. These divisions now pose an existential threat to the UK, manifesting most notably in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Many young Scots now feel more aligned with the pro-EU SNP. The Saltire is now regularly placed next to the EU flag, as Scottish nationalism has assimilated the EU identity as its own. In Northern Ireland the Irish identity is now closely aligned with the European/EU identity. In London, the former Lib Dem mayoral candidate called for London to become a city-state. Effectively suggesting that London leaves England and joins the EU. Even in Brexit voting Wales, independence is increasing in popularity. We’re witnessing a national identity crisis and possibly a national unravelling.
My hope is that we can start to find common ground. Leavers and Remainers have much more in common than they realise. We all want to live in a better country, we all want transparency and accountability from our politicians. As we head into an uncertain winter, I hope more people from both sides of the Brexit divide start to accept that compromise is our only hope. Towns like Oldham cannot afford a no-deal or a poor-deal Brexit. However, there are still pragmatic options available, such as the “Norway Model”, which may represent the common ground we seek. What we need is a dose of old-fashioned British common sense and pragmatism if we’re going to heal the Brexit divisions and meet the challenges ahead.