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The moment that politicians and journalists are trading accusations as to who is most like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine a bearable version of Brexit. Part of the blame for that lies, perhaps, in the realm of the Twitterverse – there are serious points that people like David Lammy sought to make, but they get increasingly lost when political debate continues to be reduced to the most catchy headline.
Yet when it becomes evident just how low the standards set during the referendum debate went, (a recent Chanel 4 investigation has claimed that Leave.EU, as well as breaching electoral law and using racist rhetoric, may also have faked a viral video), it becomes all the more imperative that politics learns from this. However, the tone of debate has increasingly been pitched at a level that’s simplistic, nasty, and misleading. Whatever happens – is it too naïve to still cling to the hope Article 50 might get revoked? – the country will have more than a mere flesh wound that needs to be healed in the years ahead.
Progress on issues of fundamental national and global importance which might otherwise have been progressing are at a standstill. If that ill-conceived and simplistic question hadn’t been put to the electorate, and if Theresa May hadn’t dragged the country into a rushed version of Brexit before civil servants had even been allowed to start analysing what the implications might be, how much progress could have been made by our now flailing democracy on issues like climate change? Back in 2016, the government was working on steps to phase out fossil fuel power plants. Yet contrast that with only ten Conservative MPs deigning to turn up to the Parliamentary debate held in response to ‘striking’ school children. We also see hard-won progress unravelling. In Northern Ireland, for example, there are concerns about the threats posed to the Good Friday agreement. The situation has perhaps never been as fragile as now.
This context means it’s all the more vital to get the process, and the outcome, right. When almost all of those involved now accept – tacitly or otherwise – that the supposed gains from leaving could only be political, at the cost of reduced economic progress, it strengthens the case for a second referendum. When so many of those who voted leave were motivated by better public spending, once it becomes apparent these resources are instead being more stretched, it seems only fair that people are able to offer an informed, and potentially revised view on such a massive change.
Unless the tone of debate is raised, there is a risk that even with the correct choice, the process of any further referendum might exacerbate existing tensions. Another simplistic question would receive another simplistic answer, rather than the nuanced one that is needed. Perhaps that’s why the only effective response – one for which there is so little available time – would be to genuinely engage people. Whether through some form of consultative committees, listening to why people have voted as they have, and why they would vote a certain – perhaps different way – in future, any conclusion could genuinely respond to the complexity involved in why people voted leave. And hopefully in the process, begin to heal some of the many rifts which have emerged.