When something devastating, shocking and cruel happens, it can be hard to know how to respond. If it is a personal tragedy, there may be family and friends, statutory services, or voluntary bodies to offer comfort and practical support. But where the trauma is huge, like a major accident, or an act of war, sometimes all we can do is wander, bereft, until we meet up with others with whom we can share our feelings, and, perhaps, make plans that may take us to a better place.
For many of us, that is what the Brexit vote feels like. Raw, and personal. Savage and wilfully destructive. Stupid and unworkable. Corrosive and deeply dangerous. It is, indeed, a kind of civil war, where a faction with a grievance starts a fight, and by so doing, opens up the deep fissures, buried resentments, and latent hostilities which civilisation usually manages to keep safely dormant. And that is why a small group of people, some known to one another, others not, met last night in a major European city to give expression to our fears and to seek answers about the way ahead.
Why we had to do this, is itself a reflection of the abject state of politics in Britain. No political party had called the meeting, and although some of those at the meeting were members of the Labour Party, and perhaps of other parties, no one seemed to see the party as anything but an irrelevance. The meeting had happened because one woman had had the idea for a meeting, she talked with others, booked a room, and through social media had managed to draw together a group. DIY opposition.
Even before the meeting had formally started, we began to share our feelings. Political meetings don’t usually open with the heartfelt expression of emotion, but here we were, reaching for the language of grief and fear, mumbling apologies for using hyperbole, and then finding that perhaps we were still understating the scale of the problem.
Several people in the group worked with refugees, and had seen close up the result of the racism and xenophobia licensed by the referendum campaign. Forces are being released which may not easily be contained. Once again, as many of us have seen on social media, comparisons were made to Weimar.
We talked seriously about issues of principle, such as a respect for democracy. We examined some of the huge technical difficulties inherent in any process of disengaging from the EU, and the complete unpreparedness for anyone, including government, for what it might mean in practice. We considered the social and regional inequalities which drove the anger behind the ‘leave’ vote, and how we might find a way to talk which would resonate with those who voted against their own objective interests. As ever, the liberal left yearns to understand, to explain, to offer reason as a response to unguided fury.
Except this time some of us were also determined to hang on to our own anger. Because we are angry. “I can’t accept this result,” said more than one person. For once, rather than denial in the face of reality, “I can’t accept this result,” is the statement of another, more profound reality.
For the ‘fact’ of the referendum result is nothing but a number. What it is a vote for is far from clear. So ‘not accepting’ the result is thoroughly reasonable. It is like not accepting a popular vote for unicorns as pets. All the billionaires in the City could chuck a load of money at winning the unicorn vote; ‘Sir” Lynton Crosby could game the outcome; but at the end of it there still wouldn’t be any unicorns. A fabulous fantasy, Brexit is a unicorn.
So what did the meeting achieve?
Perhaps there was some comfort in knowing that we aren’t alone. Certainly there were some practical suggestions about ways that politically we can keep up the pressure. There was a determination to continue to meet, and plan, and share ideas. It may just be my romantic instincts, but it also felt a little like the nucleus of a new political alliance unencumbered by the baggage of the past, and motivated by internationalism, social justice, a respect for profound democracy, rather than plebiscitary populism, and a determination to put money back in its place as servant rather than master.
Other people in other places are meeting and thinking these things too. Now, how do we start linking together?