Parmy Olson on healing the damage left by a toxic referendum
PUBLISHED: 13:32 21 July 2016 | UPDATED: 14:20 27 July 2016
With the shock and grief still setting in, pundits have agonised over why 17 million British people voted to leave the EU. One recurring theme is money. London has much more of it, as a thriving metropolis whose banks and corporate headquarters have reaped the benefits of globalisation and free trade. In other parts of England and Wales, not so much.
Behind all the talk of the benefits of the single market from Remainers, and complaints about immigrants from Leavers, and the bitter attitudes towards out-of-touch elites, pumped a seething anger over the massive disparity in wealth in this country. In the end, it always comes down to money.
It was easy to think otherwise if you were with Remain: waking up on June 24 and staring at your smartphone, incredulous at the “stupidity” of so many millions of fellow Brits. But when you took a few days to let this new reality sink in, maybe you started to think a little differently about the 52%, and whether they were really stupid, or just angry. In fact, legitimately angry.
If Britain’s politicians and members of the press like myself had really been paying attention to what was going on in this country, we might not have been so surprised by Leave outcome. The fact that it stunned so many of us, illustrates how out of touch we really were. Jonathan Freeland said in last week’s edition of The New European that Brexit had laid bare a deep divide in Britain. Brexit didn’t create that divide; it was always there. We didn’t see it. Partly we didn’t want to.
Though we have stumbled into a decision that could set us back economically into darker times, there is a silver lining: Brexit has forced us to take note of the people who were angry, and ask why they were so.
The chart below shows a gulf in GDP per capital among people living in Britain, and suggests we are one of the most unequal societies in Europe.
As someone who works for a publication that tracks the wealth of billionaires, I should know. There are 50 of them living in the UK this year, up from 29 in 2010. Most of them are in London. In 2013, the very highest level of GDP per capita in the EU in 2013 was recorded in central London, where the rate was five times higher than West Wales and in the Valleys.
How will we heal the economic divide that Brexit has laid bare? One way is to mind our words. Remember “take back control” and “breaking point”?
Words, those innocuous little things, helped spark the thoughts in voter minds that turned into beliefs, and then into judgements. On the campaign trail, soundbites stoked people’s anger enough to overlook logic, and see the EU as the root cause of their troubles. It was not. Inequality was.
Let’s start by temporarily putting aside words like Brexit, Leave, and Remain, words that have turned rather worryingly into labels. Take them out of the titles of your roundtable discussions. Talk instead about the subjects that were previously relegated to thought pieces, or droning questions from Labour back benchers: minimum wage, income disparity, or the cost of living.
One business organisation in London that focuses on technology start-ups, is said to be planning a “Brexit outreach” program to other regions of England. The intent of listening to the concerns of these regions is noble. Some thought should go into their title, though. Brexit is happening whether we like it or not. Our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has made that clear. Yet the moment you mention the word, walls still go up. People get defensive, a little tribal.
The nation needs to heal from that, and part of the process is getting honest about what stoked our populist anger in the first place.
In the excellent book, Unspeak, author Stephen Poole says that politicians are addicted to nice-sounding words like “community,” which are often unrealistic and abstract, bordering on deluded. What exactly is Britain’s Muslim “community,” for instance? We should be careful not to throw around words like Brexit, Leave and Remain which have become loaded with meaning and anger.
Let’s not collectively ruminate over and over about an event we can no longer change, but rather use it as an opportunity to question why the richest 10% of British households hold 45% of all the nation’s wealth, while the poorest 50% hold 8.7%, according to the Equality Trust. Why does a household in the south east have twice the wealth of one in the north east? Do we even care?
I’m hopeful that Theresa May will turn the Brexit result into a springboard for change in the UK. Her pledges to curb corporate pay with more frequent shareholder votes goes beyond what even Labour pushed for once upon a time. May says she wants a UK “that works for everyone, not just a privileged few”. It’s a massive undertaking by itself, not to mention alongside difficult negotiations with the EU. But it would tackle the groundswell of anger that led to Brexit. Let’s hope the heat of the debate doesn’t continue to act as a distraction to that monumentally-important task.