Upon waking last Friday to the realisation that Britain had voted to leave Europe, my immediate response to any shock or threat was to reassure, and to urge colleagues to focus on things within our control, to operate calmly in a time certain to be characterised by uncertainty.
I returned to a familiar text from the fifth act of Hamlet, about readiness:
"There is special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to
come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come - the
readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is't
to leave betimes, let be."
Hamlet Act 5, scene 2, 217–224
The passage itself is about death, which felt apt under the circumstances of a Brexit vote to leave Europe, but upon re-reading, I have found vivid new meaning and insight for our time.
What does ‘readiness’ look like in this strange and jarring new world that we find ourselves facing? Here are eight reflections on what I believe is required going forward:
1. We need unity
There is a need for a national unity Government to steer us through these unprecedented times of crisis. The leaders of the Brexiteers have clearly urged the country towards a seismic scenario without a single plan for what happens next. There is an abject lack of readiness. It also looks highly unlikely that, whoever leads the Conservative party next, they will command a majority in Parliament for a post-European plan without support from across the House.
2. We need to know what 'Brexit' means
This democratic referendum process has subverted the wisdom of the crowds with the rule of the mob. The shameful reduction of this debate to Punch and Judy headlines against ‘foreigners’ has channelled the latent anger from the powerless and poor within our society.
Immigration has been used by the Right as a tool to mobilise public opinion and inflame division. And given the opportunity to vote in the European referendum, there was a readiness to define Europe, by proxy, as an ‘immigration bogeyman’.
The vote to leave Europe has amounted to a protest vote against the ruling elite, with little comprehension of how Europe actually fits into any of our lives, and how its rejection will improve or worsen our individual and collective situations. There needs to be a palpable readiness from politicians on all sides to spell out exactly what a new, post-European Britain would look like, so that more informed decisions can be made about what happens next. If need be, we should have the chance to vote on the explicit terms under which we would leave, or reconsider and remain.
3. We need to rethink austerity
The real cause of the decline in fortunes of many of the citizens in our country from former industrial heartlands has been austerity. The systematic starving of investment in the NHS, education and housing is the real reason that the system isn’t working. The subsequent increase in inequality between the haves and have-nots in our country has created the readiness for a Brexit vote.
4. We need a national house-building programme
A national house-building programme with cross party support is needed in the UK. Without the hope of owning your own home, or your children having the prospect of so doing, society remains fatally flawed and divided.
A readiness from America after the second world war to help rebuild homes in times of grave need across Western Europe, in what became known as the Marshall Plan, became the key post-war unifying principle. Without this mass provision of homes and infrastructure, and the humanity and hope that it provided, the stability and wellbeing of society could not be assured. The same is true today. Housebuilding must be safeguarded as a long-term initiative central to the wellbeing of all of our citizens. It must be taken out of the hands of political personalities and electoral cycles, and removed as the token of xenophobes who use housing shortages to inflame hostility towards immigrants.
5. We need collaboration & a sense of belonging
The 18th Century idea of modern Europe had at its heart the concept of collaboration so that divisions could be healed, wars prevented, and unity maintained irrespective of how rogue leaders or states behaved. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 was a series of treaties that brought to an end the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Dutch and the German phase of the Thirty Years' War. It was constructed on the principle that countries would automatically ally with an attacked nation in Europe, and ward off aggressors, as Britain did against Hitler.
We need to resurrect and be able to tell the story about these core founding principles of Europe for our own times, and find applications that inspire, and allow everyone to see the tangible benefits of belonging together as individual nation states within Europe. We seem to have quickly forgotten the recent threat of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, and the vulnerability of the Baltic states. The readiness to secure ourselves collectively in the face of rogue states and terrorists is paramount.
6. We need to listen to young people
There is an overwhelming lack of readiness from young people to accept the decision by older generations to divide them permanently from Europe. They instinctively embrace the sense of collaboration, freedom from boundaries, and internationalism that it represents. Some 75% of 18-25 year olds voted to remain. Young people must have their say about their future. Why aren't 16-18 year olds allowed to vote on this matter?
7. We need strong leadership
Labour needs to quickly re-form around a leader that has the readiness to inspire and unite to provide an effective Opposition, so that the Government’s profoundly important decisions about the shape of our country can be effectively held to account and scrutinised.
8. We need to review our choices
If there is a snap general election caused by the political turmoil in the aftermath of the referendum, I am encouraged by talk in the papers over the weekend of the possibility of creating a united opposition to stand against the Brexiteers, with a call to action to the country to reconsider the referendum decision, predicted upon falsehoods, with pre-election promises turning to dust almost immediately. There would, I believe, be a readiness to review the decision to leave, and a more informed decision to remain, by an overwhelming majority.
The readiness is all
I believe that unity is needed to knit together dangerous social divides in our country. And moreover, there has to be a collective readiness to clearly identify and soberly articulate the real reasons for these divisions. Only then can we lead towards mature and sustainable solutions that can support the prosperity and wellbeing of all in our society.
The readiness is all.
But what does ‘readiness’ look like in this strange and jarring new world that we find ourselves facing? Here are myeight reflections on what I believe is required going forward: