Despair is understandable, but deep down we know determination to act is the best response to how the world is moving. Rage if you wish against those you consider culpable – whether direct instigators of the difficulties ahead or those who simply didn’t fight back- but it’s a dead end if you actually want anything to be different. Reviving our ability to be a force for good when everything seems to be going to pieces will be brutal. But it is also possible.
Theresa May is triggering Article 50 and setting us all on a course to we know not what. Throughout the last nine months, British politics has jettisoned respect for fact or reason, and instead become a battleground of slogans and symbolism. Legs, flags, sunny optimism and hashtags receive more credence than the dull difficulties of detail. But little will actually change as a result of today, as the Brexiteers still won’t say what they plan – because in truth they don’t really know.
Today is about prodding other governments to start responding. It is not the sign of a strong negotiating strategy but a Cabinet still unsure how to deliver on having its cake and eating it.
What we do know is whether we do end up leaving the EU, whatever deal is finally agreed and however long this takes, our nation will never be the same again. And whether you voted leave or remain, predicting what will happen is nigh impossible. That is unsettling – and holds the prospect of surprises too. This sense of uncertainty isn’t just about the detail of the deal – it is existential and internal too. It reflects the hesitation which with countries now view us, and whether they choose to work with us or not on any future issue.
It is also about the kind of country we are becoming – one where division, derision and desolation spill from all quarters towards others. Whether these wounds will be healed is another unknown. Too many are becoming accustomed to the fear and hurt this has created.
In such a mess, the first thing we need to do is admit that we don’t know what we can do as yet – but we do know what we want to do. The time for railing against the referendum has past. So has the time for Brexiteers gloating. Admitting Britain’s fate is up in the air is the first step to being open to do something about it- and asking how we can each be part of it.
Politicians are not well known – or indeed respected – for their willingness to say they don’t have all the answers. If we want the kind of politics Britain will need as Europe responds to the Brexit vote formally, that needs to change. A total of 27 countries hold our fate in their hands. We need the maturity to listen without acting as if their scepticism about our choices is a declaration of war. The same is true of the British people. Now is a time for all of us to step up and ask how we can help, not to stand on the sidelines simply shouting somebody should do something.
Being honest that we don’t know will happen is just the start. In such uncertainty, clarity about direction matters because it reflects what we came into politics to do whatever the conditions we faced. So our second step is to show we have purpose, not just a grievance. As progressives the course we chart must be one in which we strive to ensure everyone gets the chance to achieve their potential – and so one which is not defined by Brexit. The inequalities which hold too many back existed long before the referendum. While Brexit will no doubt make these challenges harder to tackle, neither can it be an excuse not to act.
How we do this will have to change, not just because Brexit will suck up so much of our time, but also because inequality in the modern world demands more creative responses – and that will include working with those who you may disagree with to stop the extremes in all political parties cannibalising the prospects of the British public.
The third thing we need to do now is pull ourselves together – literally and figuratively. Just because some reject co-operation and collaboration, this does not mean we should give up on the idea we can make an argument for a different kind of politics, country and world. It does not mean we cannot find others to work with to win it.
Today may feel like we have jumped off a cliff. But tomorrow can be better, if we are willing to graft. The fight for the future of this country was in our bones long before Brexit- and it will be in our hearts until the end too. Remember how you feel today and channel it not into anger but answers and action. Britain needs and deserves nothing less.