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23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: The saga broke a creaking socio-political system

The calmness that characterised a good deal of public debate in this country is gone. 

By Elif Shafak

When I first moved from Turkey to the UK, more than 12 years ago, I thought to myself, “It’s amazing how calm and composed British people can remain when they discuss politics.” I no longer think this. The calmness that characterised a good deal of public debate in this country is gone. How did we come to this point, and what can we do to make sure such scenes are never repeated again?

The Brexit saga – with all its vitriolic feuds and growing polarisation, systemic misinformation campaigns, martial metaphors, rising sentiments of distrust and unbridled demagoguery – broke a creaking socio-political system.

That the pandemic occurred against this political and cultural backdrop shows how fragile our democracy is at this moment. A country bitterly divided into echo chambers and epistemological tribes is fertile ground for populist, nationalist, nativist movements. There is a reason why all autocrats and demagogues across the world – from Donald Trump to Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Jair Bolsonaro – love to antagonise their societies. They thrive upon constant tension and deepening polarisation.

One thing is certain: in a post-Brexit UK, as we face the consequences of the pandemic, we all need to become involved, engaged, connected citizens. We have seen enough to understand that a fairer and more inclusive world will be achieved not top-down, but bottom-up. The real impetus for change and demand for equality comes from civil society, from the citizens, and from the margins.

Elif Shafak is a novelist and activist

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This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.