Healing the Brexit Divide

By Sarah Belger

29th February. It only comes around once every four years, but it’s crazy to look back and see how things have changed since our last leap day in 2016. Our world has changed in so many ways. Donald Trump was elected President of the Unites States and 3 years later almost impeached. The European migrant crisis has continued to develop, and climate activism has seen a global boom. Perhaps the most significant and long-lasting event for us in the UK was the EU referendum on 23 June 2016, in which the British public voted to leave the European Union. Since then, it seems we’ve not had a break from the constant bickering between all sides of the argument. Was it the right choice? Was it a fair campaign? Do we move forward? Or should we be trying to reverse the decision?

Four years later, after the triggering of Article 50, two general elections and two new prime ministers, the headlines are more focussed on some of the more intricate details of the Brexit process. However, that doesn’t mean that the public, or indeed the government, are anywhere near united in their ideas for how we should move forward as a country. Although both Leavers and Remainers have agreed that the argument became too hostile in every possible sense; from social media to televised debates during the December 2019 election, so far there hasn’t been many genuine attempts to begin to bring the two sides together outside of Boris Johnson’s comment that we need to ‘find closure and let the healing begin’. 

Headlines from 29 February 2016 largely expressed fear over the impending referendum later that year. The BBC reported a claim of ’10 years of uncertainty’ should the UK vote to leave the EU. While this cannot yet be confirmed or denied, it is by now certainly clear that leaving the EU is in no way a straight-forward process. Divisions that already existed in early 2016 have only been widened, not just among friends and family, but within our political parties who are tasked with making the decisions. On this day four years ago, now prime minister Boris Johnson also claimed that ‘Brexit would not affect the Irish border’. The strife that has since ensued and then ongoing lack of clarity around the issue would suggest otherwise. Brandon Lewis was appointed the new Northern Ireland secretary earlier this month in Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle, making him the fourth person to hold the position in four years, demonstrating how great a struggle this really has been for the Brexit negotiators.

However, similarities between people on all sides of the debate are much easier to find than first imagined. When we compare our system with that of the US for example, we can see much more ‘consensus on many key issues’, some of the major ones being taxation, welfare and the NHS. Our NHS is often seen as one of the best things about Britain, and is still one of few points in an election campaign that almost all sides can find some level of agreement on. Now that the UK has officially withdrawn from the EU, it is institutions such as the NHS that we need to shift our attention towards. We finally have the chance to return to a more well-rounded political scene; back to ‘business as usual’. Quite frankly, it’s well needed after so much time discussing Brexit deals that were only doomed to be rejected in the first place.

I’m not arguing that the concerns which have been raised about the referendum process in general should simply be ignored, but concentrating on the past is not the best way to set up a better future. Confidence in our democracy has taken a significant hit with all the political scrutiny over the last four years. Instead of allowing this to contribute to the growing sense of apathy this has already caused, we instead need to take this as a chance to look closely at parliament and its surrounding institutions and see it as an opportunity for positive change. In the election manifestos at the end of last year all the major parties included ‘proposals for democratic renewal’. Politicians have clearly listened to the concerns which have been raised and are open to finding a way to move forward and progress, rather than just try to convince the public that what they did in the past was the right thing to do.