For weeks now, I have wanted to sit down and either record a video or write something about Thursday’s EU referendum.
Although, as a journalist, I keep on top of political developments at home, across Europe and throughout the world, and like to feel I have a solid grasp of the facts and arguments; every time I thought “I must do a piece on the referendum”, a sort of inadequacy engulfed me. I kept thinking, well I can’t write something until I have sat down and researched even more, even further, armed with the minute statistics and facts, so I can have rational, intelligent debate about it.
But the truth is there are not many of us out there that are EU experts; not even in the media. It’s a niche for the resident EU journo whose job it is to be pedantic, who sits through hours of those boring sessions and actually understands what the sub-laws and the numbers mean, or the policy maker, or the lobbyist in politics, in charities or in big corporations whose job it is to have the intricate facts any given notice.
As the weeks of campaigning have turned in to months; the debate has delved further in to this pedanticism; and the general public have heard from “experts” who confidently state the exact opposite things as “facts”; we have been asked to become experts ourselves; and we have been told to ignore the experts because they have no clue what they are talking about.
Don’t worry guys, even I’m ready to admit that it has been a confusing ride; and that I think most people are acting like they know what they are talking about, more than they actually know that they do!
So, what is that I actually have to say when it comes to this, highly important vote?
When the referendum was first announced, my instinctive position was “absolutely in, without a shadow of a doubt” (I’ll get to the reasons why I thought this later.) As time went on though, I started to realize that there was a spectrum of voices for staying in, and a spectrum of voices for leaving. And they weren’t just “establishment voices” (yes, yes we all know Labour and Tories have all gotten muddled up on the two sides, with no clear line, but hey we knew these guys all had a lot more common amongst themselves than with us anyway didn’t we!)
In fact, some of the voices to leave were colleagues and friends whose opinions I respect; enough for me to stop and question whether my instinctive position was correct.
I spent time toing and froing, scrolling through articles, watching and listening intently, and looking at the facts on impartial websites like www.fullfact.org. I was Alice falling down the rabbit hole!
And then Jo Cox was murdered.
Now, I don’t want people who are reading this, who disagree with the politicising of her murder to be put off by what I’ve just said. Just hear me out.
For the last 5 years my job has, almost exclusively been, to report on what has been happening here in the UK; the economy, politics, social issues, the recession, immigration, protests, homelessness, government…all of it.
I have witnessed something happening, and it has been my job to tell you guys about it.
In this time, I’ve also watched my industry…the media…become more and more divisive. We truly do have a lot to answer for.
Up until the death of Jo Cox, I wanted to be able to write or a record a piece on the EU referendum that “didn’t rock the boat”. I wanted to say “I understand that people see immigration as a problem…” I didn’t want people to switch off, I wanted to try and not do what everyone else was doing; be divisive. But her murder forced me to be completely honest with myself, and I realised why I had been finding it so difficult to write this piece.
Because I wasn’t being honest. I wasn’t being true to myself.
This evening, I was watching the last BBC debate. At one point Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and on the panel for #TeamRemain threw in the latest breaking news; that Vote Leave had allegedly taken a £600,000 donation from a former BNP member; “Are you going to pay it back?” she menaced.
After the debate, Michael Gove, for Leave took exception to the fact. He said what was, in essence, being insinuated was that anyone who votes leave – for all intents and purpose (and opinion polls) half the country – are basically right wing racists.
And this is the trap we’ve all fallen in to somehow or another. We have stopped respecting each other; we are all guilty, to some extent, of being a part of the divisive debate.
We jeer and we whoop, to ourselves, and those who think like us. We don’t talk to change minds; we talk in slogans to spur on our own side. Yes, maybe there are some in the middle who are yet to choose a side. But what happens when that’s all done? What do we do to each other next?
So, I guess having gone through all that, I realised actually if I did do a video or a piece on my stance on the EU Referendum; the first thing I would want to say is this; I don’t believe half this country are right wing racists. We are all voting on what we think is best. Things are complicated, and there are walls not bridges being built amongst us. We are all voting based on what we believe to be ‘what’s really going on’. Whatever that is, we can all agree that something is going wrong; so why don’t we just talk about it without our backs up, and our claws out.
And then I would be brave and honest enough to explain my take on things.
I’ve only spent three and a half years living outside of the UK (end of 2007-mid 2011) and they happened to coincide with the beginning of the recession. When I “came back home” the country had change. I could feel it, and I could see it and as I said my job was to monitor it and report it.
I’ve witnessed people struggle. The coalition government and then the subsequent Tory government didn’t just “cut” public spending, it has been a brutal and sustained knife attack. The poor were (and continue to be) the hardest hit; not just the homeless, the jobless, or the disabled; but the ordinary (often white) working class. En masse.
The truth is we have all felt the struggle in some way or another. For me, I’ve struggled with the price of rent (and given up on owing a property), I’ve seen the difference in the job market, I’ve struggled getting an appointment with my GP, or getting referred for an NHS appointment, I can’t save up, nor afford a holiday. And really I am one of the lucky ones.
At the end of October 2013, my dad got a rash and we took him to A&E, he was kept in for a week. He had gallstones. His doctor said he needed a routine operation within the next 4 weeks, but the waiting lists were long so give it 4-6. We’re all used to the long waiting lists and the long waits for appointments to arrive. So by the Christmas break we didn’t think anything of the delay. On a Monday, mid January he had to call A&E, by the Friday he was in ICU, by the Saturday in a coma and three weeks later he was dead. It turns out if you don’t take gallstones out on time, it’ll kill you.
Believe me when I tell you, I know that those NHS waiting lists can be a b**tch.
I tell these individual stories, because whilst as a journalist I reported them, but as a British citizen I also knew them to be true; and ultimately I know we all have a story to tell, big or small.
Not every story is the death of a parent or the suicide notes of disabled individuals who have had their allowance cut. It’s the every day stories; the daily struggle of no longer being able to afford a much needed family holiday; or the mortgage, or the rent, being young and depressed because you cant seem to build a future, or being old and depressed because you feel you have been forgotten; of your routine – your life - being demolished; of watching your local pub close down, or not being able to go to the pub because you can no longer afford a pint.
The truth is the recession and these government cuts have destroyed lives, even if they didn’t end them.
Fed up, frustrated, depressed, desperate. Not uncommon terms for most of us in these years. That is what we have had in common.
And out of this we watched the big banks getting bailed out and MP expenses sky rocket. We were all there; we saw a lot of things.
The anger was bubbling and rightly so.
And then we were told who was to blame.
It didn’t start with immigrants. First it was lazy benefit scoundrels. The unmotivated and lazy young. If there was protest it was only the ‘loony lefties’ with unrealistic things to say.
Then it was the immigrants.
They were the reason we couldn’t find a job. They were the reason the waiting lists were long. They were the reason my dad died. They were the reason our schools, and our hospitals were collapsing. It was no longer the budget cuts or the scummy Tory government; the immigrants were the reason everything was shit.
I know that if you are somebody who looks at immigration as a legitimate problem you’ll back will up right now (I’m not saying anyone who thinks this is right wing! That isn’t the case and I know many “lefties” who are voting leave and think immigration is a “legitimate concern”).
Please; backs down, claws in.
Look, we can still chose to leave or stay, and we can still chose to prioritise immigration as a key policy issue if we so wish. But lets all agree that up until this point in the story – this IS what happened.
Because this has been the key thing that has been missing in the debate for me.
You see it was the “traditional right wing” of Britain that started this immigration debate, to deflect criticism. It was the Tories (and kinda parts of the left wing too because lets not forget the Lib Dems were in power and it was all mighty complicated and this is all long enough already without getting in to all of that now as well).
But lets just say, it was out of this that UKIP saw an opportunity to grow. And it was out of this, that it did grow. And it was out of this that the debate shifted right – EVERYONE shifted right, the very nature of the discussion shifted. And then the EDL was about, and Britain First, and Pegida. Finally an outlet for all that anger and frustration. And instead of the media calling it out, they fuelled the flames, the poured the petrol.
They and we and everyone watched as the whole thing was just set alight.
By the time the 2015 election came about, the rhetoric was so far to the right that Cameron, knowing it was going to be a tight race, needed to appease the Tory voters he has lost to UKIP. So he promised an EU referendum. He wanted the win. He wanted to be Prime Minister.
The conservatives won the election. Less than 1 in 4 Brits (24% of the population) voted for them.
And that’s just a little bit about how we got here today.
This is all crucially important.
What I’ve realised is this has to be the anchor of our debate and our decision. And it is a conversation, that first and foremost, and ultimately in the end; we have to have with ourselves. Because neglecting these facts and starting on a premise that this EU referendum came out of an acceptable and rational basis is not only wrong but it is dangerous.
I am not a strong advocate of the European Union; in fact I could probably rip it apart more frankly and more honestly than any of those who are on the Leave campaign. Neither do I endorse the Remain camp; they include some of the politicians I take most fault with – in Labour and the Conservatives – and they include the big businesses that I blame for much of the state of this country.
Everything seems muddled, traditional alliances have been broken, and the teams all look strange, because, frankly no-one is being honest; the anchor of all of this is being swept under the carpet, and a bunch of people with their own agendas have got together to chose one side or another that benefits them.
So how do you navigate it all? As I said; first and foremost; be honest with yourself. And really question why.
I never thought I would agree with Michael Gove (honestly it physically pains me to write that) but actually, I do agree with him when he says that it cant be the case that half of this country is racist. But, we have to understand that we have all been taken to the right, every single on of us. The very framework of the debate we are discussing has shifted dangerously.
It’s going to take a lot of work to undo what has been done; and I’m aware that a lot of people won’t be able to truly hear what is being said here (and lets be honest, some may even have chosen what to think when they saw my picture in a hijab at the top of this page). But there are people who will be reading this who, when they think about why they have started to view immigrants in this way, or Europe, or refugees, when they strip it back they will be able to trace it back not to facts…but to a narrative.
I have decided to vote remain, not because I prefer the EU, or because of the work laws, or the fishing laws, or not even really because of the laws that are of more concern to me like human rights. It’s not because I endorse the foreign policy or am concerned about security. For me, personally, that hasn’t topped my list (immigration hasn’t even hit the radar; and even when I forced myself to look in to it, all I found was this). For me, right at the start, I instinctively rejected the very premise of this vote, for all the reasons I have stated, and said I would vote against that. And at the end of my journey – having thoroughly looked in to it and asked myself why, I am back to where I started and comfortable with that choice.
But I do respect other points of view. You have a right to put fishing law, or human rights law, or foreign policy, or security first. You have the right to have a nationalistic agenda, or anti-capitalist or anti-colonial one. But whatever we chose, it has to be a choice made once we have stripped back the rhetoric and asked ourselves why and been honest with ourselves about that.
We have to make sure we have undone any of that rhetoric that may have influenced us, we have to make sure we recognise the anchor, and what it means and we have to understand how important that is.
Because ultimately the alternative is unfathomably scary. Both here and in America (with the rise of Donald Trump and the reaction to it) we are becoming polarised and divisive, we are not listening to each other, we are only shouting at each other; we are dehumanising the debate, and we are dehumanising each other. History has taught us that terrible things can happen in the widening vacuum that is created when this happens. And we have to remember that ultimately, it was societies that let those things happen. Societies made up of individuals just like you and I.
I’m not convinced even half of a nation was ever racist, not even when the worst took place. But yet societies let them happen.
So, whatever you chose, be acutely aware of that, and make a decision that you feel builds a better future; because you really questioned yourself and made sure you were the best you, making the best decision you possible could.
Roll on Thursday.