NEW YORK CITY, U.S.A. — Waking up the morning after the referendum of the United Kingdom’s membership of European Union was a surreal experience, akin to the morning after a breakup. I felt disappointed, hurt, angry and deeply troubled about the future. I wasn’t sure if what happened was real. Surely there has been some mistake? Now, instead of directing these feelings at a wayward ex-boyfriend, my resentment is directed towards 17 million of my fellow Brits, a group that includes my own grandmother.
For those unsure of the source of my pain, I am referring to that referendum unimaginatively titled Brexit: the vote in which 52% of the electorate opted for Britain to leave the EU. The consequences of such a choice are still unfolding. Prior to the vote itself, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted that Britain leaving the EU would blow a £20 to 40 billion [27 to 55 billion USD] hole in the economy; moreover,around 3 million jobs in the UK rely on the EU. In the first 24 hours, two out of four of the countries that make up the UK are in talks about becoming independent, the current prime minister has announced that he will step down and the pound plummeted in value over night to a level not seen since 1985. Ultimately the future is uncertain but it already doesn’t look good, and for a woman looking to get a job in the UK when I graduate next summer, a suffering economy doesn’t bode well for me.
To outsiders watching, I can’t even begin to explain the depth of my distress. Last night, as I anxiously followed more than seven hours of coverage, desperately praying that the number of Brits wanting to remain in the EU would swell, it finally occurred to me that the outcome I had feared may indeed happen. Because, tragically, in the depths of my heart I had still felt that reason would prevail, that people would realise that the tremendous risk that we were about to embark on was built on the fragile sands of fear and distrust; the Leave campaign having been fueled by anti-immigration rhetoric, with one particular Vote Leave poster closely resembling Nazi propaganda.
The most pressing question is, of course, what next? I don’t mean from a logistical standpoint — although that will be a messy affair lasting months, if not years — but from an emotional one. In the most divisive vote in recent British history, lines were drawn along generations — 75% of 18-25 year olds voted to remain, compared to just 39% of the those over 65 years of age. The campaigning became so nasty that half of the country were written off as racists and a brilliant Member of Parliament Jo Cox died at the hands of hatred.
I can’t bring myself to call my grandmother for one of our semi-regular chats, because I am genuinely, deeply disappointed in her choice. We are a country cracking at the edges, and it breaks my heart.
Regardless of whether Scotland and Northern Ireland choose to leave, and I honestly can’t blame them if they do, we have a long way to go towards restoring national unity. To Brits, I say that coming together should be our focus now, regardless of what we marked on our ballot paper. My social media feeds are flooded with concern that hate had won out, but we still have a responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t. Even as I look to the older generations — the ones who have placed us here — with dismay, I recognize that feeding into the perception of them as xenophobes who have destroyed our future only plays into the same kind of fear-mongering that I had been so dismissive of only days before.
We are a disappointed generation, but not a defeated one. We may not hold positions of power yet, but in a decade or two, where will we be? It is encouraging to me that the people in my generation showed a marked preference for inclusiveness and constructivism over isolation and racism. Thus it is our duty to hold in our hearts the message of acceptance, the desire to learn about others, and continue working towards a world where international collaboration helps populations toward a better life. We have been jolted awake politically, but we must not lose hope for the future just yet. It is true that many who made this decision will not live to see the consequences, but we cannot let our experience of the seemingly inevitable struggling economy cause us to become bitter.
Today I am just as British and European as I was yesterday. I am just as pro-immigration, and anti-xenophobia as I used to be. If the husband of Jo Cox, whose killer shouted “death to traitors, freedom for Britain” when accused in court, can say that his wife would have remained optimistic and focused on what she could do to bring the country back together around our best values, then we owe it to her to do so.
Even though democracy was used to push forward close minded ideas, don’t lose your faith or idealism. Within this flawed path that we Brits now follow, we don’t know what the future holds. But that toxic fog of fear must not pollute any more, and I direct this to international readers too. The UK is not the only European country disillusioned with the system, or the only country in the world divided on the subject of immigration. I believe that we were stronger together: remain and leave, old and young, rich and poor. There has never been a more pressing time to unite, nationally and internationally. So now the time comes to ask ourselves: what can we do to work together and help this world prosper?