Britain wakes up divided. London, Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales; millennials against older generations; and university students against school leavers.
Divisions are inevitable. Geography, age and education define our narratives, our political identities—and how we vote. Progress, however, is not inevitable, it requires strong dialogue, introspection and compromise.
Yet trends in global politics—across the Atlantic, and the English Channel—and the increasingly dichotomized nature of our discourse, presage only a further descent into the left and right, the black and white, and the Leave and Remain.
And so while Britain may have missed the chance to symbolically abrogate rising political disunity worldwide by voting out of the European Union, it now has the opportunity to demonstrate true progressivism—advancing, despite division.
If the Remain campaign is to avoid its economic fears from becoming self-reinforcing, now is the time to act in unison with opponents, and not to engage in defeatism. If the Leave campaign is to lead Britain into a brighter future, now is the time to begin meeting expectations, and not for rejoice.
“The politicians who will lead the U.K. out of the E.U. must guard against allowing a yawning gap to emerge between their political rhetoric and the realities facing Britain outside,” wrote Robin Niblett, director at U.K. think tank Chatham House.
Amid a fragmented society and political elite, Britain must withstand a barrage of challenges in the coming months, as it negotiates its path out of the E.U. and beyond. If it seeks prosperity, it must wake up to the post-Brexit world—together.
The pound’s decline in value has broken records, shares have plummeted and the risk of recession is firmly tied to support for market confidence. The nation’s two largest political parties seek structure, with British Prime Minister David Cameron announcing his forthcoming resignation, and a vote of no confidence overshadowing his co-Remain campaigner and opposition Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Beyond the City and Westminster, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon says a second referendum on Scotland’s independence is “highly likely,” after the country overwhelmingly voted to stay in the E.U., adding variables to the crowded planning matrix.
And in Europe, Eurosceptics have newfound ammo. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, is calling for a similar referendum, Dutch anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders wants a “Nexit” and Mateo Salvini leader of Italy’s Northern League party says “now it’s our turn.”
This ‘domino effect’ threatens to unwind the European project altogether, with critical national elections in France and Germany on the horizon. In the meanwhile, the U.K remains deeply connected to the continent by trade, finance and labor, and will need to weather the uncertainty and contagion, in addition to the direct challenges at home.
Between the U.K. and E.U., trade deals and business terms need to be renegotiated, laws, rules and regulations need to be clarified and the British government will need to overhaul its diplomatic infrastructure with Europe.
Economic precariousness and political shuffling are the face of Britain’s new short term reality. And reforming the nation in this climate will be a doomed Sisyphean venture if it cannot first overcome the toxic duels that have masqueraded as democratic debates in the past weeks. Negotiations, bureaucratic restructuring and economic adjustment will otherwise suffocate.
Egoistic, insular and “I told you so” rhetoric will need to disappear if Britain is to progress beyond the divisive, fear mongering and post-truth politics that colored the referendum. While denial, bitterness and demonization must also subside in order to unpack and reverse a growing polarity in British politics.
Britain may be split by a binary question, but it must now reopen dialogue, understand rising nationalist, anti-expert and anti-immigrant sentiments, and address class, geographic and generational cleavages, if it is to truly “take back control” of its democracy, or it faces a stasis.
When Cameron finished negotiating the U.K.'s 'special status' with the E.U. in February he proclaimed that the referendum was a “once-in-a-generation moment to shape the destiny of our country.” The referendum has passed, but a prosperous destiny remains firmly in the hands of the British people.
Tej Parikh is a global politics journalist and analyst. He received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, Global Politics Magazine and Beyond Violence. His work is archived at: www.theglobalprism.com. He tweet @tejparikh90