Brexit on the streets in Bishop’s Stortford

On 31 March, as part of the Liberal Democrats’ national Europe Day of Action, Hertford and Stortford Liberal Democrats were out in the market place in Bishop’s Stortford.

This was mainly about talking with people about Brexit and hearing their concerns — though we also collected 136 signatures on a petition for a referendum on the final deal.

At a principled level, it’s essential to talk with people who voted Leave if there is to be a realistic prospect both of reversing Brexit and healing the divisions this saga has exposed.

Although many of the comments echoed previous stalls, this time felt different. My ear was caught particularly by people expressing deep worry over Brexit. I’m used to people being pleased to see us at a stall and keen to sign a petition, but what was new was the sense of people wanting to talk about why they are worried. The sense seemed to be “now it is getting serious”. The big difference here seems to be the emerging story of the involvement of Aggregate IQ and/or Cambridge Analytica in the referendum, and whistleblowing from people involved in the Leave campaign about possible rule-breaking. The realities of those will doubtless come into focus in due course, but it seems to have rattled people. It’s one thing to accept a vote that’s not gone the way you would like. It’s even possible to do that when you fear that some of those voting didn’t really understand the issues. But the fear emerging is that this has gone much further in the direction of undermining the democratic process itself That is unsettling people. If Brexit is to be understood to be legitimate, it is essential that these charges are investigated. A referendum on the deal won’t help people unless they can be sure that its result can be trusted.

Whatever its cause, the sense of worry is serious. Good government relies on those in power acting in a way that contains the anxieties of the population. Right now Brexit means the Tories are failing to do this, and Labour are not doing a good job of showing they would be better at it.

What may be the same thing from the other side was the stridency of some of the Brexit supporters. My sense is that there are fewer of them, but they are shouting louder. I’ve got used to being called a “traitor” or “undemocratic” by the extremists. What caught my ear this time were people saying they want “the hardest and fastest Brexit possible” and “it can’t happen too soon”. The passion is real, but a long way from the cool-headedness that would be needed to negotiate something this complex. The language actually sounded sadistic. Like the harshest of Thatcherites, the impression is that those demanding Brexit think they’ll be fine, and might actually be glad if others suffered.

In all that chaos, the danger is that the subtleties get lost, so a “referendum the deal” is mis-heard as “a re-run of 2016”, and that the failure of the two big parties to contain the anxities around Brexit leads people (again) to support Brexit as a way of waving two fingers at “politicians”. Words from the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution float in my mind as the obvious alternative, but I am struggling to see how to make these heard.

Originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice

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