If our nation was an illusion, now we have to build one

For many, the shock of Brexit is still sinking in. Many Remainers are reacting, understandably, with a deep sense of loss, in which calls for a second referendum look more like denial in the early stages of bereavement than a credible political option. Even some who voted Leave now seem understandably disorientated by the sweeping forces of change that are being unleashed.

Perhaps one of the deepest shocks is the recognition that many middle-class progressives’ sense of security in their national home has been illusory. The idea that most people in Britain (or at least the ones that mattered) shared the same values and felt at ease in a globalised, cosmopolitan world has been shattered. We have been shown to be a deeply divided nation – or now more accurately a divided union of nations – in which the anger and resentment of those who have felt excluded by social change has now struck a profound blow to a political system in which they felt they had little stake. This shock is genuinely frightening, raising fundamental questions about the society that we are becoming.

If a progressive assumption about a national community has now been shattered, what is left in its wake is the political project of our generation. If our sense of nationhood has been shown to be an illusion, our task is nothing less than building a new nation.

It is essential that we now find political leadership that is up to this challenge. Whilst the scale of the task ahead is still unfolding, guiding principles for it can be found.

A first is that the country must more strongly be grounded in principles of equality. The Brexit vote has shown that no political system can thrive in which a substantial part of the population feel they are struggling to get the basic resources of a good life – work and a decent wage and home – and have little prospect of making their lives better. A real national community in which those who are more comfortably off are indifferent to such inequalities is not possible.

A second is that we must cultivate a politics of care – for each other, our traditions, our communities and our environment. The progressive embrace of social change must be tempered with the recognition of the need to preserve and cherish that which is good in our communities’ past and present.

A third is that as we begin to establish a new sense of national identity, the vicious racist sentiments that some people have felt emboldened to utter again in public must be shunned as poisonous to our collective life. Our nation has within it deep currents of decency and tolerance, and those who pollute those by abusing others on the basis of their ethnicity, religion or nationality must never be allowed to think that they speak for our country.

A fourth is that we must never lose sight of the importance of serious engagement with our common political life. If the Brexit vote has done anything, it has surely put an end to the myth that politics, and voting, never changes anything. If young people have not voted in sufficient numbers to bring about the Remain victory in which most of them believed, this will hopefully be the moment of recognition that the costs of political disengagement are too high. We need to continue to find ways of engaging people in public debate, whilst resisting the populism that rejects informed and well-evidenced argument in favour of the quick appeals of celebrity and rhetoric.

How we do this – even the party political structures and coalitions through which we do this – are still to be determined. But we need to move quickly beyond disorientation and despair to try to find new confidence in our ability to build a new national home for us all.

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