Insight article

Brexit: how the lack of a clear narrative has divided the nation

Two weeks ago just over half of the voting population in the UK decided the European Project is no longer working for them. And a fortnight later the picture is as unclear as it was the morning of 24 June, exacerbated further by a major leadership crisis in the Opposition party, together with a battle for leadership for the Conservative party following David Cameron’s resignation.

There is little doubt we are now living in a more disunited Europe but, more seriously, this has also become a worryingly disunited Britain. These divisions were not caused by the Referendum. But wow – has it brought them out!

On 23 June we were asked two simple questions: remain or exit? Reaching one answer released the ‘genie’ and we now have so many questions, with most of them substantially more critical than the original.

Who will now lead us? Will Britain be taken apart? Can we fix the social, age and identity rift? Will Europe punish us? What will a Europe without the UK become? Will we actually leave the European Union and if the future government decides NOT to invoke article 50, what will this mean to over 50% of the UK population?

The task of building a United Europe has been such a large venture over several decades. The European Union has certainly been no stranger to controversy, particularly at times when ‘costs without context’ were revealed, or enforced European Laws were perceived to trespass and indeed irritate our natural sense of independence. However, whether people have voted Remain or Leave, we must all accept that during this time the EU securely entered the bloodstream of the British Public Service. So the challenge is not just about physically leaving Europe: it’s now about rebooting all of our government systems and processes, plus rebooting a substantially bigger challenge: our mindset.

What does hindsight teach us about the two campaigns? Both missed shaping a visionary story, positioning their current reality, balancing authentic challenges with real opportunities, revealing their desired destination, inspiring voters to understand and believe in what they were hearing, making it personally relevant to them and their lives. In short: setting a purpose. Instead both sides simply replaced this with a series of threats, each with increasingly scary risks and damning consequences. And almost worse: the EU offered no story to share at all.

This unforgivable ‘lack of story’ is cited again and again by political commentators; cited for not offering considered clarity and direction, but also cited for creating a vacuum of confusion and uncertainty, allowing half-truths, feelings and threats to fester entirely unchallenged.

There is ample evidence a simple narrative painting a positive picture of a future in (or out of) the EU just may have delivered a fuller context to the crucial choice being faced. Without it voters felt a lack of understanding. Without it they felt remote. Wiithout it they sensed insufficient response to their concerns. Without it, a sense of alienation was allowed to well up. The European argument possibly lost touch with the very people it was being built for.

Interestingly, on both sides the ‘killer facts’ which were previously fuelling the threats have suddenly disappeared along with several prominent leading campaigners, resulting yet again in a vulnerable and potentially toxic vacuum without clear leadership. In light of this, we all will need to decide if we become the heroes or victims to this changing landscape: will we take control of our new reality or ‘simply accept’ whatever is being thrown at us? What will the new strategies and indeed stories be in this time of ‘not knowing’?

The discussion continues…

Nailia Tasseel