It has never been so clear that Britain’s political institutions are broken. Huge numbers voted Leave because they could smell the system’s rot, and chose the one change they were offered. For those of us who wanted to Remain in the EU, the fact of leaving is surely evidence enough that something isn’t working.
Some see the crisis as new in form; the rise of an internet driven post-truth politics or the inevitable consequence of an increasing sense of anger at a faltering economy. Some see it as a symptom of widening inequality. Some say it’s the result of rapid globalisation.
For others, the simplest explanations are the best: a decades long campaign against the EU made the idea that we ought to leave “common sense”; whilst capitulation to the notion that migration is driving down wages and living standards ensured a vote to leave a free-movement union was inevitable and a political willingness to accept soft racism made moves to firm it up all too easy.
For others still, the EU is ultimately an anti-democratic neo-liberal club, acting for corporate power, enforcing privatisation and crushing countries in southern Europe in the name of northern banks. Or it’s a top-down 1960s institution in a bottom-up networked world.
There are further explanations too: I sometimes suspect that future historians will see the European referendum in 2016 as another crease in the unfolding story of Britain’s imperial decline: a tale which began almost exactly 100 years earlier with Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising; that the British state, built to run a vast Victorian empire, is unable to cope in the modern world.
In his book here on openDemocracy, Anthony Barnett highlighted that rising English nationalism has been given no other way to express itself and that the centripetal forces acting on the UK’s unwritten constitution were always going to tear it apart.
Of course, each of these accounts of why we are here has some truth to it, and there are many more still: if nothing else, the referendum drew back the curtain on the state of the nation, and revealed a tangled mess. And the Why matters. Because unless we understand ourselves, we cannot change.
But there is another question too, perhaps even more important: a What. Specifically, as ever, what the hell is to be done? For some, the answer is economic: heal the rifts of unequal wealth tearing our country apart. Which poses a further question: How? We’ll try to address that economic question in a forthcoming series here on openDemocracyUK – New thinking for the British economy.
For others, though, this is a constitutional crisis and the answers are constitutional: rewrite the rules of democracy in the UK; address the vast iniquities in political power. Perhaps allow Scotland and Northern Ireland to leave in order to remain in the EU? Let England and Wales flourish into modern multicultural democracies.
Or maybe the answer is written in culture; perhaps the problem is software, not hardware. Maybe we need to educate and entertain, to engage confidently in a free battle of ideas.
My attitude is that without considering the economic, the constitutional, the cultural, and the environmental, no conclusion is ever complete.
Whatever the answers, though, we need to talk, openly, until we find them. openDemocracyUK was launched six years ago, as OurKingdom, to discuss just these questions. But they seem more urgent than ever. And so today, under the banner ‘Reset’, we are launching a new conversation. The starting pistol is fired by Henry Porter, a long term friend with whom we collaborated on The Convention on Modern Liberty in 2009. Crucially, his demand for change reminds us of the fierce urgency presented by the ticking clock of climate change.
We are seeking thoughts about the present crisis, responses, provocations, disagreements, rough sketches of ideas and fully considered programmes. Whether essays, videos, podcasts, cartoons, comments below the pieces we publish or whatever form you prefer, if you yearn for a more democratic, open and just country, please do take part in this discussion about how we got here and where to go next.
Usually, when we ask for such things, those with most social privilege are first to rush forwards, confident in their ideas, whilst women, black people, working class people, disabled people and others whom society hasn’t pumped with self-assurance hold back. But if we are to understand and address these interwoven crises, we need to hear from everyone, so please, be assured, we want your thoughts.
Likewise, we’re launching this as a collaboration between Compass and openDemocracy. But we want to work with and share this project and its potential with as many organisations and networks as possible, from affiliation to direct support to cross-posting. Rather than put it on hold until we had done so, we are launching now and will be actively approaching at the same time, please don’t wait to be approached, join us in any way if you broadly agree, or suggest others you’d like to be involved.
Alternatively, feel free to sit back and follow the conversation. We hope, if nothing else, that it sheds a little light on the path forwards.
If you’d like to contribute, do drop me an email – [email protected]