Brexit and British Culture – Now and Going Forwards

Brexit. A topic that it’s been hard to ignore over the past few weeks. Social media streams have been bombarded with comments and articles on the subject since the UK voted to leave the European Union in a referendum on 23rd June 2016.

So what can I contribute to the discussion? How can I connect with you? Which I feel I want to all the more at a time of such divisiveness. It’s a question that I have been asking myself and am still pondering as I write.

There are certainly those better qualified to comment on the legal, economic and political implications (although can anyone really say with certainty what will happen next..?). And understandably these practical matters are what concern people (including me) as a priority. What I am also interested in however, personally and as a cultural trainer, is what it tells us about the British, about our culture? What does the result tell us, and our reactions to it? Do we like what we find? And, perhaps more importantly, what is our vision for the future?

Certainly what struck me immediately was the strong emotional reaction to the result. Admittedly I am writing from the perspective of someone living in London who voted to Remain and who no doubt is surrounded mostly by people who felt the same. People were ‘devastated’, ‘disgusted’, ‘ashamed’, ‘saddened’. According to a poll conducted for the London School of Economics “almost half of voters aged 18 to 24 cried or felt like crying when they heard that the UK had voted to leave the European Union”. And I know a fair few people much older who would agree!

Although the British are often known for their stoicism or their dislike of ‘gushing’ excessive displays of emotion (when sober anyway…), this is not the first time we have seen such a dramatic national response. There are (rare) occasions when it happens –Princess Diana’s death being a prime example, as well as perhaps sporting triumphs/failures to a certain extent (please do add your own examples in the comments below) . A key characteristic seems to be that the individual’s outpouring of joy or grief is in line with a large group – that’s what makes it acceptable. Or of course the gravity of the situation.

Such was the despair of ‘Remainers’ that there was even a noticeable absence of humour in discussions following the referendum result. This was not a laughing matter – which is saying a lot, when pretty much anything and everything is fair game when it comes to ridicule in the UK. The shock was palpable – amongst Remainers, but even those who voted to Leave, as there was a sense that they never believed they would actually win…

What has also been clear from this referendum is how divided our nation is. What different values and experiences of life people are living in our small country. Our class and regional divides are perhaps even stronger than we thought. As one man expressed, “I don’t know if I even know my own country anymore”.

Statistics abound, perhaps in part to help us to make sense of what has happened and to know who these ‘others’ are who voted differently to us. Only pockets of England voted to Remain in marked contrast to Northern Ireland and Scotland. London was notably strongly Remain, as was the younger generation (73% of 18-24 year olds). More education was also associated with a lower Leave rate.

But how useful is it for us to dwell on these numbers and destructive stereotyping that divides us further? With reports of race crime on the rise since the referendum and a great deal of uncertainty ahead, there are more crucial matters that demand our attention, that need us.

What occurred to me as I thought about this blog post, is that it matters less what our British culture is – a more important question is what do we want it to become? What values do we want to be known for as a country? And what qualities do we all need as individuals going forwards, whether we are angry or overjoyed by the result. Empathy? Constructive communication? Tolerance? Adaptability? Humility? Positivity?

One thing I have noticed and been heartened by as a result of Brexit is how engaged people have been in the debate: we care. It seems to have been a wake-up call for Remainers and Leavers alike. Time will tell, but I like to think it might have awakened us from a certain political and social apathy. Whether our individual contribution in future is making sure we are informed or informing others, getting involved in causes or signing petitions that matter to us, or intervening when we witness racism. I know Brexit has made a strong impression on me, and also inspired me – how about you? How do you want it to change you?

This topic is obviously so broad and controversial, but I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially in relation to British current/future values & culture, and the qualities we will need to come together. Dialogue is so key at this time, so do comment below.