I have already suggested what I believe is the best plan for leaving the EU, but today I think it is appropriate to reflect, with sadness, on what is being called a ‘historic’ moment: the triggering of Article 50.
I have a long-standing connection with the ideals of the European Union. In the summer of 1989, aged 18, I went to Berlin as part of a gathering of young people from all over Europe (not just the EU). We were learning to bridge barriers of language and culture and experiencing a collective optimism about the future. However, we also saw what it was to be divided: Berlin was not a single city, but split into East and West... and although there was no sign of it then, just a few months later the Wall came down.
So for me the EU has been about removing divisions and hostility between countries, and eradicating the narrow nationalism that says: “I can only love my country if I hate yours.” This, it was hoped, could be achieved because competing national interests and antagonisms would be submerged in a new common interest, allowing EU citizens to develop a common purpose. Whatever the success - or otherwise - of that project, the bitter irony is that we in the UK are now deeply divided over whether we should be part of it.
The vote to leave the EU has exposed bitter divisions in our society, and added to them. In that sense, nothing has been resolved by the referendum: the two sides are as far apart as ever, and becoming more entrenched and unwilling to give ground. The government says “Brexit means Brexit” to appease those who are not prepared to accept any sort of compromise on what they think the country voted for.
We won, they say: stop complaining, get on with it, move on - as if everyone else should agree with them now, when the leaders of the Leave campaign could not even agree between themselves (although this may well have been a deliberate strategy to appeal to as many people as possible by offering different - and incompatible - versions of Brexit). On the other hand, there are those still trying to stop the decision being implemented. Many people I respect have said the referendum was “only advisory” and we can ignore it. That may be constitutionally true of such votes, but politically and morally it is false.
The referendum seemed to be a simple choice - to remain in the EU or to leave - but as I have already suggested, in effect there were various different Leave options gathering support from different groups of people. If there had been only one clear, predefined version of Brexit it is unlikely it would have secured a majority. However, we will not heal the divisions in our country by turning a narrow majority in favour of leaving the EU into a narrow majority for staying, or by finding legal or political means to overturn the decision. We need to find common ground, and where it does not exist we need to create it.
I want to be able to say to those who voted to leave the EU because they feel ignored and forgotten, left out and left behind: “You have been listened to, and we are doing what you chose.” However dishonest the Leave campaign was - and it was - the question was asked and an answer was given. So, let us leave the EU, because ignoring people who already feel ignored would be even worse for our country, reinforcing the problem rather than tackling it. And it would allow careerist and populist politicians to dominate the agenda again, spreading division and hostility.
That does not mean giving up; far from it. I still believe in the EU, and will continue to voice that opinion. I did not want us to leave, and I will always wish the vote had been in favour of staying, but now we turn to what happens next: as we leave, what sort of a country do we become? That battle should be our priority now, and it is only just beginning: the fight for our values - although perhaps ‘fight’ is the wrong word, because I want us all to stop fighting.