On Thursday Simon Kirby, MP for Brighton Kemptown wrote the daily opinion piece in The Argus newspaper. It was entitled ‘We must reunite behind the country after the Brexit vote’ and in the piece he goes on to say “Whilst I voted to remain in the EU the British people have given us a clear instruction that they want to leave the EU and we need to unite as a country behind the result of the vote that took place.” What Simon is calling for in the broadest sense I agree with. Whilst as a nation we hold Millions of opinions about all sorts of matters, we do need to deal with the issue at the heart of the referendum and bring the country to a place where those who voted to leave and those who voted to remain can at worst get along together despite their differences and if possible begin to understand one another’s point of view in a meaningful way.
For 13 years I worked as Unity Officer amongst Churches throughout Sussex. I know that achieving unity amongst people who disagree over doctrinal issues depends in part on the issues of the doctrine itself being examined, not swept under the carpet as if it doesn’t matter as Simon seems to be suggesting. The place to start on a journey of uniting the nation over Brexit is not an appeal to get behind the referendum itself, indeed that is where the problems began. What Simon and indeed all of Parliament has failed to do is acknowledge how they failed the nation at the time of the campaign. Of course it is easy to say this with the benefit of hindsight. No one expected the vote to go the way it did, as witnessed by the silence from both sides of the debate and from the Government itself immediately after the vote. However we now know that the outcome was what it was.
In my view the starting point for uniting the country would be for the Government as a whole to apologise for not preparing for the vote to leave. Arguably this is why Cameron resigned as both Prime Minister and MP. However the Government is much bigger than the Prime Minister and failure on this magnitude needs to be acknowledged by the whole of his Government.
The next point is to recognise why uniting behind the referendum is impossible because we all participated in a fantasy referendum. The certainty on both sides that the vote would result in a decision to remain meant that when both sides of the debate were claiming that the decision would be final and would take effect straight away, they were telling lies. The fact was that a referendum that Parliament had clearly declared to be advisory was spoken about as though it was satutory or binding referendum. Either Parliament needs to apologise for making it advisory when they did not intend to do so, or else they need to apologise for failing to hold both sides of the campaign to account for telling lies as the campaign progressed.
Until both of these apologies have been made in a clear and uncompromising manner it seems impossible for anyone to unite behind a decision that no one expected and which has delivered something that we all know it was not intended to produce. This would get us to the point that Simon is calling for at least as far as the referendum is concerned. However we cannot then ignore what has happened since. The promises made by almost all members of the cabinet to secure the position of EU nationals living in the UK which the Government then ignored and Parliament chose to deny in the last few days is the third point that needs to be addressed if we are to achieve a national point of agreement. In this case the solution is both an apology and a U turn. It may require additional legislation but it is vital for the unity that Simon claims to be seeking.
If we do not get any of these apologies and this final U turn, I think Simon is living in fantasy land to put it mildly.