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Heather Fearn: We left because the EU was eroding the ties that bind us


I voted to leave the EU because it is a rotten institution that can’t reform or admit the damage its failed policies cause. Cut adrift from the feedback loop that makes national governments to some extent responsive to public opinion, it has pursued reckless policies such as the Euro with blinkered determination.

I do worry about the short to medium term economic impact of extricating ourselves from the EU. I am saddened that the Brexit vote suggests a lack of solidarity with our European neighbours when it is the EU that is objectionable, not our fellow Europeans. I am appalled by any suggestion that a difference of ethnic origin precludes British identity and I don’t wish to end all immigration.

Despite these concerns I voted to leave because I felt the EU’s failings threaten much more than our bank balances; they undermine the political stability enjoyed by nation states with democratically elected governments. The European project seeks to break down the boundaries between nations, seen clearly in its policy of freedom of movement. This goal ignores the rarely acknowledged importance of national identity for a healthy democracy. When ‘the people’ elect a government there must be some common identity shared by this group, some sense of ‘us’ that defines this group, however hard it is to define or pin down.

You might say, as the SNP claimed to believe, that national identity and citizenship are interchangeable and ‘the people’ need only share geographical proximity. Such arguments, however, provide no justification for our current national boundaries. Importantly a shared national identity provides some reason to stay together even when you do not like the majority decision of the people you live beside. As philosopher Roger Scruton explains, ‘Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance – in something like the way people identify themselves with family – the politics of compromise will not emerge.’

When I cast my Brexit vote, I was worried that EU policies would ultimately make the ties binding our nation together too flimsy, too superficial and that if this happened the very foundations of our democracy would be threatened. Such concerns are easily dismissed as overblown and so how ironic that within a few hours the real prescience of Scruton’s warning should leap at me from virtually every other comment on my Twitter timeline. Before me was the stark reality of what happens when One Nation becomes, to quote Disraeli:

‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’

And what do we see with the breakdown of a shared identity between different parts of the population? We see, as Scruton predicted, a refusal, an inability, to accept a democratic decision made by one section of the population with whom the other half share no real sense of identity. Remainers (who sometimes openly admitted knowing no Leavers) raged at a dehumanised ‘they’ (stupid, xenophobic, duped and too old) that apparently threaten ‘our’ economic security.

Countless liberal Remainers discovered overnight a new and previously undeclared abhorrence of direct democracy and commitment to parliamentary sovereignty. I do understand the sense of panic among those who do not share Brexiters priorities. However, the crushing harm done to our democratic institutions by ignoring a referendum result has been unacknowledged in this stampede to overturn the ‘general will’.

There will always be divisions in any society, but the route to healthy civil society and stable democracy is through forging bonds of common identity with those we live together with on this island and not through heaping bile on those whose opinions we do not share and trying to demonise their views.

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Heather Fearn
Heather Fearn
Heather Fearn blogs about educational issues and teaches history and politics.

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