I do not regret voting to leave, I regret voting at all and even having the vote in the first place, given the extent that Britain is now broken.
Those are the words of a political colleague of mine – a young, bright Tory councillor in Colchester – posted on Facebook in the aftermath of EU referendum.
The sense of joy he anticipated by the vote for Brexit simply didn’t happen. “All I currently feel is a sense of loss and despondency about the future of the country,” he added.
He’s not alone, and the ranks of the despondent are not simply isolated within the UK. As France’s La Tribune said pithily, “the world woke up with a hangover“.
And what a hangover it is. With the resignation of David Cameron, the UK is about to lose the most moderate, unifying Conservative Prime Minister it has had for over a generation. Almost by definition his successor will be drawn from the electorally toxic right of the party.
The Union is set to collapse, with the SNP hammering home renewed calls for independence (or ‘Sexit’, quipped a Dundonian friend) and with Sinn Féin agitating for a referendum on a united Ireland.
In London, the markets and the City have gone into turmoil, with some commentators ironically making a serious case for London to become some sort of independent city state, allied to the EU – as if chucking away unwanted bits of a country would solve anything.
Then there’s mainland Europe. “The first tile in the game of dominos has fallen,” lamented France’s Le Monde as it reported on the far-right Front Nationale’s exploitative demands for “Frexit.”
And boy did those dominos start a chain reaction. Within hours the far-right in Holland and Slovakia were clamouring for their own referendums. In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland MEP Beatrix von Storch – a politician who believes her country’s border guards should shoot refugees – claimed that she ‘cried for joy‘ at news of the Brexit.
The genie is not only out of the bottle, but he’s on the move – unstoppering phials of pressurised poison across the length and breadth of Europe.
The question is why this has happened, and how.
The answer is complex, but at its root is the fact that the web has made western societies much more tribal.
Often this is a benign and even a positive thing.
Benign: I love old Triumph cars, and the internet has brought me together, and made me part of, a community of similarly enthusiastic people who share advice, swap hard-to-find parts and organise rallies and social gatherings.
Positive: you can quickly create communities that can cause radical change. When my local council refused to allow citizens to record what happened in its public meetings, I used the power of the web to mobilise other residents in Colchester. The council, taken on the hop by a bunch of angry residents, voted not only to allow recordings, but started making its own.
But for all the benignity and goodness that the web brings us, it is probably the most polarising force our society has ever experienced. It brings validity to extremism, the unhinged and the downright evil.
Take the man who lives in a small village, but who believes that black people are inferior, unwanted and should be murdered. He’s got ready access to online communities that dress up mutual hatred as ‘white pride’ and catalyse individual bile into a community of righteously felt poison.
Or take the left-wingers who are in the mutual and collective grip of simple answers to complicated questions, ironically spurning racism and discrimination while gathering together online and in the streets to vilify other groups, whether they are bankers, the rich, Tories or ‘Zionists’. All while screaming for the rights of ‘oppressed’ Islamist nations and groups who want to throw gay men off buildings, stone adulterous women to death and blow up and behead innocent strangers in the street.
Remember that it is people like these who have hijacked the Labour Party, using online organisation to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader. The collective and polarised fantasies of this online echo chamber have been dumped on this weak man’s shoulders, leaving no political ground for moderate, centre left voters to support.
In essence, the web has helped create a tinderbox which not only catalyses and strengthened polarised thinking, but gives people the collective power to enforce change – too often for ill.
And that, for me, is the significance of the referendum. Whether Remain or Leave, the most organised and most vocal of both sides felt they had a right to win and impose that view on the rest of the country.
It didn’t work. It could never have worked. And that’s why we woke up with that hangover which saw the far-right on the continent determined to impose its own divisive vision; the nationalists in Scotland and Ireland determined to impose their own divisive vision; and why my kind, intelligent and thoughtful friend wished that the destiny of the UK and Europe had never been put in our hands.
It was bad enough when Big Brother was watching us. Now we’re able to breathe down his neck from our self-righteous and polarised positions, has it really changed our world for the better?