I have a soft spot for smaller communities who want to withdraw from the jurisdiction of larger countries, although I deplore the violence that too often comes with such movements. Their longing for self-governance is no different to our own – and I am proud of, and committed to, our independence. So it is hard for me to condemn the feelings of many British people who voted to leave the EU because they wanted to be “free” of foreign governance.
Nonetheless, I’m saddened at today’s vote. The EU started out as one of the world’s boldest peace projects: today’s vote confirms that that idea no longer speaks to the imagination of the British people, if it ever truly did. The EU itself has many imperfections and unjust imbalances of power (which were mostly to the benefit of Britain and other Western European nations); but it was born of the need to learn from the mistakes of past conflicts, and to build an international community that was stronger than national differences. That idea barely featured in the campaigns on either side: it certainly didn’t determine the outcome.
Of course, I don’t believe that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was economically prudent, either. It creates enormous uncertainty about the future stability and sustainability of the United Kingdom (with fresh calls for Scottish independence already being made), and the future stability and sustainability of the EU without Britain. Markets don’t much like that. But economic self-interest was probably only a tiny part of the decision-making process for most people.
What has concerned me most, throughout the referendum campaign, was not so much the result or its economic consequences (significant as they may be), as the division, anger and fear stoked up by both sides. In addition, the casual disregard for factual accuracy (perhaps nowhere more so than in Nigel Farage’s brazen admission this morning that statements about NHS funding had been a “mistake”), and the abundance of scare-mongering tactics used all round, seemed to hollow out the concept of democracy.
I believe the coming weeks and months will cause more uncertainty, economic pain, and sheer hard work for Britain and the other member states of the European Union than I would ever have wished on them. On the other hand, a knife-edge vote in favour of remaining in the EU would probably not have taken any of the heat out of the social tensions that have built up, and been played on, throughout this referendum, either. Now the decision has been made, I am holding on to the hope that those who wished to remain in will be willing to work alongside those who voted out, to ensure that the society they will have to build in a post-EU Britain will be as humane, as stable and as just as it can be. A lot depends on who shows leadership now – not just who replaces David Cameron, but who takes control of the public narrative, and whether it is led towards healing, or towards further division.
From a Guernsey perspective, we have been watching the referendum without participating, and making preparation for a potential British exit from the EU. As we are neither part of the United Kingdom nor part of the European Union, we are, in many ways, less directly affected. We cannot pretend that we will be untouched by turmoil in the countries that surround us – and some turmoil, at least, is now guaranteed. But we will seek, as far as we can, to be an island of stability in an ocean of uncertainty.
The States will now meet on 20 July to establish a mandate for our negotiations with the United Kingdom and the European Union – our relationship with both of them will change, as they themselves change, and as certain specific arrangements fall away (in particular, Protocol 3, which will end with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and which currently guides our trade arrangements with Europe). We will no doubt need to work closely with our neighbours in Jersey and the Isle of Man. Our leaders have already called for “cool, determined representation of our interests”, maintaining calm in the face of a momentous decision and an unknown future.
Today’s result makes this States’ term look even more challenging than it already promised to be. It will be a long time before the financial, social and economic consequences for Guernsey are clear; but there is already an assurance from the government that we will continue to fight for the island’s best interests: seeking to maintain good working relationships with our neighbours in the UK and in Europe, and to sustain the things that make Guernsey a great place to live and work. My heart is with those devastated by today’s vote and fearful of the consequences: who knows what they will be. To be hopeful is not to pretend that it won’t be hard. But – like many in the UK and beyond – we are at least committed to finding the opportunities this change presents, and to making the very best of them, for the sake of every part of our society.