So, we simply have no idea what will now happen. In the tube on the way to work I heard a Remain supporter say 'it’s like death in the family' to which her companion replied 'it’s like a death followed by the dawning realisation that the deceased has not left a will, was deeply in debt and has several illegitimate children'.
Somewhere on the scale from distinctively possible to quite probable lie the following:
- A relatively straightforward transition to the UK being outside the EU but having good trading and other links with Europe
- The break-up of the EU as we know it as other countries vote to leave
- A fundamental review of the European union including the dismantling of elements previously seen as sacrosanct, such as free movement
- A second referendum in the UK with a formerly Brexit Prime Minister presenting a new deal and arguing for ‘remain’
- The break-up of the UK as the SNP demands and win a second independence referendum
- An upsurge in nationalism in Northern Ireland as most republicans and even some former Unionists decide it would be better to be in an Irish federation in the EU than in the UK outside
- A long term period of deep economic slump as international concerns about the UK and its place in Europe intersect with major structural weaknesses such as our high levels of public and private debt
- An early general election forced on the Government by the public’s unwillingness to have a Prime Minister imposed on them by the 150,000 members of the Conservative Party
- The Labour Party fracturing and becoming irrelevant in large parts of England as it has done in Scotland.
- Substantial civic mobilisation and conflict take place as, in the context of crisis, the many geographical and cultural tribes of the UK confront each other
Given that one of the most important duties of political leaders in power is to provide order and security how have we got to a level of uncertainty and danger unprecedented in modern peace time?
This will be debated long and hard. There will be those who will argue that the underlying factor lies in the characteristics and contradictions of the modern financialised capitalist economy. This is why a line can be drawn linking yesterday’s vote to a revolt against the elites all over the world. Others, and, of course, these explanations overlap, will point to the inability of state regimes to deal with the multiple impacts of globalisation and particularly the movement of people.
In all this, I don’t think we should underestimate the role of institutional failure. The EU itself is a prime example – it is not just that it is unloved, for far too long its leaders seemed impervious to deteriorating public opinion. The failure of internal solidarity in relation to the debt crisis and external solidarity in relation to the refugee crisis has destroyed the moral legitimacy of the European project, while a failure to reform has eroded the pragmatic case.
But the frailties of our own institutions too have played their role. This referendum was only held because of the internal divisions of the Conservative Party. It was lost by ‘remain’ in large part because Labour has opted to be left wing campaign group rather than serious Party of Government. Will the country now accept the legitimacy of a Prime Minister elected by the highly unrepresentative demographic who make up the Tory membership?
I asked yesterday why politicians reject the proven value of deliberative democracy as a way of bridging public and expert opinion. But this is only one of many radical ideas that we need to consider if our political institutions are to become fit for purpose. There is reform taking place – in Parliament for example – but it isn’t fast enough or nearly as radical as it needs to be. Changes are needed not just to systems and processes but to styles of leadership and ethical norms.
The rest of us have a role too - and this includes the RSA. Not just calling for new ways of thinking and governing but exemplifying different models of engagement and social change. Next week, for example, we will be launching our Citizens Economic Council a major, deliberative response to the terrible level of public economic understanding and discourse (something evident again in the referendum campaign itself).
Even though I voted the other way, I genuinely hope there is way to give the British public what it has chosen without courting disaster. But whatever befalls us, we urgently need to grasp how much our core institutions and their leaders have to change to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.