John Bird: Only unity can heal Brexit rifts

The UK is going through a song and dance where each of the handcuffed either decries or prizes the result

As the Millennium came nearer and nearer, more and more people seemed to fear its outcome. Were we, through the Millennium bug, going to hit some big technical, market and society-destroying wall in Y2K?

In order to steady nerves, I took out a full-page ad in The Guardian and suggested that our importation of poverty into the new century was the biggest bug, and it was not some hyped-up piece of technological hysteria that would lay us low. I was not alone in not expecting the worst from some digital gadgetry.

Should I take another full-page ad out in The Guardian or some such publication and say something like: “Don’t worry! It’ll all come out in the wash.” This time not to do with a millennial bug, a Brexit bug?

Confidence, that’s what seems to be missing from the times we live in. Instead, we have a fearfulness. A daily dirge of complaints and rants about Brexit, losing sight, it would seem, of why it happened and what – if anything – can be done to alleviate its effects, or simply stop it happening.

The Millennium bug was scary for most. This new bug is that nearly half the population who voted to stay don’t accept what slightly more voted for.

It’s as if David Cameron invented a pair of historical handcuffs. What he did with this one referendum was handcuff two people together – the electorate – and tell them to get on with it. So now we have two people, each representing the way they voted, voting against the other side, locked together in a contest.

And that seems like the situation for us all. The UK is going through a song and dance where each of the handcuffed either decries or prizes the result. And with great alacrity, each is convinced that the other isn’t playing the game right (or didn’t play the game right).

Rhyming slang comes to mind: we’re ‘cattle trucked’, and in a place that no one has possibly ever been put since the middle classes, merchant classes, the yeomen of Old England, the aristocracy and royalty knocked 10 colours of the sticky stuff out of each other.

Unless we find a way of seeing that in a choppy sea you don’t want two combatants arguing over the oars, and likewise we don’t want to see the dreadful devaluation of both sides by both sides.


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Unity is the only thing that will save our bacon; as well as our eggs and everything else we prize in society. Fierce partisan verbal wars between sides will only cause fierce physical fighting.

Talking of handcuffs, whenever I have the pleasure of speaking at the Oxford Union I love telling the story about my first time in Oxford. I tell them how I arrived in handcuffs. No, I wasn’t on the way to an S&M party, but to Oxford’s Detention Centre to serve my time there.

Handcuffs are particularly debilitating if you’re wearing them against your will. And the imagery of Cameron clapping a pair of unintentional handcuffs on the British electorate is not a nice one. how do you get out of this without coming up with a compromise? How do you agree to get out? Does that involve a third party? Where is the key? Or is there no key? Have we created a situation similar to the war between the states in the US where there was no way that one lot would back down to the other side? The result being that they had to fight it out.

Both sides can’t win, but both sides can lose

One of the worst handcuff experiences I had was the most recent, some years ago, where the traditional handcuffs had been dispensed with. They were like the plastic strips used on packaging and the more you struggle, the tighter they become. When released out of these I felt my hands were someone else’s for at least a few days.

Is there a serviceable, humane and thoughtful way of casting off the referendum-inspired shackles and rising above the moment and the crisis we’re in? And put country and people before all? Or is it simply both sides saying that their way is “the only way”?

Both sides can’t win, but both sides can lose. And the numbers are not small, as they were in the English Civil War, which didn’t involve the entire country, but largely pitted the educated and the landed against one another. Although, of course, they did pay their peasants and landless the shilling to do the fighting, as they do in all wars.

Even the struggle between Churchill and the “appeasers” of Hitler, now being referenced with increasing alacrity, pales before this current conundrum. You can’t get a tougher conundrum or a more unsolvable riddle than this.

There are so many “if onlys”. And I have played with a few recently. But where is that elusive rabbit, pulled from the magician’s hat, that will unite our country? Perhaps, as I have suggested before, we’re waiting for Martians or other forms of alien life?

Unity is the answer. Only unity, and finding a way out of this morass of opposites, will solve the problem.

Churchill, I am sorry to say, had it easy. He didn’t have almost equal halves of Britain convinced that the other half were arseholes, while they remained true and pure.

Dictatorship, by the way, often creeps up in such circumstances, along with its sidekick, martial law. These we can do without.

So let’s steer all this in the right direction to knit together these yawning divisions. And it’s us – all of us – who need to be involved.