It’s done and dusted. The Great British public has spoken, and they have voted—narrowly—to leave the European Union. This is the greatest political upheaval of my lifetime, and probably yours, too. To say we’re in uncharted waters is an understatement; no country has ever left the EU, and there is no map showing where Britain goes from here. The pound has already tumbled to its lowest value since 1985, the biggest fall since Black Wednesday in 1992. David Cameron’s career is unlikely to survive the morning, meaning the country will probably be without a Prime Minister in mere hours. Sinn Fein is already calling for reunification, and the SNP are pushing for another Scottish referendum.
For these reasons, and many more, we should all be nervous. But now is not the time to give into fear or bitterness. Europhiles, particularly Remain campaigners, are understandably heartbroken right now. There has been a lot of tears, a lot of anger, and a lot of disgust at Leave voters on social media. As someone who supported Britain remaining in the EU, I completely agree. It’s devastating. But in the words of Jo Cox, we really do have more in common. There is far more that unites us than divides us.
The In campaign needs to remember this now more than ever. Regardless of why people voted for Brexit—and there were legitimate reasons and concerns—the fact is the Leave campaign has been dominated by xenophobia, racism, and isolationism. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have set the parameters of the debate surrounding Britain’s vote. They cannot be allowed to dictate Britain’s withdraw.
It’s time for the In campaign to lick its wounds, pick itself up, and get to the new task at hand: making sure that the brave new world we now occupy is not one dominated by bigotry and fearmongering. It is time for us to look not at the past, but at the future. Britain has left the European Union. There is no going back. For the sake of the most vulnerable—the workers who could lose rights the EU has guaranteed, the sick who depend on an NHS free at the point of access, the immigrants who now feel ostracised and unsafe—we cannot throw our hands up and say “you reap what you sow.” It’s time to shift the fight from keeping Britain in the EU to making sure its exit produces a fair and just society.
Part of this is accepting that the majority of voters who voted for Brexit are good and decent people. Yes, the Leave campaign has been horrible, but most Leave voters aren’t. I firmly believe in the goodness of the British people. They are fair-minded, compassionate, and wise. One vote does not define a nation.
We have to ask why working class voters opted to Leave, listen to their gripes and concerns, and directly address them. The Remain camp spent far too much of this campaign dismissing their fears instead of presenting the case for how the EU could alleviate them. We can’t do that anymore. We have to listen. We must act.
Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson won tonight, but they do not have to win in the end. Wallowing in self-pity or vitriol is not only counterproductive, but it is a betrayal of the principles so many of us campaigned for over the past few weeks. It is more vital than ever before that we present a progressive, positive alternative to the reactionary, negative politics of Farage. Indeed, UKIP exists for the sole purpose of securing Britain’s withdraw from the EU. Their raison d’être accomplished, those of us in the centre and on the left must now make sure they disappear from power across the country and cease to influence the political discourse.
Britain is great. It was great before the European Union. It was great in the European Union. It can be great outside of the European Union, if only we fight to secure a fair, compassionate future. The worst of Britain may have campaigned to leave, but now is the time for the best of Britain to lead its exit.
So cry your eyes out. Maybe get rip-roaring drunk. Punch a wall if you must. But then, tomorrow, wake up, wipe away your tears, take an aspirin, and ice your first. There’s work to be done, a future to shape, and a country to lead.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is journalist and cultural critic who writes about British politics and LGBT rights. His work has appeared at Salon, The Daily Dot, The Advocate, Pink News, and elsewhere. He founded The Curious American in 2013. He lives in Chicago.