Humanity took a backward step on Thursday
One day, in December 1995, astronomers pointed the Hubble telescope at a black spot in the sky. It made no sense – this was a black spot in the sky the size of a tennis ball viewed from 100 metres away, containing no visible stars, dots, blobs or, well, anything.
After 10 days of exposure, they took a look at the picture that emerged. A picture that’s now considered the most important image ever taken. They gazed in universal wonder at 3,000 swirling galaxies crammed into a space one 24-millionth the size of the sky, each containing, if our own galaxy the Milky Way is anything to go by, some 500 billion stars. From this image and subsequent Hubble Deep Field exposures, we have been able to calculate that the Universe is far, far larger than had previously been believed; some 47 billion light years across.
The scale of the universe is beyond what we can comprehend. Its mind-boggling size makes the distances in our own life incomprehensibly small. The distances between what we choose to call countries, even continents an ocean apart, are beyond any definition of tiny. In fact between most countries there is literally zero physical distance – merely an imaginary line on a map.
Yet look at the misery those infinitesimally small distinctions can cause. Rage, murder, fear, ignorance. Every day on this planet people are slaughtered; whole races denigrated; cultures resented and suffering ignored, over distances and differences so small the universe itself, were it a human being, could not comprehend.
The concept of bringing nations together into a union was one step towards closing false gaps. Towards snubbing a very human tradition of fermenting the hatred of difference and distance and realising imagined divisions. On Thursday we took a decision as a nation, to reverse that ideal and take a step backwards.
It’s not just that we have we taken humanity one step backwards. It’s that we’ve done it based on a wilful suppression of what Abraham Lincoln described as the “better angles of our nature”; the rational, thinking side of humanity that defers to reason and logic rather than unnecessary strain and division.
Speaking a fortnight before Thursday’s vote, Professor Michael Dougan of the Liverpool Law School bemoaned the Leave campaign’s “dishonesty on an industrial scale” and the fact that the “national debate has been so distorted in the way that is has”. The best analogy, he said, of what he’d witnessed and been subjected to, was “the equivalent of an evolutionary biologist listening to a bunch of creationists telling the public that creation theory is right and evolution is completely wrong”.
For QED of this dishonesty and distortion, you don’t need to look any further than the side of the Leave campaign’s tour bus. “We send the EU £350 million a week,” it read. “Let’s fund our NHS instead”. For a slogan of only 13 words, it was rich with dishonesty. Let’s take the £350 million figure, which had been refuted by the UK Statistics Authority weeks before the vote and denounced by former Leave campaigner, Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who switched sides rather than perpetuate it. We might “send” £350 million to the EU, but we receive a rebate of, last year, £4.9bn per year back from the EU because we pay less than the 1% of GDP that almost all other EU nations do. The Leave lot never corrected this, even when they were called out on the bullshit. The tour bus went on its tour of Britain; the falsehood with it.
Even worse than that, a few hours after the Brexit result was announced, Nigel Farage, ostracized, in his own words, from the Leave campaign perhaps, but one of the biggest beneficiaries and associates of it (so let’s not split hairs), admitted it wasn’t true. Just let that sink in for a minute –Nigel Farage, who has done more to cause our departure from the EU than any one individual, admitted on live TV that the slogan plastered on the side of the Leave campaign bus, wasn’t true. For the Leave campaign to repeatedly repeat the lie was, he said “a mistake”. A mistake which I don’t remember him rushing to correct during the campaign. Or one which the official Leave campaign did anything to amend explain, revise or recall even when a huge body of intelligent and rationale minds, including former Leave campaigners, incensed, begged them to for the sake of democracy.
The permission of this lie to remain must go down as one of the most despicable acts in British political history. The continuation of a litany of unprovable, unfounded and irrational nuggets of untruth is beneath politicians as intelligent as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, yet it has served them well in their ascent of the greasy pole. It is the reason why I and far more intelligent, more well-informed people like Professor Michael Dougan were persuaded to come off the fence
I don’t remotely mind admitting, I was genuinely considering voting to leave at one point. There seemed to be some visceral thrill in being ‘independent’. And as a member of the Labour party, I shared – and still share – some of the left wing scepticism for the EU. In the end I voted to remain in the EU for four reasons.
Firstly it became obvious that leaving the EU would very likely cause a short-term economic upset that would directly affect the poorest people in Britain (as all economic upsets do), and that it wasn’t worth the risk of letting that happen. Even if the ship did steady after a couple of years, this would be enough (UPDATE: will be enough) to do monumental damage to a working class already reeling from six years of austerity, A.K.A. punishment for the gross mistakes of others.
Secondly, it was through listening to the cogent, objective arguments of countless experts – the kind that Michael Gove said the British public were sick of hearing from and compared to Nazis – who laid out very clearly and soberly why a Brexit makes little or no sense. There were plenty of them. They were the people who have spent their life in serious mentation, well above the sound and fury of politics, studying international law, trade deals, economics, justice and business. They were the huge global conglomerates which as a lefty I should despise and ignore, which said that a Brexit would mean they’d think twice about investing in Britain in the future. They were the international businesses which, when I summoned up the memories from the nine years of reporting on the retail industry, told me directly that the reason they’d chosen the UK for their first international store opening was because they had long-term plans of establishing a European presence, and that our membership of the EU directly enabled that.
It was the realisation one day that the only reason we as a nation were being forced to endure this divisive process, one that has cost the life of an MP, was because of the sordid internal politics of a right-wing party, the influence of an even more right-wing party, and a Prime Minister who was willing to gamble to future of the United Kingdom to further his – and his Chancellor’s – career. As a result of this failed gamble we are almost certainly all going to be worse off. Let’s not muck about here: the world is about to have at least two more ‘hard’ borders – one between the UK and the EU, another between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – and, very likely, another between Scotland and whatever’s left of Great Britain. At a time when the last thing the world needs is more borders and more division. Why? Because a supposedly capable Prime Minister cravenly gave in to the most extreme elements of his party, gambled, and lost.
But finally and perhaps most importantly, it was because of the revolting ignorance and misinformation that, it was patently clear months ago, was feeding so much of the move to leave the EU. The defamatory accusations against migrants, human beings separated from us in reality by differences and distances so infinitesimally small – as meaningful and physical as a line on a map – as to be beneath consideration by intelligent human beings.
A few hours after the result was confirmed I got into one of those exchanges you wish you’d left alone on Facebook, with a ‘friend’ who had voted to leave. She said, I quote, “I didn’t base my vote on any of that… [“all of that” being politics and economics]…I voted purely because of my opinions regarding free movement”. And it hit me: that’s what this whole thing has been about. The intellectuals, the experts, the rationally-minded academics, were never going to win the argument. This was a decision between what we value more – the unity which holds no respect for infinitesimally minute differences between human beings – geographical, social, cultural, economical – or a visceral, animal irrational fear of the unknown ‘other’ on which those condone on division are fed. On Friday morning we got the answer to that question; humanity took a step backwards.
In his inaugural address after taking office as President, seeking to unify a bitterly divided nation, Abraham Lincoln said: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature”.
An even greater ideal than this vision, a union of nations, had never before been possible in human history before the European Union. Because never before in human history have we, as a species, had the opportunity, the will, the strength, the civility or the intelligence to place cooperation and unity above the crude, myopic pursuits of national interest. On Thursday June 23rd 2016, we, Britain, chose to trash that notion. We took a misguided step into a past that doesn’t exist, armed with facts that don’t stand up, and humanity is poorer as a result.