A struggle of two natures: reflections from an abstainer on the EU referendum

'Europe'/ CC
Photograph: 'Europe'/ CC

As Britain’s (somewhat desultory) summer wheedles its inhabitants to slurp bubbly drinks more frugally than any other seasonal intervention, it seems strange for political tensions to be equally as bubbly and potentially bilious. Of course, this has been and will not be any ordinary summer. It is the summer in which many fear Britain has taken a step towards the proverbial economic and social precipice and is now dangling herself, precariously, at the edge of either national evisceration or euphoric triumph.

Indeed, despite the vote being done and the decision cast, the conversation is still fevered with talk of continental unity or separation. Regardless of the vicinity, attendees or level of sobriety, these conversations persist in animating the interlocutors into various new shades of character. Though during such debates, ones that are well worth having mind you, however tedious or anfractuous, I find myself dwelling on the outskirts; my opinions on the matter somewhat disavowed, for I was an abstainer (cue scowls and tuts). But just wait, it gets worse.

Not only did I abstain from voting on something so seemingly monumental, but I am also a millennial (thus in that enfranchised age group who will apparently be affected the most), and I am also a student of politics. By now I expect some indented brows might have turned to fully furrowed, contemptuous grimaces. I can understand that to a point. It wasn’t an easy decision, nor one I am completely proud of. But I must point you at this point to my title, particularly  to the ‘two natures’ part. for this was not a decision made out of indifference, rather it was a calculable irreconcilability, a reckoning of two sides of my thinking. For I was ensnared by the cosmopolitan in me, which aspires for political unity and harmony with the continent above all else, and my more classically liberal side, which is mindful of usurping political monoliths and opaque bureaucracies.

Thus I am a traitor to the cause I often endorse. Just last year I pleaded with my contemporaries to vote in the general election often using gawky, semi-stylized phraseologies such as: ‘abstinence from voting is a right of democracy, but using your voice is democracy’. It’s a quaint and epigraphic notion, and not without its base layer of truth. But now I find myself on the other end of the stick, apparently rendered ‘irrelevant’ to the conversation by my own indecision. But I find myself taking at least some solace in this feature of my thinking in that I was not unmoved by the sentiments of both sides, nor did I resign myself to the infamous cop-out- ‘it doesn’t affect me’ or ‘they’re all twats anyway’, rather I simply could not align the divergent themes of my thought.  

Even when I was pro-IN some months ago, I could never say so without prevaricating on my position. I would humble my rhetoric with caveats and appendage to express my inert discontent with the EU, although I would often oblige its necessariness at the time. I am envious of that image in many ways now, of my satisfyingly committed yet dutifully suspicious attitude.  but with my growing sympathy for some Brexit sentiments (and some relatively unmade ones of my own) such as the conundrums of accountability, policy elasticity, austerity propagation, and the prophylactic benefits of regulation for big business at the expense of small, my self-assurance dilated. The liberal and the revolutionary in me bayed and hounded at my own intellectual disjunction; for how could I, somebody that believes the individual should be protected at all costs and politics devolved to satisfy this individuation, vote for a creature that simply adds more layers to the pie, more stuffing and impenetrability? The question one must then ask is how to vote on something so ‘seismic’ with a half-heart? For the lesser of two evils conundrum is normally the way with politics, but what kind of convictions does one have if it must always comply with that depressing dictum?

Many of my consternations, I can see now, reside in the abstract, and perhaps this was a problem of mine. Though empirically speaking, those sources of governance most alienated and hidden from the societies they are supposed to be caring for are the ones most tepid, dismissive of the everyman and susceptible to paralysis. Then again, I’d be lying if I were to say that the prospect of a Tory party without some level of EU buttress is not frightening, but I wanted my vote to be something bigger; to look beyond the immediate aftermath (which anyone with half a head knew would be full of trepidation), and to look beyond my self-interest. For if I was to vote in accordance with that and that alone, a vote to stay would surely have met little resistance.

I was not enamoured by the horrendous rhetoric from both parties, particularly the burgeoning racism of a certain subset of leave voters. But it seems, in my keenness to keep an open mind, I was paralysed by my own commitment to it. I’m not entirely regretful as I know my decision was come to honestly and with reason in mind. But I do feel slightly angered by my naivete, to what was glaringly obvious that the referendum was a couple of things: an appeasement of some rabble-rousers, and a ploy to dislodge Cameron (which has been successful) to make room for an even more vicious Tory set (under Theresa May it might not be vicious, just quietly observant of our most private, private affairs). I was naive to a great many other things, such as the overwhelming nationalisation of anti-intellectualism that plagued both sides (though predominantly Out). But it was this churlishness, I feel, that partly eschewed my commitment to either cause.

In the wake of the vote, I still cling to my optimism, though the cynic in me continues to bedevil. At first glimpse, the aftermath is worrying. Each day ceaselessly provides us with fresh tumult, deepening resentments and for the abstainer, a likely growth in the insecurity in our reflections. The resignation of Cameron, Boris Johnson’s decision not to run for the Prime Ministers position, Farage’s unexpected abdication, the unfurling conflict between Blairite MPs and labour members, Scotland and Northern Ireland’s futures, all add to the lowly spirits and glumness of our nation.

If I wanted to, which I’m still not sure whether I would or not, I cannot alter my inactivity on the ballot. But regardless of what happens now, whether the decision is repealed or an out-of-the-EU-plan is actually proffered and executed, however banal it might now sound, we must look for the positives in this referendum. The economics will likely remain uncertain, but the aftershock is already waning, awaiting the activity of parliament and a renewed vision. And although we are a patently divided nation, which the referendum did not cause- only reveal,  the previously listed remnants of the out-vote leave room to succour, do they not? The Tory party may truly be tried for its incompetence and through the remainder (most of) its reign the EU will still be present. With any luck, Labour will be revamped, and Corbyn’s stoicism exonerated to provide a genuine opposition for the first time in decades. With Farage’s absence, UKIP might well die with his appearances on Question Time, and the subset of xenophobes to whom he and others of his pasture owe a great deal, may well come to the realisation of their methodologies and rescind into obscurity with him. All of this, of course, is without Guarantee. But if even a fraction of these possibilities were to materialise, perhaps our nations’ dialogue might be restored, valorised to unknown heights of sensibility and intelligence.

The only people I wish to vindicate, if not explain on behalf of (if I can even do that), are those who abstained not on the basis of some anti-intellectual indifference, but arrived at their decision with the moral and intellectual introspection a vote of this kind required. I wish for no pity, not even reduced vitriol, but perhaps just simple understanding and an inclusion in the debates to come. Only time will tell. Only time will give my fellow thoughtful abstainers and I the internal vindication we all seek.


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Alexander Owers 1 Article
Alexander is a recent graduate in politics and international relations who has previously held editorial positions at college and university. He is looking to expand his editorial range and portfolio of published work. Alexander specialises in politics and current affairs, philosophy and spirituality, and culture.