The day after the EU referendum, at a podium in Downing Street, David Cameron described a near 50:50 vote as ‘the will of the people’ to leave the EU about which ‘there can be no doubt’. This instantly created momentum for leaving, without debate or discussion, without any chance to consider whether it was too narrow a victory to be a meaningful mandate. And then he announced his resignation and fucked off. How might it have been different? I’ve written an alternative speech for him and if one of you could hurry up and invent time travel we can get it on his desk. I wonder if this might have changed the absurd narrative in which we’ve been living for the past 2½ years?
This is has been an historic day for our country. Following a debate that has been marked by passion but also by tragedy, the British people in record numbers have voted to declare to us, their elected representatives, whether or not they wish to remain in the European Union.
The result is perhaps the worst of all possible worlds. A little over half of those who voted believe we should leave. A less less than half believe we should remain. The view presented to parliament is that there are strong views on either side, but no consensus has been settled, no direction has been given. We are, on this most divisive of all issues, a divided people.
I had hoped to convince the British people that we stand to gain more by participating fully in the union of European peoples than by going it alone. My colleagues in the cabinet and elsewhere sought to argue that Britain’s future lay as an independent nation. Neither side has fully convinced the British people. Neither side has a mandate for action.
The referendum – as voted for overwhelmingly by Members of Parliament – was advisory, and what advice has Parliament been given?
I believe we have been been advised that this is a country, torn down the middle. It is obvious in areas of great wealth, the merits of EU membership seem self-evident. It is clear that in areas of greatest poverty the merits of EU membership are obscure.
I believe we have been advised, throughout the campaign, that this is a country in which anger and fear, in too many communities, are bubbling to the surface.
I believe we have been advised that the matter of our own Union is far from settled. Let no one deny the lesson we have been taught by our friends in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I take full responsibility for much of this. My government, over the last six years, has tried honourably to bring the country’s finances under control, but the burden of these policies have been felt too often by those who could least bear the weight.
I think it is also clear that the European Union must make an account of itself more clearly, open some of its darker processes, actively seek the engagement of British citizens in its benefits, and listen to the message of this vote.
For that reason, I believe the first thing that must be done is for this Government to go back to Brussels and campaign for a comprehensive reform of the EU’s systems, its transparency, its lawmaking, the language in which it speaks.
But, more important than that, I believe this Government must change course. Far more important than our divisions over EU membership are our divisions from each other.
We are divided by geography and we are divided by class. We are divided by nation and by generation. We are divided by race and we are divided by how we love.
It is not enough for politicians to talk of a country uniting. We must prepare a ground on which people can walk together. We must tear down the walls, seen and unseen, that stop mother from embracing her son, neighbour shake hands with neighbour, enemy listen hard to enemy.
Make no mistake – and I want the markets to hear this – I want there to be no doubt about what I am about to say – this will entail a massive flow of money, education, culture, and resources from the South to the North, from rich to poor, from the glass and steel steeples of the City of London to the former dockyards and mining villages and steelworks of this country.
This is not a quick fix. This is not a week’s headlines. This is a decade of hard work, knitting our country together.
Only then will our country be able meaningfully to come together.
Only then will we have a chance to talk again, quietly perhaps, timidly at first, about what country we want to be and whether we can become the best of ourselves alone or as part of a family of European nations.
One final thing: I have thought long and hard through the night about my own position. I take my share of blame for the divisions in the country. I accept that the referendum has exposed and opened wider these divisions.
It would be easy for me to announce my resignation, to walk back through that black door, with a sense of a burden lifted and a song on my lips.
But that would be a gross abdication of responsibility. I hope – if you will let me – to devote my efforts for the rest of this Government’s term of office to making Britain a country to be proud of, where those who seek to divide us with hate and fear are defeated by the promise of community and love.
If we can take any solace from this result, it is that to expose our divisions is a first step to healing them.
This referendum has sent a message, loud and clear. This country is broken apart and we need to mend.