Some have dubbed it the ‘summer of discontent‘. Hyperbole or not, the last few weeks in British politics have been turbulent to say the least. What with Brexit, the Prime Minister’s resignation, the opposition party in chaos, the official condemnation of an unnecessary war, and a rise in racial hate crimes – the divide and turmoil within our nation has truly been exposed.
But there are various silver linings emerging in the periphery of this political shitstorm which should be acknowledged. Firstly, the turnout for the referendum reached levels that the twenty-first century has never seen before. After decades of apparent apathy in politics, this overdue rise in political engagement was evident not just in the 72.2% national turnout, but also in the endless debate and discourse that has followed the referendum result.
Many have labelled the decision to leave the EU a ‘protest vote’. Whilst I personally voted Remain, I admire this challenge to the status quo that spits in the face of the apparently disconnected so-called ‘political elite’. Having listened to much of the discussion that followed the vote, I’m glad that people are not only challenging what politicians say, but also questioning what they hear or see in the mainstream media.
Meanwhile, behind all the political upheaval, this year will end with a more diverse representation at the top of British politics. In May, London elected its first Muslim mayor – the first Mayor of the capital to belong to an ethnic minority. Also in (Theresa) May, we’re set to have our next Prime Minister. And seeing as the only candidates remaining in the Conservative party’s leadership contest were female, it was already guaranteed that for only the second time in British history, we would have a female Prime Minister.
Looking ahead, we must first recognise these positive progressions in politics and build on them. Having just witnessed the highest voter turnout in my lifetime, it’s clear to me that people really do care about our collective future and are willing to engage in politics in order to influence it. In my view, a general election should be called before Article 50 is invoked, so that the electorate can have a say in its post-Brexit future.
Many who voted Leave have felt that their voice has been heard for the first time, whilst some Remain voters have been unapologetically vocal about their discontent with the outcome. Meanwhile, the two largest political parties have been plagued by division and public dissatisfaction. What this country needs, now more than ever, is electoral reform so that people are given choices beyond the two viable under our undemocratic and outdated system. Unfortunately, I recognise that for this to happen under a Tory, or even a Labour, government would be like getting Turkeys to vote for Christmas.
Thinking more long-term, we must harness the political engagement exhibited recently by empowering and informing the electorate from school age. This should be done through educational reform that would ensure that all British citizens know how the political system works, and how to create change. No student should leave state-endorsed education without knowing how the state is run, who runs it and how to change that. Alongside this, schools must provide media literacy classes to equip young people with the tools to critically assess and evaluate what they hear and see on TV, in newspapers and on the radio.
The next generation of voters and change-makers will form their views and carve their aspirations not only by hearing what politicians say, but also by looking at who is saying it. That’s why it is so important that children see diversity in political leadership; not only to represent British society more proportionally, but also to create role models for young people that will see leaders who look like them. Only this way can they truly imagine themselves as future leaders of this country.
For this reason I believe we should continue to encourage women and those from underrepresented minorities to pursue leadership roles. By no means am I suggesting that anyone should be elected on the basis of their identity and consequent social disadvantages. But at the same time, I implore everyone to avoid and condemn any criticism and discriminatory challenges towards our politicians based on gender or racial stereotypes and generalisations. We must, at least, support them as positive role models that will inspire the next generation of leaders.
Many from the youngest generation have claimed that old people have ruined their futures by voting to leave the EU. I believe that most of the older generation who voted Leave, did so with youth in mind. Immigration concerns, which followed ‘Sovereignty’ as the greatest concern of Leave voters, were based on feared changes to communities, culture and employment, all of which will affect future generations. What the older generation failed to do however, was to listen to young voices and not simply dismiss their views as naive. Young people have lost economic opportunities in Europe, so when negotiating Brexit, politicians should consider the importance of freedom of movement for British youth, and not just focus on EU immigrants ‘taking jobs’ at home.
Another colossal concern for the youngest in society is climate change – or at least it should be. This environmental challenge can only be confronted by working together in a political alliance, if not union, with other countries. So it’s important for future generations that the UK is not just ‘open for business’ with Europe, but also ready to work together as a united front to protect my generation’s environment. Whilst I believe that older voters had the best intentions for my generation, they ignored the legitimate economic and political concerns that we had, and this must be addressed in forthcoming EU negotiations.
To borrow a quote from a fictional district attorney, ‘the night is darkest just before the dawn’. Despite the bewildering political and economic uncertainty that our country has faced over the last few weeks, this shake-up of British politics may be just what we needed. The electorate may be angry and divided, but this is being channelled through increased political engagement. We have seen a rise in racial hate crimes, but simultaneously we have a more diverse panel of representatives in British politics. The country may have voted against the will of the youngest in society, but it now has the opportunity to listen to this generation in moving forward with Brexit negotiations.
If we have a general election in the next year, the turnout will undoubtedly remain impressively high. In the longer term, educational and electoral reform can harness this political engagement and empower younger generations to make informed democratic decisions on their future. In the meantime: let’s keep calm, and carry on talking politics.
[This article was originally published on Sunday 10th July, but edited on Tuesday 12th July]