Brexit - A peacebuilding opportunity

Like many colleagues and friends who have spent their careers working on conflict prevention, mediation, peacebuilding, and state building in countries far from the UK, over this past weekend I came to realise that in a different way our own country has been at war. A silent one, under the surface, one most of us were not really aware of, or had just tried to ignore.

The fear, uncertainty, rhetoric, suspicion and mistrust, and political and economic crisis that have followed the Referendum all seem more familiar to contexts ‘over there’ in environments of fragility and conflict. Not in ‘our modern democracy’. So far though it is the strength of our democracy and rule of law that is standing us in good stead. 

No matter whether we should be in/out of Europe, whether politicians lied to us during the campaign, or what constitutional basis might exist to try and avoid implementing the results, what we need to do now is to admit we are in a form of conflict with one another We should see the referendum as an opportunity to start to rebuild a shared vision of the United Kingdom. Its about negotiation, mediation and peacebuilding 101 and we are not going to be sent a United Nations Special Envoy or a DPA/DPKO Mission or get EU funding for this process. Instead, we should remain open to advice from others, to comparative experience, lessons learning, and also tap our own pools of expert peacemakers for guidance. Some things to consider include:

A new social contract: We need to admit that there’s a bigger thing going on here than leaving Europe. What has happened is that the social contract in our society has broken down. We need a new one. A new vision of the UK that its citizens can ‘collectively-enough’ believe in. ‘Enough’ because not everyone will agree all of the time and that’s okay. At the moment though too many people seem diametrically opposed.  We’re all a bit suspicious of each other. No matter how you cut it, we are certainly no longer living together in harmony with a shared vision of the society we want to live in. To find a new shared vision we need to listen to each other’s issues, work out the needs that aren’t being met, and try to find collective solutions to meet those needs (mediation 101: work out the needs behind positions and then base options on finding solutions to those needs). This will also help us better determine our negotiating position going into talks with the European Union (negotiation 101 - get your own camp in order first before talking to the other side).

Public engagement on the UK/Europe deal: Voting to leave Europe is obviously significant. But what comes next is going to be even more significant for the people of the UK. The devil is going to be in the detail of the deal we negotiate with the EU. If negotiators bring back a deal the ‘people’ feel isn't want they wanted we will have more discontent. Experience shows that public engagement alongside a negotiating process of the significance we are about to undergo, will increase the chances of societal acceptance of any outcome. Time is short and, yes, public engagement may be unwieldy, but somehow a process needs to be well designed so as to ensure that ‘the people’ feel the forthcoming negotiating process is transparent, participatory and inclusive. Otherwise a future deal with Europe might be viewed as unrepresentative of the views of the people and as having been cooked up behind closed doors by elites in Brussels and London. Not great optics, nor good for British national unity.

We need to protect important non-Brexit work: A real fear has to be that all non utterly-essential government initiatives will now stall as departments reorient limited staff and budgets to manage Brexit. For example, no more progress on human rights in business or modern slavery and trafficking. Work will just stop (or be ‘deprioritised’ in government-speak) with Brexit as the excuse. In turn, that would send a clear signal to business - who themselves will be distracted by Brexit - that they can relax for the next few years because the government won’t notice. That would be wrong. But we cannot expect an already overstretched and under resourced civil service to carry on delivering their day jobs and somehow plan for Brexit after-hours, over a coffee, or in weekends. Its a mammoth job. Strategic highly skilled consultants are going to need to are hired, and we can’t then criticise Whitehall for becoming bloated. That would be unfair.

The task before us is enormous, but if we seize the opportunity and plan right, maybe we can come out the other end of this with a shared vision of the sort of country we want to live in that we can build together. That would certainly be a silver lining.

On an aside I wonder too if new media is helpfully allowing us to vent our anger safely on Facebook and Twitter (Instagram isn’t doing so well on this one …) rather than unguardedly on the streets. But social media has its limits as we are really only talking to our friends who will more than likely agree and fuel us on, rather than talking to the other side to try and understand their concerns. Which is of course what we need to do now ….