I personally believe that Brexit will be bad news for the UK. Bad for trade, bad for international relations and influence, bad for the knowledge economy, bad for our cultural health. But that’s irrelevant to what I am bollocksing on about here. I’m interested in whether we can heal the schism that has torn the UK apart.
It wouldn’t have made any difference if the EU referendum vote had gone the other way. The most catastrophic consequence of the vote – the division of the nation into two intractably opposed halves – would have still been the same. No amount of pleading for or demanding reunification would have made (or will make) any significant difference to that. Neither is there any point in pretending that is has, or will, go away in time. The differences run too deep.
But I’m by no means cynical about May’s intent when she calls for national unity. I believe that she sincerely regards reunification as a high priority. She certainly should. The cost to national morale of a nation divided can’t be overestimated. Consequences could range from a greater constituency for populist, reactionary parties, through to civil disobedience (and worse) and, plausibly, the secession of parts of the UK; whether Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey or Gibraltar. They all have citizens who hold what they believe to be compelling reasons to leave the union.
The majority vote fell the way of Brexit. No matter the size of that majority, the decision was democratically decided and was acted upon. Those who voted for the UK to leave the EU got what they wanted, and are satisfied (or should be). But what is to be done about the alienated 48%? There are too many of them to ignore, they are clearly not going quietly and – unsurprisingly – telling them to stop moaning is no more effective than telling Eurosceptics to stop moaning was in the past.
I think it’s possible to diffuse the anger of the 48%, but it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be cheap. The potential solution, oddly, can be found on the side of a bus. ‘Could be found’, I should say, as I’m sure that it was painted over faster than the Labour’s general election Ed Stone was pulverised. I’m referring, of course, to the Leave campaign’s notorious promise to hand an additional £350 million a week to the NHS.
As a tactic in the referendum, it undoubtedly worked. Whether or not it was a wise move in the long-term political career development of those who allied themselves with it – particularly Boris Johnson, Ian Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage – remains to be seen.
It was certainly a tactical mistake to be subsequently recorded laughing at it in the House of Commons, even though it was indeed a laughable lie. But need it be? Not the amount – £350 million bears no meaningful relationship to any monies that could be saved from leaving the EU – but what about the principle?
I would hazard a guess that a very large proportion of the alienated remain voters are passionate supporters of the NHS: a larger proportion, even, than that of the electorate as a whole who hold the Service in high regard. How better to demonstrate the value of leaving the EU to this constituency than to mend the NHS?
It would be a huge undertaking, of course: the funding hole that increasing demand and chronic underfunding has created is still somewhere near a billion deep; and filling the hole alone won’t solve the NHS’s ills. Adequately funding the NHS on an ongoing basis would cost an additional couple of billion annually – maybe more. But if the government can find £205 billion for renewing a nuclear arsenal it can never use, it can surely find a few billion to ensure that the NHS continues to work to preserve and maintain the health of all UK citizens as it was originally intended to.
It couldn’t, I think, be done with Hunt at the helm. Not for any reasons of competence (though he does not seem very competent to me), but because he has positioned himself as the hard man taking on the NHS. But with a new face at the top, a positive message and a commitment by treasury to fill the funding gap and to continue to raise the annual health and social care budget to meet growing demand, the government could demonstrate to us Remoaners that Brexit serves all of our interests, just like the message on the side of the bus said. Who knows? We might even stop remoaning at last.