The right question? Reflections on the Brexit referendum

The contrast between the sombre scenes in Parliament Square following the tragic murder of the British MP Jo Cox and the undignified Brexit versus Remain flotillas on the Thames the day before could hardly be more stark.

With campaigning in the EU referendum currently on hold there is now an opportunity for both sides to reflect on a debate that has been widely criticised as shallow and vindictive. As someone who lives and works in the UK, it is clear to me that the British public remain very poorly informed, and given the importance of the outcome it is hard to mark this down as anything other than a failure.

While the result won’t be known until the early hours of Friday morning one fact is already clear. The campaign has exposed a widening gulf between “the establishment” and “the populous” in the UK, with the average person feeling increasingly disconnected from those that represent them and make decisions that will shape their lives. This is clearly true of the EU, but also of Westminster and Whitehall as well the media, big business, and institutions such as the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund.

By avoiding many of the substantive issues, and descending into personal attacks, both sides in the referendum have done nothing to disabuse the public of the belief that politicians and “the establishment” at large are self-obsessed and disconnected from reality. This goes far beyond the UK’s referendum debate. Similar themes can be observed in the issues raised in the US Presidential race and the politics of many of our European neighbours. The question is whether or not we truly understand why this is happening and how it can be remedied.

Jo Cox’s murder has momentarily shattered this divide. The response to her death has been characterised by thousands of comments from members of the public, on social media and elsewhere, expressing surprise and gratitude for the work of ordinary constituency MPs. Far beyond the Westminster bubble, in libraries and community centres, MPs are truly at the frontline fighting for the individual and being a voice for the needy. Hardly a case of an establishment stitch-up.

I never met Jo Cox, but from everything I’ve heard and read she seemed like a truly decent human being trying to improve the world. Stripped of rhetoric and political positioning the simple truth is that this must be what the vast majority of politicians and the public hope for. The question is whether we can now make our political discourse more human and connected again.