Like so many other issues, Brexit was essentially a matter of identity; who do the British people want to be?
The Leave side was seen as taking the higher ground by appealing to the identity of the British as proud and independent. The Remain side forgot it’s own story, and ended up appearing to quibble about numbers, laws and details. As we know, the narrative about identity prevailed. It usually does, and the result was a staggering and perhaps historic result.
Writing as a staunchly Remain British citizen, I feel pretty glum about the whole affair. Not (just!) because I was on the losing side, and not (just!) because of the total lack of respect on both sides for reason and facts; but more because I realize how little effort we have put over recent years into the ‘United’ bit of United Kingdom. That, of course, is why there was so much surprise from markets, media and politicians who did not look outside the London bubble. So while it was impossible for me to imagine ourselves as anything but increasingly integrated with our neighbours, that really reflects more about my own identity and perspective than it does about anything else. Others felt exactly the opposite for similar reasons of identity. Regardless of whether Article 50 is ever triggered or not, both sides probably still do not really understand each other’s attitudes and feelings.
Understanding is, of course, the business of education, and there are important reminders here for teachers and parents, regardless of nationality (the same issues play out in many, many countries – most obviously the USA at the moment). Not just that the content of what we teach our students has to be relevant, but also that to have a lasting and profound effect the learning has to be more than academic learning; it has to resonate with our students’ values and identities. Having an explicit and consistent focus on school Missions helps; so does talking to students (in an open, not didactic way) about who they want to be and what they see as important in life and how we need to better understand people with different views to work together. If we get it right, they will be able to engage in important issues in an informed, positive way that seeks to connect constructively with others. The many commentaries that insult the Leave voters’ intelligence or motivation reflect a failure of imagination in some parts of the Remain camp. We must avoid this polarisation, and schools have to play their part.