I walked out of Dalston Kingsland overground station on Saturday into a brief spell of sun. Blinking back the glare the first thing I saw was a friendly looking young white man with floppy brown hair offering me a big smile and a red pamphlet reading LEAVE. Yup, a Brexiter, one of those terribly charming and polite people who wants Britain to leave the EU and ‘go it alone’. Here was my moment, I thought, my chance to engage with the ‘enemy’ and convert him to the Remain cause.
We offered one another friendly hellos and I asked him how he was doing. It transpired he was doing well. I thought I’d meet his friendliness with the like and I said that I’d love to hear more about his argument. He told me that his main reason for supporting Leave was financial, he believed we would have a stronger trading position if we left. I nodded and then mentioned Ngaire Woods, the Founding Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government and Professor of Global Economic Governance at the University of Oxford, and what she had said about Britain’s trading position being weaker outside of the EU (see video). He said he hadn’t heard of her.
We carried on in this amicable style for a while as he said one thing, I said something else, then he offered more, and so on and so on until I realised I didn’t stand much of a chance. Not only did I not have enough facts at hand it seemed that for every one I did he had a counter argument. I figured that the likelihood of me convincing him to change his view was low given my limited information and the fact that he was on the street on a Saturday afternoon handing out Leave leaflets – he must be quite committed to the cause.
Instead I told him that I feared leaving the EU would legitimise and worsen the rising levels of violence in the country, violence that stems from extreme, right-wing views about who does and does not deserve freedom from violence. I mentioned the tragic death of Jo Cox at the hands of a man who shouted ‘Britain First’ as he attacked her. I mentioned the rise of the neo-Nazis throughout Europe and how some pro-Brexit people I had spoken to expressed overtly racist views. He looked a little concerned and assured me he wasn’t racist. I believed him. Then his colleague came over carrying yet more LEAVE leaflets and he introduced me to her. We offered one another polite hellos. I told them I had to go, I had a conference to get to, but I said that whilst I would still vote to Remain, whatever the result, it was all of our responsibility to stand up to racism, discrimination and violence. We would have to put aside our political differences (he told me had previously voted for the Lib Dems and later the Tories) and work hard to ensure equality and peace were prioritisied in our country. They both nodded emphatically and as I walked away I heard him say to his colleague that I was “one of the better ones”.
So what had I achieved? Not a lot as I’m sure most of you would observe and you’re right, I hadn’t made them change their minds but maybe I had made them think twice. The task ahead for all of us – peace in our time and peace on earth – is something that transcends political persuasion and that we can all be a part of. And maybe in that brief conversation whilst I hadn’t got them to about turn I might have surprised them, if I was one of the ‘better ones’ I wonder what some of the other Remainers were life. The Referendum, like so much of party politics, is designed to fracture and split but we have to challenge this, we’re humans before we’re Tory, Green or Labour. And if dark times are ahead, which they certainly are, then we’re going to need to make a lot of new friends.