A week before the Brexit referendum I had coffee with a friend and colleague. As we debated what the likely result might be, they jokingly remarked: ‘Simon, I’m not sure I like this public involvement business any more.’
How we laughed.
We often talk about public involvement as ‘democratising’ a process; a condiment to be added to our food to make it more flavoursome. So I won’t lie. The past week feels as if I have eaten the most disgusting meal ever. Are these the words of a disgruntled ‘Remainer?’ Absolutely.
Yet it’s not the result I mind so much now, as the abuse meted out to our democracy, imperfect though it may have always been. It feels like a desecration. Like someone vandalising a park bench newly laid in memory of a loved one. No wonder many people on both sides of the debate have shed a tear since. The debate was harrowing.
We will never know how different things might have been if there had been more public involvement in setting the rules of the game. But we might have had better information in front of us before placing our ‘X’ on the ballot sheet, that’s for sure. We could have set the expectation with politicians that they would be tipped backwards from the political equivalent of Graham Norton’s red chair if they persisted in lying. Or at the very least a digital nose would have lengthened in the corner of the TV screen every time they misrepresented the evidence. Once it reached the other side of the screen…..
Yes, I joke. However, I am sure that if we’d involved young people in considering how to take the decision we would have ended up giving 16+ young people the vote. What future theirs now, I wonder?
So, I am afraid I can not agree with those who hail the result as the triumph of direct democracy over elites and elitism. If anything it feels as though the most important democratic right we all hold dear -and for which many millions have died I might add given the commemorations for the Somme – the vote, has been spat on. And to make matters worse, the leaders who lead us this way have now decided to run off like children who have trashed their bedroom. You’d think they might have friends and family prepared to say ‘You created this mess, now you can jolly well tidy it up.’ Resignation – in every sense of the word – seems an all too common commodity at the moment.
No one knows what the consequences will be for health research any more than they do for any other sector. And it is the prospect of prolonged uncertainty that is likely to be as damaging than any of the political solutions that are eventually negotiated in one or two or more year’s time. But it’s hard to find a positive in potentially losing access to £billions of EU funding. Or the principle of standing alongside fellow citizens from other countries to face common challenges, rather than facing one another in confrontation. Let alone the possible impact on the NHS. Life just got a whole lot harder.
Yet a few days after the vote my Dad replied to one of my anxious texts by saying, ‘don’t despair and underrate’ Britain just yet. He is right, of course. We are where we are, and it will be the deep vein of civility in our culture – to paraphrase something the historian and biographer, Peter Hennessy, said on radio at the weekend – that will carry us through.
In a quirk of fate that you couldn’t make up, I found myself taking part in an EUPATI conference on the day of the Brexit result. As you would expect the mood was flat at the beginning of the event and many of us felt badly shaken by the course of events. Not being able to put ‘EU’ in the name was just the least of our worries. But then, in a manner which is alien to members of the English national football team, we pulled ourselves together. The message seemed clear: no matter how much some of our politicians would like to drive a wedge between us we will continue to find ways of working together.
We have not become a ‘bad’ nation overnight. Or one that is motivated entirely by self-interest. During the last week of the Brexit campaign my travels took me to Canterbury and Belfast. Very different parts of the country – one of which has been riven by armed conflict until very recently – and polar opposites when it comes to Brexit. There, I spoke to rooms jam-packed with people who’d come to work together to make a difference to the community around them, to make a difference. That did not suddenly disappear on the night of June 23rd.
It is this willingness, this innate sense of humanity, that public involvement can bring to the table in helping to heal the disconnect between public and Westminster laid bare two weeks ago.
‘Self-interest is the enemy of all true affection.’ Franklin D Roosevelt
For other public involvement comments in the wake of Brexit please see: