When Edward Boott, a young artistic director in Nottingham, awoke June 24, he assumed that his country, as expected, voted in its referendum to stay in the European Union. When he reached for his phone and learned instead that Britons backed “Brexit,” he was shocked and angry. He even cried
But Mr. Boott did not withdraw to mourn in online echo chambers afterward.
Joe Porter, a university student and young councilman in English Midlands, also cried when the Brexit result came in. “I was absolutely thrilled,” he says. His constituents “were crying out for change. They had had enough of the status quo.”
But Mr. Porter didn't assume the work was done either.
Rather, both men joined a new British campaign called Undivided, calling all young people – no matter how they voted, or whether they voted at all – to fight for the best Brexit possible for young people.
Like the shock election of Donald Trump as US president, the Brexit vote resulted in a society cleaved in two, along lines of age, geography, class, and race. For those on the losing side, the outcomes have been experienced as a kind of collective grief. But despite the radical turn, Boott's acceptance and Porter's grace hint at bridge-building potentials ahead in the US in coming months, when distance paves the way for more dispassionate discourse.
“We have had two really significant shocks that have triggered the kind of emotional reactions that would be more synonymous with personal loss or tragedy,” says Mark Rowland, who has written about post-Brexit anxiety at the Mental Health Foundation in Britain. “They are very similar in terms of having very large numbers of people voting in a binary election and the possibility of real division among ‘them’ and ‘us,’ of objectifying the other.”
It is in this context that Undivided has come together.
'Make the best of it'
The rise of Trump and Brexit, though different choices, were driven by similar sentiments, which their leaders have acknowledged. Ahead of the presidential vote Trump promised “Brexit, plus, plus, plus.” The face of Brexit, Nigel Farage, became the first foreign politician to visit Trump at the Trump Tower over the weekend.
Many Brexiteers, like many Trump supporters, rallied for a halt in various forms of immigration. And the aftermath of Brexit saw a spike of hate crime, as has been reported anecdotally in the US. Racially or religiously aggravated offenses spiked by 41 percent in July of this year, compared with July of last, according to government figures released in October. The result – felt personally – has been a series of deep rifts: lifelong friends no longer on speaking terms, families split in half, and judgment rife on both sides. [Editor's note: The original version misstated when the figures on aggravated offenses were released.]
As a young Leave supporter, Mr. Porter has been attacked for his position, but also deeply misunderstood. “I am actually gay myself, so I belong to a minority,” he says. “To go accusing Brexiteers of being racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and all these other labels, that has been quite insulting to me personally.”
He joined Undivided to get beyond the divisiveness and focus on the best possible route forward. He didn’t join without hesitance. While Undivided is neutral on Brexit, as a youth organization with its majority membership in London it skews heavily pro-Remain. Porter has often been the lone voice in a large group. As the group crowdsources the demands of young people's vision for Brexit, which they will boil down in a vote and present to negotiators, Porter focuses on what unifies them all, which is their future. Boott agrees. “It has happened, we can’t ignore it,” he says. “Let’s do what we can to make the best of it.”
This coming together may be more elusive in the US, says Cary Cooper, an American-born British psychologist at the University of Manchester. “The UK is an island culture, in the sense that, you keep emotions buried … because you have to get along with everyone on the island. You subjugate your aggressive instinct,” he says. “Americans have more trouble subjugating it.”
While Brits have chosen the courts to fight Brexit, Americans have thus far taken to the streets. Dr. Cooper says the rash of protests against Trump’s America, from New Haven, Conn., to Nashville, Tenn., from Los Angeles to Omaha, Neb., while largely peaceful, are a sign of that American cultural mindset. And he adds, “both sides are angry.”
Mr. Rowland says that collective grief carries with it the risks of amplification – especially in an era of political uncertainty. “The opportunity for catastrophization [the belief that something is far worse than it actually is] increases,” he says.
Thinking about 'who isn't at the party'
It also can, amid solidarity, spark new engagement in the political process.
Boott says he was never political, but Brexit awakened a “monster” inside. Like many in the US hoping that Hillary Clinton would win, he too was left perplexed by his nation's choice. He has studied European theater, participated in the Erasmus exchange program in Madrid, and receives European funding for his theater company, Nonsuch Theatre. “I have experienced possibly every benefit Europe has to offer.”
But he quickly realized that large swaths of the population get nothing they can pinpoint out of Europe. He likens his experience prior to Brexit as “having a great time at the party not thinking about who is not at the party until it is over.” He even recognizes a tendency towards righteousness on the part of the left – as he puts it “that we have the better ideas, are on the right track,” he says. “The only way to move forward is to not tell people they are wrong.”
That is his aim is Undivided. He is tasked with extending its work nationally. Right now they are calling for proposals for Undivided Together, community events they will fund to celebrate differences around the country. They are working hard to reach out to organizations in Leave hot spots.
And the work will become more important as the process of Brexit gets under way, and the potential for stress grow. “If the project just becomes about Remainers stating ‘we want to stay in the EU,’ we have completely failed.”
Says Porter: “We are about enabling young people to have a voice in post-Brexit Britain. We have got to get away from this traditional ‘us’ versus ‘them’ style of politics.”