Solidarity Actually: A Post-Referendum Reality Check

A demonstrator at a July 2nd march in London in which thousands took to the street to protest against the Brexit-vote.
A demonstrator at a July 2nd march in London in which thousands took to the street to protest against the Brexit-vote.


When agreeing to write something about solidarity and the referendum a day before the whole thing actually took place, I envisioned a more or less fluffy piece proclaiming that all our little acts of EU love had not been for nothing: after all the British had voted Remain. I had this sentence in my head about how I’d want to hug the whole world after reading the good news, how I’d “even hug Boris Johnson (and stick a ‘kick me’ note to his back, duh)”. Of course that version of events has turned out to be no less delusional than the Trump stuntman’s own fantasy of what future history books would have to say about it all (“To no one’s very great surprise”, Johnson predicted in his Daily Telegraph column back in May, “Project Fear turned out to be a giant hoax. The markets were calm. The pound did not collapse. The British government immediately launched a highly effective and popular campaign…” Let us laugh so we don’t cry).

So now that Boris and I have woken up from our rather different daydreams, what is left to say about solidarity? Solidarity with whom? How?

Some solidarities are easier than others: solidarity with my fellow EU immigrants; with the young Brits who voted Remain (or were too young to vote) and who feel they have been robbed of their future – that we know how to express, at least, because we shout it out at protests at Trafalgar Square and we sign it in letters to Brussels and we smile it at strangers who carry blue umbrellas with yellow stars. And it is by no means insignificant. The little acts of EU love, they still aren’t for nothing. I know how much I appreciated people’s messages to reassure me that I’m welcome here, or seeing my local Pret put up flags from around the world to show where they stand. (It didn’t take a lot to make me tear up this week).

Solidarity with the disenfranchised people who felt so abandoned and forgotten that they voted Leave in large numbers and who will be hit hardest by the consequences. Solidarity with the young people who didn’t vote and have no immediate reason to lament the result because theirs was never going to be a future of Erasmus exchanges and Interrail trips anyway. These are harder to channel, these are bound up with our failure (and when I say we in this article, I do so assuming that anyone who reads a Cambridge college journal is likely to be privileged in some way or the other, or in every way possible) to listen well enough to those outside of our bubbles, our failure to contest a lying press loudly enough, our failure to show solidarity outside of reading group discussions. How do we participate in a process that can begin to reverse the belief that someone like Farage is a voice for those who think that experts are against them and that they don’t have much to lose? How can we improve our Widening Participation policy at universities, for example? How can we facilitate practical opportunities for actual conversation? (This man has a good idea).

And what about the others? Those who voted to quit the EU, not because they were deceived by the lies of the Leave campaign but because they have their own, different reasons that we might well disagree with passionately? How do we talk to and about them in a way that doesn’t echo the toxic tone of this campaign? How do we team up with them to stand in solidarity with those who will suffer and who are already suffering as a result of this referendum? These are questions I certainly wasn’t willing to ask myself a week ago, but we’re all going to have to wake up now, aren’t we?

Some solidarities are easier than others; some solidarities are more urgent than others. The first ones who will experience the consequences of June 24th’s verdict are Eastern Europeans as well as Muslims and people of colour all over Britain. It is them who are told to “go home” on the street, on the bus, at primary school, not the misunderstood Lexiters. How do we demonstrate that it is our priority for them to feel safe and welcome in a place where no one should ever have dared to make them feel otherwise? Do we write to our MPs to demand action? Do we speak up when we overhear racist and xenophobic remarks? There’s the safety pin idea (in essence: wear a safety pin to show those who could be discriminated against that you’re on their side so they feel comfortable sitting next to you on the Tube etc.), but the project has been criticised as patronising and unhelpful by many of the people who actually have a reason to worry that the overt racism and xenophobia that has been unleashed will hit them next. So without any visual markers, it’s up to those of us who have no reason to be scared to be vocal when a situation looks unsafe. We must make a conscious effort to wear kindness as if it were pinned to us when we interact with people everywhere, so no one has to worry they’ll experience the opposite of kindness from us.

We all have more questions than answers right now. But we also have a public that is more politicised than I have ever seen in my life. As students and academics, we have a lecture-free summer to get together and come up with ways to translate our jumbled thoughts into plans and action. Solidarity will not be easy to achieve, but it will be urgently needed. There will be nothing fluffy about it. And it won’t be for nothing.

Leila Essa is a PhD candidate at King's College London studying national partition and post national narratives. She holds an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from Cambridge University. She blogs at @NotGonnaLei and tweets @LeilaEssaI.