Friday, 24 June 2016

Reflections on the UK's exit from the European Union

Cautiously, I surrender grip on my biro pen. It falls indistinctively to the ground and with a forecastable crash, I reassure myself that we are still subject to the realities of gravity. Soon, the Sun emerges from under the blanket of the horizon and over the course of the morning, I watch as shadows migrate around garage gutters and tree trunks. It seems that the Earth is still revolving.

And yet with each hourly chime from my university clock tower this morning, life - at least what passes for life in our political system - seemed to become progressively chaotic. By midday, the political architecture of the UK seemed so thoroughly riddled that I had to seek solemnity. The anguish, oozing from every virtual orifice of social media, was slightly suffocating me. In other words, I needed to go for a walk.

My amble was by no means eventful, nor did I plan where I wanted to go. The exercise was purely to restore a sense of positivity. After all, no less than 24 hours previously, I received some wonderful news about my degree but any shared elation between myself and other finalists had been somewhat diluted with the events of the morning. Soon, I was immersed in the England I knew and loved. The bird were chirping; the squirrels were chomping; the bees buzzed from bud to bud. It seemed so neutral in a country that appeared quite polarized. And yet, it wasn't long before my mind catapulted back to the news of the UK's exit. Indeed, the tensions surrounding Cameron's departure and Corbyn's future. The news of a second Scottish referendum. The escalating trajectory of the world markets. In Iceland, the 'Gateway to Hell' volcano had displayed signs of imminent eruption. Here, in the United Kingdom, a political eruption had seemed to unleash dark clouds of fear and uncertainty. Would the ash ever settle?

I leaned, in reflection, over a small pond bridge with eyes that drifted over lilypads. My thoughts turned not to the result of the referendum, but more towards the words of anger and sadness and particularly the burning desire to escape and live someplace else. But what of the pull factors, which entice us to stay in this green and pleasant land and attract millions to visit annually? What of our historic architecture; our sublime moorland; our vibrant cityscapes? The rich and blessed landscape seemed forgotten.

With a grace only witnessed in the floral world, a leaf descended upon the pond. I gazed at its majestic flight and then the sequence of ripples projected in every direction. And then I remembered the word that I had heard so many times, by so many people. Seismic. Time and time again, I had listened, watched and read statements from people describing the political situation as 'seismic'.

I have good news. Just as the ripples on the pond became less and less prominent, so the ripples caused by last night's exit vote will eventually diminish. Eventually if one teases away some of the letters from 'Calamity', the word 'Calm' is revealed and it is this state of controlled tranquility which must remain our objective in the coming weeks and months. A few months ago, at a PhD interview, I was asked what the key buzz-word of the 21st century is. I hesitated as surely such a question would have plural answers, but we settled on 'resilient'. Resilience, I would argue though, is not a recent concept but an ethic engrained in our very soul as a living species.

We're relentlessly resilient. We always bounce back. We rise, like a phoenix from those ashes, from the destruction left by natural disaster or the devastion imposed by terrorist attack. Communities repel the despair inflicted upon them and become stronger. As Tennyson so elegantly expressed: "One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield".

I had the great honour of being asked to speak at a TEDx event, here at the Royal Holloway University, a couple of years ago. I opened with a line from Heraclitus: "There is nothing permanent except change". It is true to state that the world seems in constant flux, and in reality, it really is. Continental plates are constantly shifting, seismic events are a daily occurrence both at the heart of our lithosphere, but more profoundly, deep at the heart of our society. Last night, the UK experienced political rupture and many after-shocks, too. As with any major earthquake, these seismic waves can and will be felt right across the world. But similarly, the UK will be resilient and re-build itself, stronger in will, and not to yield. I know this because it's happened before.

The UK's membership of the EU lasted approximately 0.0002% of our species' existence on planet Earth. In other words, we as a species survived 99.999795% of our entire history without it. May I state, right here, that this is by no means a suggestion that I feel the EU is unnecessary nor am I suggesting that the UK is better off without it. This post is deliberately neutral. But despite the anger, the rage, and the wound which seems to have been deepened in the body of UK politics, I am confident that we, as humans, but more profoundly, as a living species on this planet, will survive.

My short walk today taught me two important things. Firstly, like ripples on a pond, we have always been knocked down; we have always been made weak by time and fate. The UK, I have no doubt, will face many more seismic episodes but our resolve as a species is to learn from these experiences, just as any other animal or plant evolves throughout time to combat against the toils of life. Secondly, my walk reminded me of how lucky I am to be part of the UK today. The truth, although slightly morbid, is that I really don't know how long I have left to enjoy walks like this. How many days do we have left to enjoy the fruits of this green and pleasant land? How many weeks? How many years?

Just finally, consider what we're all doing, right now. Together, each and every one of us, we are shuttling around a giant ball of gas at over 30km per second in a mind-blowingly giant void. We're living, talking, experiencing something that, as far as we humanly know, is not replicated on any other planet in our solar system. If you are reading this, you are extremely lucky to behold the gift of life and all it may bestow. Let us use it wisely. Let us pick ourselves up and brush ourselves down. If you are in the UK tonight, perhaps go for a walk. It works wonders on the soul.