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Time for hard questions over how we treat each other post-Brexit

Niall Crowley, from Invoke Democracy Now, says the Brexit vote at least prompted people into debating politics

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images The British Union Flag and the European Flag

Leave or Remain? If you voted in the June referendum, the chances are you’ve got into a heated debate or two with friends and relatives.

Like me, you might well have lost a few friends along the way... at least temporarily.

Politics, for so long, has been as dull as ditchwater, but suddenly we are deciding and debating fundamental questions and issues – how we are governed and by whom, the nature of the constitution, even our very democracy. No wonder people are taking an interest.

In the 17th century, our ancestors fought the Civil War over democracy and the question of who runs society. Birmingham sided with Parliament and the people. Indeed, the city’s craftsmen manufactured most of the arms that helped defeat Crown forces.

The issue of democracy and freedom came up again a century and a half later when Birmingham was torn apart by three days of rioting in what became known as the Priestly riots, named after radical preacher and scientist Joseph Priestly.

Political and religious Dissenters saw their meeting houses and chapels burned to the ground by a 300-strong mob who violently opposed their attempts to forge a more free and equal society. Priestly, who discovered oxygen and invented soda water, lost his chapel, his laboratory and his Sparkbrook home.

Thankfully we’re not on the verge of civil war or burning down our city, but the EU referendum and its aftermath have revealed deep social and political differences between us. We urgently need to start talking to one another.

Back in July I went along to a packed meeting in East London organised by a new campaign called Invoke Democracy Now.

They brought together speakers and representatives from across the social and political spectrum. Among them were pro-Leave groups and representatives from the gay (Out and Proud), Muslim (Muslims for Britain) and Polish communities. There were trade unionists, Greens, academics and journalists. For me it shattered the myth that the vote was all about race, nationalism and immigration.

Back in the Midlands I got together with a few friends to see if we could do something similar.

We had met some very interested people in the Hall Green area - teachers, parents, community groups - so we kicked off there, with a lively meeting at a local Muslim-run community centre.

A couple of weeks later we went to Dudley, the scene of so much political conflict in recent years.

We had a packed, lively meeting in a town centre cafe. Many articulate and opinionated mainly pro-EU teenagers came from local colleges.

They were open enough to want have a debate. It was a great success and what encouraged me most was the positive feedback from people who said things like they had never been to a ‘political meeting’ before.

Later this month we are back in Birmingham, at Kings Heath Royal British Legion for ‘Brexit: The Pub Quiz’.

A Brexit-themed pub quiz won’t solve all our problems of course, but it’s one small part of trying to change things. And we hope it might lighten the mood a little, bring Leavers and Remainers together without some of the venomous exchanges we’ve seen over the last four months. We have been accused of trivialising the issue, “this is no laughing matter” one person told me angrily, as I tried to explain our reasoning.

Some have said they are not interested in discussing the issue in any way, saying it’s still “too raw” or “upsetting”, while others have even expressed nervousness about being in the same room as “potentially violent” Brexit voters.

This is not a healthy state of affairs. We should not fear and loathe our fellow citizens over political disagreements and it will only get worse if we don’t start talking.

It’s time to stand up and take a lead. Like it or not, the referendum result might just have offered us the chance to do something about our democracy, our civil society and our great city.

Let’s start talking and resolving our differences.

Brexit: the Pub Quiz is at 8pm on Friday, November 25 at the Royal British Legion, in Station Rd, Kings Heath.

Niall Crowley, Invoke Democracy Now

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