This has been a rough campaign. Characterised by bitter rancour and apocalyptic predictions rather than reason and facts, a proxy civil war in the Tories has turned into something exhausting and dispiriting for the rest of us. I understand fully why people would be confused or even just no longer interested in participating in this circus of doom and bitterness.
I would like to put forward a case I haven’t seen much of in the media, if you’d give me a couple of minutes. The campaign may have been awful, but the vote itself is important, and I belong to one of the groups who will be deeply affected by the outcome. Please consider lending us your vote, because this is about more than trade and economics, it’s also about rights and protection of marginalised groups. If you want to skip the argument, just go right to the bolded paragraph at the end. That’s the important bit.
As dawn arrived the day after the General Election, and the decision made by the people of Britain was made clear, shock set in. Disability activists had been campaigning for years to make people aware of the crimes of the Conservative Party and the months leading up to the election had been a cry of rage and desperation from a population under siege. We had tried reason: statistics, studies, investigations, precedents, logic. Easily demonstrable and robustly verified links between Tory policy and lethal harm (a year after the election, they finally released the documents we’d been fighting for which demonstrated that they knew this link existed all along). We tried appeals to our common humanity: how would you feel if this was your family? If it was your child? If it was you? We tried reminding people that many voters would not be there to cast their ballot in this election because of Tory policy.
Many of us had temporarily set aside demanding the rights accorded to us as human beings to focus on the more pressing imperative: begging for our lives. We tried to make people understand that a vote does not just affect the person voting, but all of society (yes, Mrs Thatcher, it still exists), and we have a responsibility to consider the impact of our choices on others. We may choose to go ahead with our first impulse anyway, but we should do so knowing the cost.
That morning, some of us, including many stronger people than me who do this day after day, tried to delay our own grief and anger so we could better respond to the people checking in to various disability communities and groups. We needed to talk to each other, to talk to people who understood the implication of the result. We had to gather for crisis response as post after post after post came in with the single refrain: ‘I don’t think I will survive this government.’
We couldn’t tell them it would be OK, because it wouldn’t be. We could only tell them we had to fight, to not go quietly, not let them win. Just over a year later, we have lost a lot of people. We lost many more in the years before that. And now I am spending the last week of a political campaign bracing myself for the Friday morning I fear is going to echo that exhausting, heartbreaking, desperate day.
I think we are going to lose this vote, and, if we do, the disabled population of Britain will be at the mercy of a Tory party unleashed. There are four years left before the next General Election, and, whatever you think of the EU, the prospect of the Conservatives headed by any one of the contenders for leader, who all make Cameron look moderate, is unthinkable. The people who want Britain to remove itself from the European Court of Human Rights as soon as we’re done with the EU will be in charge, and then the only thing which keeps them in check will be gone. The EU is not the ECHR, but belonging to the ECHR is a political, if not legal, requirement of membership of the EU these days. It’s the ECHR which has given disabled people access to society, restored our rights of dignity, independence, family life. It is next on the block, and we are right there with it.
There are some disabled people who will vote for Leave. Some of them have good reasons, but many have been seduced by the narrative that resources in the fifth richest country in the world are so limited that we cannot save both disabled people and refugees, that we cannot house disabled people as well as immigrants, that we cannot treat disabled people and ‘foreigners’. The old joke applies: a Tory Minister, a disabled person and an immigrant are sat at a table, and they are brought a cake sliced into 12 pieces. The Tory takes 11 of them, then tells the disabled person to ‘Watch out for that immigrant, he’s trying to take your bit of cake.’ The resources are there, it’s the choice to prioritise them we’re missing.
Contrary to the hyperbole of both sides of the debate, most people will probably be fine, one way or another. There are so many good things I could say about the EU to make the positive case, but others are doing that. I am asking for a different reason. For most people, neither the Land of Milk and Honey nor the Apocalypse will appear, but there are populations in Britain for whom that is not the case. Most notable, given the tenor of the debate, are the people whose immediate living circumstances we are deciding on without giving them either a voice or a vote: the EU nationals who live in the UK. Many have lived here for decades, raised families, had careers, built lives, and have no idea what the world holds for them after this week. Populations who are still fighting for their rights are at risk in this vote. Four years of a Tory government, under zealots beholden to an ideology which suppresses those rights in favour of economic advantage for a tiny minority, is what is at stake here. By the end of those four years, the deconstruction of our public services and social security system will be complete, and we will not get it back. The EU is imperfect, but in this vote, right now, the unleashed British government is much more dangerous.
All of this is to say one simple thing: please, if you are undecided or don’t care much one way or another, please use your vote to protect the people in your society who are at risk. I respect your opinion and your choice if you have decided to vote to Leave, but this is for the people who would otherwise toss a coin, decide in the booth or just not vote. Please vote, if not for yourself then for those of us who are waiting to find out just how much worse the next few years can get. You are part of a society and, at some point, you will either be or care about someone who is disabled and who needs the support and access rights which are threatened by this vote. If there is nothing in this debate which has convinced you, please let it be this. Please don’t let our country’s apathy or indecision lead to another morning like that terrible one last May. Please.