It was certainly a shock, reading on Facebook that you’d voted for Brexit. A mutual friend told me about you a few days after the Referendum result – a strange gloomy weekend, when the country was simultaneously in stasis and spinning wildly out of control. The Prime Minister had resigned, the pound plunged to a 31-year low, billions were wiped off the stock market, and Boris and Farage scurried to the nearest rock for safety like cockroaches. Everyone knew that something revolutionary had occurred – but, as is often the case with revolutions, no one quite knew what would happen next.
I assumed – wrongly, it seems, now – that every one of my acquaintances was firmly in favour of staying in the EU. In the weeks leading up to the Referendum, my news feeds on Facebook and Twitter were an echo chamber of my own views: everyone foaming at the mouth self-righteously about the good sense of staying in Europe, raging at the stupidity of the Brexiteers, and horrified at the anti-immigrant fervour being whipped up by UKIP.
Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster, featuring brown-skinned immigrants marching in a line towards the camera, reached a new low in xenophobia as a political strategy, but for Joseph Goebbels’ anti-Jew propaganda in the 1930s, of course. “Vote Brexit, or you’ll be overrun by THEM”, UKIP shouted. Unfortunately, someone heard their call of faux-panic and took it to heart. The Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death in the street on the same day. Right-wing political groups sought to dissociate their policies from the attack, but the rest of the country recoiled in horror. In the Spectator, a publication mostly in favour of Brexit, columnist Alex Massie drew a bold but defensible line between UKIP’s ugly rhetoric and the death of Ms Cox:
“Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realize any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap.”
Sadly, someone did.
I wondered then if there might be a turn away from UKIP and anti-immigration sentiment, and back towards the values that Britons like to think of themselves possessing (though whether we do is a moot point): fairness, decency, tolerance, an aversion to extremes of behaviour and sentiment. The Referendum result proved me wrong.
I couldn’t believe that anyone I knew would agree with the Brexiteers’ worldview. The Brexiteers seemed to me an odd lot – an uneasy alliance of old-school Tories who wanted Britain to be an episode of Miss Marple, and the disenfranchised former working classes who’d been sold a lie about immigration as the source of all their problems. They seemed so foreign to my friends – Stephen, who has a Spanish boyfriend and travels to France, Sweden and Ireland regularly for work; Jools, who’s just back from Iceland and Norway, where she’s organising yoga retreats; and our mutual friend who, like you, loves spending her summers in Berlin.
And then along came you and your Facebook post.
In fairness to you, and to avoid any misrepresentation of your views, I’ve quoted your Facebook post in its entirety:
“Deep breath. I voted leave. And now Cameron, that utter shitbag, is toast. So I’m delighted. My fundamental reason was that the EU is not democratic, it’s a remote organisation, we are not in control of our own country as we should be. Our Parliament should be sovereign not Brussels. It was not about immigration for me, it was about being tied to a very conservative organisation, that is wedded to austerity. I am not anti Europe at all…But anti EU. Nobody European will be forced to leave here and I think in the long run this will improve our relationships with most European countries, not weaken them. People wailing about the apocalypse or as if this is the end of a healthy and happy UK where the majority celebrate multiculturalism, need to seriously get a grip in my opinion.”
I don’t follow your posts on Facebook, so I wasn’t sure if you had been promoting the Leave vote earlier in time. Those opening words “Deep breath” caught in my throat too. I imagined a releasing of thoughts you’d been reluctant to speak until now. I also sensed your nervousness, as if you were bracing yourself for the storm of criticism to follow.
A storm was certainly unleashed, and your post got a lot of comments – most of them negative, many of them calling your views naive or misguided or just plain wrong, and a few frothing with spit bubbles of rage.
Since then, you’ve written an opinion piece for Newsweek, in which you describe the abuse you received, and friendships newly severed. You describe yourself as “persona non grata among most of my friends in London and Berlin” and “a Brexit piñata, currently suffering the verbal blows” of your Remain friends and the “non-stop nastiness” that followed the Referendum result.
As I read your piece, I tried to recall Voltaire’s maxim, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Like you, I believe that the cornerstone of democracy is the right to form and speak one’s own political opinions. Like most ideals, though, it’s easier said than done. It’s actually extraordinarily difficult to insist on someone’s right to speak opinions you can’t stand, and the results often feel phony – like the well-meaning relatives and teachers of my youth who preached “Love the sinner, hate the sin” about homosexuality. It’s much easier just to trash someone who you disagree with, or simply not listen. It’s not very democratic, but there’s a bracing clarity to it, like ripping a bandage off blistered skin.
I also shuddered at the enthusiasm with which you deployed the language of victimisation. I’m sure that it was hurtful to have so many people disagree with you so violently – but I wonder, too, if there’s a pleasure in being an outsider. Your position as a liberal who voted Leave is sufficiently unusual to get you published by a major magazine, lending a certain authority to your point of view, and giving you access to an audience that you wouldn’t have otherwise had. I’m sure this isn’t how you imagined you’d get published, but there you are – protesting your ill treatment and benefiting from it too, grasping your 15 seconds of fame with a distinct relish.
On reflection, I wonder if the role of “pariah” or “piñata” is an accurate way to describe your situation. This is Britain, after all. It’s not like Venezuela, where journalists who criticise the government run the risk of surveillance, torture or imprisonment. All you’re dealing with is a few bruising comments from friends and a fractured relationship or two. What’s happened to you isn’t pleasant, but it won’t kill you. It’s part of being a grown up and learning to face the consequences of having political opinions. You still have the right to voice your opinions, as the Newsweek article proves – but it doesn’t mean your readers have to like it.
I agree with you that a lot of the arguments about Brexit have been nasty. It would have been lovely to have a measured public debate about EU membership in an atmosphere of calm and mutual respect, but given what’s at stake, that seems unfeasible. The decision to leave Europe is of seismic, earth-shattering proportions, that will profoundly affect the lives of everyone in Britain for generations to come. It’s already resulted in significant financial repercussions and a change of Prime Minister. The global repercussions of Brexit are similarly colossal and will trigger a radical rethinking of European identity, political alliances and international relations. It’s natural that people will be passionately engaged with the result, and want to fight their corner. It’s going to be ugly, and people who voted for Brexit – including you – need to understand how unpopular a decision it is.
Which leads me, inevitably, to the substance of your arguments as why Brexit was a good idea. I’ve tried to consider the points you made, pulling them back and forth like a rubber band, testing them for strength – but in my view, none of them add up.
In your Facebook page, you stated, “we are not in control of our own country as we should be. Our Parliament should be sovereign not Brussels”. But Britain does have sovereignty – it’s called Parliament. The House of Commons is composed of lawmakers who are elected by the people. Collectively, it has the power to levy taxes, defend our national borders and declare war – the foundations of sovereignty for every country in the world. Britain is occasionally required to accept laws made by the European Parliament – but as a member of Europe, we have a part in making those laws, too. I wonder if you voted in the last European Parliamentary elections, or if you even know the names of your local MEPs. (Most Britons don’t, so you wouldn’t be alone).
When the UK is required to implement European law, it’s usually on issues that help make us a better and fairer society. Most of our employee protections came from Europe, as does the right to paid paternal leave for working dads. It was Europe that required we pass the Human Rights Act, which protects people against discrimination on the basis of sex, age, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. The European Court of Justice intervened to insist that Ireland repealed its laws criminalising homosexuality. Then there are all the laws and regulations requiring that public servants act fairly and transparently, that food and product safety standards are upheld, and that corruption is stamped out. Is this an incursion on our national sovereignty? Perhaps. Are our laws all the better for it? Absolutely.
You go on to say “in the long run this will improve our relationships with most European countries, not weaken them.” How exactly will this new relationship work, do you think? The European Union have made it icily clear that they aren’t prepared to negotiate a special deal for Britain in the event of Brexit. If we want to trade with Europe, which we almost certainly will (currently around 54% of our exports go to European countries), then we will have to accept freedom of movement on the same terms that we have now. Imagining that we’ll still be able to have a formal political and economic relationship with Europe and write our own rules is a bit like a child who pisses in the school sandpit, then climbs out and insists that the others keep playing with her. It ain’t gonna happen, and no one’s going to thank us for leaving a smelly mess behind.
In your Facebook post and the Newsweek opinion, you strain to dissociate yourself from Farage and his anti-immigration sentiment. I know that there were other liberals who thought Leave was a good idea. Jeremy Corbyn, crusty old North London Socialist that he is, has probably been planning the fall of the EU for years. (How else to explain his lacklustre support of the Leave campaign?) But the soft whispers of the liberal Eurosceptics were drowned out by the harsher battle cries of UKIP and their politics of hate and fear. I’m sorry for you if you feel your “liberal” voice was under-represented, but you can’t have it both ways. A line was drawn and you chose to stand on the same side as Farage and his mates. You can’t make that choice and then complain when you get tarred with the same brush.
In the latter part of your Newsweek piece, you list the many plights of the nation – the downsides of Osborne’s austerity budget, the decimation of the NHS and public services, the rise in zero hours contracts. These are big problems, but you fail to explain how Brexit is going to address them, let alone make them better. That’s probably because most of them are the result of UK domestic policy – the neo-liberal policies of Thatcher and subsequent Conservative governments – and nothing to do with Europe. If anything, our EU membership has helped stem the tide of total descent into neo-liberalism by securing employee protections, promoting human rights and avoiding corruption. And then there’s the billions that the EU have poured into the UK economy – funding for low-income regions in Cornwall in Wales, subsidies for farmers, economic development programmes, higher education grants. It’s not Europe we need to be saved from – it’s the Tories.
Your final argument goes like this: “In traditional working class areas of the UK, migrant workers who are willing to work for the minimum wage are being wrongfully used as cheap labour, cutting jobs”. (This contradicts your earlier statements about your Brexit vote not being about immigration, but never mind). Let’s break this down. Where are these traditional working class areas you speak of? The majority of immigrants to the UK settle in large metropolitan areas like London, Manchester and Birmingham, where there are greater opportunities for work. And is the fact of workers wanting to work for the minimum wage a bad thing? The point of having a minimum wage is to protect against exploitative labour practises, not encourage them. And where are these magical jobs that are being taken away from Britons? Most immigrants have valuable skills that aren’t being provided by locals. Try and find a plumber or an electrician in London who isn’t a European national, and you’ll see what I mean.
As part of my work, I go to parts of the country that you call “the traditional working class areas” of Britain. Places like Barnsley and Doncaster in South Yorkshire, mining towns that died when the pits closed; or Bradford, where the National Front once had a stronghold; or really shitty parts of Kent, where it’s all concrete tower blocks and teenage girls in shell suits chain-smoking as they push their prams to the pound shop. These places are unrelentingly grim and depressing. Not surprisingly, they’re also the electorates where Farage’s anti-immigrant rhetoric found a sympathetic ear. These places aren’t overrun by immigrants, which perversely makes it easier for immigrants to become the hated Other. If you don’t have work, or education, or prospects – privileges that people like you and me take as our birthright – then it’s much easier to start blaming a faceless pack of darkies from other places for all your problems.
That’s not to say that everyone in those communities are racist or that they all voted for Brexit. My point is that there are economic and social conditions that create the kind of separatism and casual racism that punctuated the Brexit campaign. The Brexit vote is a culmination of widespread disenfranchisement, cynically redirected by Farage and his friends towards a false target.
The irony is that Brexit is most likely to adversely affect the people who voted for it. The wealthy will be able to bounce back and weather increased prices and more job stability. It’s the poorer communities who bizarrely supported Brexit, who will suffer: turkeys voting for Christmas. The UK will never be able to match the same level of federal support, which will almost certainly see a continuation of the austerity policies you are protesting against.
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when I got to the final sentence of your Newsweek blog. “We’re Great Britain“, you cheered. “And we’re going to be absolutely fine“. My view is less optimistic than yours. Allow me to mansplain.
Scotland is already itching to declare independence from Westminster. If this happens, Wales, (which, like Scotland, also has devolved powers of government) will almost certainly follow suit. Then there’s Ireland, which is shaping up to be a shamrock-shaped disaster. If the UK leaves the EU, there will need to be some kind of border to separate the Republic of Ireland (in the EU) from Northern Ireland (part of Go-It-Alone Britain). This may breach the rules of the Good Friday peace agreement, which prohibits militarised zones within the country. It’s early days yet, but it’s definitely a possibility that Great Britain may be a thing of the past.
As for “absolutely fine” – well, I’ll leave you to read the newspapers and ponder those words. The pound has plummeted. The financial markets are on suicide watch. Property funds are closing down. European companies are already signalling their intention to leave Britain. UK scientists are at risk of being excluded from pan-European projects. We have our first unelected Prime Minister since the disastrous days of Gordon Brown. Oh, and then there’s the catastrophic rise in reports of hate crimes and racist slurs – the ugly collateral damage of the Brexit campaign. Maybe the former working classes will learn to see the wrongness of this kind of hatred, as they did in the Battle of Cable Street against Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts. But for now, I’d hate to be a person of colour, a foreign language speaker or a Muslim woman in a headscarf – all of them afraid to walk the streets to speak their own language.
Then there’s the terror of the not-too-distant future: a long, expensive and destabilising prospect of Britain negotiating its exit from the EU, with or without a general election or an Act of Parliament to precede it. At best, I think we can hope for a deal that looks much the same as we have now – Europe won’t negotiate on anything less. But it won’t be the same, as we’ll no longer be full members of the EU, and will have weakened political influence and no guarantees about access to federal EU funds. I’d say that’s not fine at all.
There is one point in your analysis that did stick, and which I’ve been pondering since the Referendum day. “Insulting the winning side is childish”, you say. True – it’s not very British to be a sore loser, but as nearly as many people voted Remain as they did Leave, you can understand their frustration.
You also label as childish some Londoners’ calls for the city to become independent – “that sort of attitude is what got you in this mess in the first place”. I was interested in your use of the word “mess”. Could you mean the Brexit vote – y’know, the thing that you voted for – was a mess? Was this a barely-conscious admission that maybe you’d got it wrong? Perhaps not. But I do agree that Brexit is a mess, and that the divide between London and the rest of the country is a big part of it.
I’ve always been aware that I live within a bubble – a bubble within a bubble within a bubble, actually – cocooned as I am with the privileges of being white, male, university educated, working in a high-paying job, and being a property owner. I’m an immigrant to these soggy shores, but one who’s mostly managed to pass unnoticed, and prosper as well as any Englishman. “You’re the kind of immigrant we want”, taxi drivers usually tell me, on those late rides home from the office when I can be bothered engaging in conversation. But I’m also aware that my bubble is tiny, and doesn’t represent the majority of Britons.
Among the many political and cultural flaws that Brexit has exposed, the greatest is the Grand Canyon-sized divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots. The voting statistics have been pretty clear on this point: the Haves generally voted to Remain, whereas the Have Nots voted overwhelmingly to Leave. That’s a terrifying divide to have in a society, and reflects a massive unwillingness of Britons to engage with and debate opposing views. We could blame social media for this, or the natural reticence of the British, or the social segregation that invariably happens when one part of a country gets wealthy and won’t share their toys. Whatever it is, it’s a massive problem, and it needs to be addressed before the country falls apart.
I don’t have an easy answer for this (though I did, it definitely wouldn’t be “We’re going to be absolutely fine”). One thing I have resolved to do is to get out of my bubble now and then, and try to engage with people whose views aren’t the same as mine, to listen, to argue, and to try and understand. As your experience on Facebook proves, hurling abuse at the other side doesn’t work, and simply encourages people to entrench their positions. To become a United Kingdom again, we have to look up from our teacups and try talking to each other.
Which is where this blog comes in – my small and hopefully not too alienating attempt to respond to the views of a Brexiteer. How I wish that you had chosen to express your views to the world a bit earlier, or at least before the Referendum vote. Then we could have had a real conversation, and maybe learned to understand each other’s point of view. As it is, it feels like we are on opposite sides of a leaky rowboat, looking in opposite directions as we row out to sea, while the thunderstorm rages around us.
I wish you the very best of luck. We’re all going to need lots of it in the difficult years to come.