The UK woke up on Friday morning and everything had changed. Confounding belief, reason, and expert opinion, over half the voting population of the UK chose to leave the EU.
When my wife said, “bad news,” looking at her phone as I awoke, I assumed she must be talking about something else. Even though the Brexit had been almost the only thing we spoke about all day before going to bed, surely this had to be some other kind of disaster that had made the news. But no, it was the result we’d feared and yet had never assumed possible. Why would people choose to throw themselves (and the world) into a new financial crisis? Why would they choose to leave an organisation where they had one of the best seats at the table, with almost none of the downsides? Why would they ignore the warnings of world leaders, military experts, and senior economists? Why on earth would they side with Nigel Farage?
Seeing Farage’s gloating face on news sites that morning felt like we were living in an episode of Black Mirror. Surely this couldn’t actually be real life?
But it was. And it was a huge victory for the hate-mongering newspapers like The Daily Mail and The Sun, so often proven to be spreading actual lies and yet so so so popular — especially amongst our parents’ generation, who were responsible for the majority of the Leave votes. The casual racism and intolerance our generation rolls our eyes at during Christmas dinners is now writ large on the world stage and has quite literally changed our futures.
In the aftermath, reports of openly-racist abuse started pouring in. I witnessed family members’ posts on Facebook of fingers stuck up at the European map; of badly-spelled anti-Europe insults; of wishes for Scotland and Ireland to “f-off, too!” And at the same time, video interviews of regretters, suddenly realising that, yes, their vote did count; Google searches for what the EU actually is surging from Britons who had just voted to leave it; constituencies who voted Leave in spite of their generous funding from the EU suddenly begging the UK government to fill the financial gap.
Not everyone who voted Leave is Far-Right-leaning, bigoted, or racist. But, as a friend of mine said today: racists feel validated. And what a scary thought that is.
Writing just before the vote, Marina Hyde remarked that Leave voters “must stomach the reality that a vote for leave will be taken by Farage and countless others as a vote for him, a vote for his posters, a vote for his ideas, a vote for his quiet malice, a vote for his smallness in the face of vast horrors.”
A comment I’ve often heard from those against immigration (either for legitimate or racist reasons) is: “I feel like a stranger in my own country.” But on Friday, I felt like a stranger in my own country. Walking around, knowing that half of the people around me look at the world from a totally different viewpoint, is a depressing, isolating thought. My Facebook friends are all Remainers, but my family by and large voted Leave. Bristol was one of the big Remain-voting cities, but out in the countryside south of the city, where we live, the mood was very much that of support for the Leave result. I feel ashamed to live in the countryside, because it’s so apparent that non-city dwellers generally voted in favour of Leave. But I feel most ashamed simply to be British. I’m deeply embarrassed, and can only apologise to my European friends for this belief-defying direction my country has taken.
It’s Monday now and that shame hasn’t dissipated, but now I’m asking myself:what next? The news is focussed on the Tory power struggle that seemingly triggered this whole mess in the first place and the will-they-or-won’t-they drama of triggering Article 50. There’s even the possibility that the referendum won’t actually come to anything (although I think we’ve pissed Europe off beyond repair now). Amongst friends, it feels like the Remainers are starting to split into two camps: those taking the positive stance and (perhaps admirably) working on how we can get on with it now that it’s happened (how British!), and those saying that there’s more work to do: that we won’t take this result, that we demand enquiries, that we will sign petitions and organise rallies and absolutely not accept this new Britain.
Personally, I’m leaning towards the latter, while being mindful of the potential further trouble it could cause. My personal mission, going forward, is to engage more with family members about politics. Rather than going for the easy option and not wanting to create arguments, I’m going to question political viewpoints that don’t seem to follow reason. I firmly believe that if I’d done that before now, I would’ve been able to sway at least a few relatives towards a Remain vote. And if friends had done the same with their families, well, it might’ve made a difference. Perhaps that’s where we failed. We just didn’t engage with our less progressive relatives.
They’ve made it clear that Europe isn’t welcome. In doing so, it turns out neither are we.