Well, this has been a weird ten days. Most of the time, something as trivial as “politician eats sandwich wrong” prompts a lead story on the Guardian, a wave of think pieces and a withering succession of memes. So it has been bizarre to see major news story after major news story almost immediately eclipsed by the next odd turn of events.
The Brexit vote itself was, of course, the truly groundbreaking incident. But if that measured nine on the political Richter scale, each of the subsequent aftershocks was at least a six.
Farage cheerfully admits to lying about the central promise of the Out campaign! Cameron resigns! $2 trillion is wiped off world markets! Four million people sign a second referendum petition! Three quarters of Labour MPs back a no-confidence vote in Corbyn! BoJo drops out of the Tory leadership race! The country now faces a choice between Gove and May, both of whom resemble baddies from a children’s film about a 1950s boarding school! (Don’t worry though – if you don’t like the baddie who has repeatedly said he’s unfit to be prime minister, you can always pick the baddie who wants to repeal the human rights act.)
as this kind of upheaval surely calls for a big picture view. There are too many narrative threads here for the story as a whole to make much sense. Perhaps through a historical long lens it will start to become intelligible – we’ll see that X clearly happened because of Y, and A was all but inevitable when you consider B. But right now, politics seems to have turned into a series of batshit non-sequiturs too messy to be straightened out through spin.
An identity blow
For most of the people I’ve spoken to (well, drunk heavily with), it’s been an emotionally draining ten days. To reverse the old adage, the political has felt personal, perhaps more so than at any time in our pasts. When I was growing up, inter-party wrangling seemed like a pantomime – something you reluctantly acknowledged if you wanted to pass your General Studies exam – not a hot-blooded clash of values that could genuinely shape the course of people’s lives. I don’t think the generation below me will have the luxury of seeing politics as irrelevant.
Even aside from what Brexit will mean in practice (which is beyond the scope of this post), many Remainers have likely been surprised by what feels like a blow to their identity. Personally, I never saw Britishness as integral to who I was, or never thought I did. Over-identifying with your Britishness was the preserve of red-faced Benny Hill types who like to bore on about real ale for hours, send off for Royal Wedding memorabilia via a coupon, and would secretly quite like to invade some colonies.
What I failed to realise was that there was another version of Britishness of which I was quietly, fiercely – and yes, patriotically – proud. I saw tolerance as British. Self-deprecation as British. Surreal humour as British. A distaste for extremism as British. Enlightenment values as British to their core.
And Brexit seems to fly in the face of these values – most obviously where it has validated the views of racist shitheads, but more subtly in the case of the protest voters too.
Yes, their anti-authoritarianism was British in its own way – if you voted out, and you saw yourself as sticking two fingers up at the elite, then nobody could begrudge the underlying impulse. However, given the anti-intellectual timbre of the Out campaign (see Michael Gove on how “people in this country have had enough of experts”), it’s hard not to read the actual target of their ire as, well, empirical evidence.
Out voters may have wanted to send a message to a hectoring, out of touch government and the so-called ‘liberal establishment’. But if they bought into the Murdoch propaganda machine that painted facts as ‘Project Fear’, how were they not playing into the hands of yet another elite cabal? I am baffled as to how anyone can explicitly choose to disregard the overwhelming body of evidence, just because it’s too ‘fear’ inducing or because you want to lash out against the very concept of expertise.
Deepening the divisions
Ten days out, the sense of a divided nation is real. It now feels peculiarly jarring when people say “we” (Britain) voted for this, or “we” (Britain) are going to do that. Who are “we”? What even is a nation if it lacks some kind of unifying idea? Some Brexiteers have never been more ecstatic – they’re saying they’ve got their country back – but many of us Remainers are frankly heartbroken.
This leaves us in an impossible situation, insofar as the more we kick back, the more entrenched these divisions will become. When I saw the petition for London to leave the UK, my first impulse was hell yeah. This is my city, it’s my home – I moved here precisely because it’s so outward-looking – and it’s natural for Londoners to want to convey that we’re not part of ‘little England’.
On the other hand, turning people against each other, in order to better manipulate them, is exactly what unscrupulous politicians want to do. There is already a glaring London vs rest of England divide, reinforced by a London-centric media – I’m not sure anyone gains much through deepening this divide and adding to the other regions’ resentment.
Clearly, we need a cohesive left-wing party, which can reach out to disillusioned Brexit voters in old Labour heartlands, as well as to the cities that voted remain. Otherwise, who knows what will happen? I remember looking at maps of countries in conflict-ridden areas and marveling at their complexity. For the first time, I can truly see how this kind of complexity might arise.
For many of us, discussions of how to emigrate have not been wholly in jest. Even before Brexit, we were weighing up our options – much as we may love London, none but the richest can afford to live here once we get past the flatshare stage of our lives. The idea of moving elsewhere in the UK seems hard to stomach post-Brexit, so… where else can we go? Amsterdam? Barcelona? Berlin? For my part, I’m going to head off travelling round Europe soon, while I still have an EU passport, and part of me will be scouting for a new home.
Let’s hope the next ten days bring good news for a change, as opposed to more summoning of the beast.
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands