On Friday morning, John said to me “I feel like I have just gone through a divorce, woken up with a new wife and wondered ‘what have I done? Why did I do that?’” At the time, he was talking about our wrenching move away from 18 Kirby Park, our family home for 28 years. But when we turned on the news, we both were overcome by feelings of nausea and more ‘what have we done? Why did we do that?’ Britain has voted for Brexit. The casual contempt of the English for all that is not English has translated into a leap into the unknown.
We have only been back in England for 10 days, but we are both sad and disturbed by the toxicity of the conversations about the EU, and the divides they have uncovered. Our friends, almost to a man, voted Remain. So did most of the British experts in finance and social policy. The tradesmen and small businessmen (mostly men) that we have had contact with – hairdressers, restauranteurs, moving men, builders, electricians, plumbers, have, almost to a man, voted Leave. I have been told how to pronounce English words properly. An MP has been shot, stabbed and killed. And Nigel Farage has said that this represents a victory for ‘decent people’ ‘without a shot being fired.’
The divisions in British society are pretty stark. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to Remain, as did London, and the metropolitan areas of large cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. The rest of the country – didn’t. Young people – those who will bear the consequences – voted overwhelmingly to Remain. Those over 60 – didn’t. Those in good jobs, those with university education, us urban elites, voted to Remain. Those without – didn’t.
In 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, manufacturing accounted for 30% of GDP and employed 6.8 million; by 2010, it was 11% and employed 2.5 million. Six years of austerity have contributed to a growing disconnect between haves and have nots in this country. And its leadership have signally failed to make the positive case for Europe, the case for immigration, the case for the European Convention of Human Rights and other legislation protecting our rights and responsibilities. And our children and grandchildren will bear the consequences.
It’s not as though this could not have been anticipated. There has always been an unpleasant streak beneath ‘keep calm and carry on.’ Remember ‘Gotcha’ the Sun’s reportage of the sinking of an Argentinian ship (with much loss of life) during the Falklands war. The casual racist comments at dinner parties. The pro-Brexit debater reported in the Guardian telling an Austrian living in London “You won’t stay for long anyway. Tomorrow you can pack your suitcase.” The football hooligans in France crowing “We’re voting out!” And on. Politically, England has always been an unstable bedfellow in Europe, ungracious, kicking and struggling against its responsibilities, always wanting to be treated as a special case.
So now what? Who knows? Tony Blair said this week that he was reminded of Blazing Saddles, when the sheriff holds a gun to his own head and says “If you don’t do what I want I’ll blow my brains out.” Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage, the architects of the battle, to lead England – where? Johnson and Gove looked pale and somewhat shaken during their post-win press conference. Can we really see them leading the country to more jobs, less immigration, better housing, more money for the NHS – all that the Brexiteers have been promised? What will happen when all that doesn’t happen? More anger? As Jonathan Friedland wrote after Jo Cox’s murder “when you inject enough poison into the system, something is going to get sick.” What now for the Labour party, weakened and reeling at a time when the country calls out not just for strong leadership but also strong opposition? And what will happen to the European project now, after 70 years of relative peace, as right wing parties from France to Italy to Greece rub their hands in delight at referenda to come.
Gaby Hinsliff quoted Plutarch ‘If we are victorious in one more battle… we shall be utterly ruined.’ The conversation about Europe has cost the Conservative party three prime ministers and fratricidal divisions that are only saved by toothless Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. We can only hope that we latter day Cassandras are proven wrong, but this does feel like a dark day not just for England but for Great Britain and for Europe as well.