It’s taken me a few days to put this post together. I first started it at 5am on Friday morning as I sat in tears, having had just two hours sleep, trying to make some sense of what had happened. Reading it back it read much like one of those unhinged post-break up emails that you send to an ex after too much rum. Saturday afternoon I tried again but it ended up as 900 words of: “OF COURSE BORIS WAS LYING TO YOU, YOU UTTER, UTTER MORONS – THAT’S WHAT BORIS DOES!” Back to the drawing board. Four days in and I’m still trying to come to terms with the decision Britain made last week. I feel desperately sad about it. I’m sad that ignorance won over reason, fear won over unity and hate won over compassion.
I walked around London yesterday trying to process the last 24 hours. Everything looks the same: the buses are still red, the weather is still unpredictable, the grass is still green, Oxford Street is still unbearable – it’s all still there. But something has shifted. We’re a little less open as a nation, slightly more afraid, more inward looking and, worst of all, we’re almost completely divided in two.
Perhaps this needed to happen. The referendum did not create the divisions in this country it only exposed them. At least we now know what the picture is – we may not like it but we can’t heal a rift without first acknowledging that it exists. Whether or not it can be healed at all I have yet to decide. My gut reaction is to get as far away from the UK as possible as it no longer feels like home. The country I thought I lived in was tolerant, vibrant and open – it would have chosen union over separation.
Leave voters have talked a lot about feeling as though their “National Identify” has been eroded in recent years. I don’t know what this means. If I’ve learnt anything in the last four days is that National Identity is entirely subjective. For some, National Identity is the good old days of local pubs full of familiar faces, knowing your neighbours and children playing out on the street. For me, our National Identity is as a progressive, multicultural inclusive society in which communities aren’t defined by where we live but by the values that we share. However, it turns out that my National Identity is as foreign to half the country as theirs is to me.
I think back to the 2012 Olympics and how proud we were to host an event that represented the best of internationalism. From Boyle’s opening ceremony to the very last race, the Olympics was our chance to show off the best of Britain. The message was loud and clear: we are multicultural, progressive and tolerant – and we welcome you with open arms. We won the hearts of the world and people from every nation lined our streets, ate in our restaurants and drank our Yorkshire tea.
We cheered passionately for Mo Farah, who arrived in the UK from Somalia at the age of 8 with only six word of English, who could not have been prouder to wear the Union Jack on his vest. Did these in our country divisions exist then? Of course they did they were just harder to see. We were all cheering on Great Britain but perhaps for slightly different reasons. Were there some people cheering simply for the fact that hosting the Olympics, to quote one Leave voter, “put us back on the globe”? We mocked Aidan Burley for dismissing the Opening Ceremony as “multi-cultural crap” but was he just voicing what millions were thinking? Perhaps we just weren’t listening. Now we are forced to. We do not have to agree with their fears about immigration but we have to listen to them and we have to try and understand them. The future of the country depends on it.
It isn’t helpful to call voters with anxieties about immigration racist. Whilst they may not share his views, with their vote Brexiteers have legitimised the views of Nigel “I’m not racist but…” Farage. The man who claimed that if we stayed in the EU we could see an increase in sexual assault on women. The man who argued that employers should be able to choose their employees on the basis of their nationality. The man who stood proudly next to a poster closely resembling Nazi propaganda just to remind people that they are right to be scared of immigrants. The problem is this: once you vote for somebody this extreme it legitimises those views. Others with racist views no longer feel as though they need to keep quiet if Nigel Farage can go on TV and say he would be concerned if a Romanian family moved in next door.
Sadly, for a small but vocal minority of Leave voters Nigel Farage isn’t extreme enough. There are some who genuinely believed that by voting Leave they weren’t just voting to stop immigration completely but to actually start sending immigrants “back.” In the last four days there has been an increase in racially motivated attacks. From people being told to “go home” to anti-immigration leaflets that read: “Leave the EU – no more Polish vermin” being distributed outside of a primary school.
I have no interest in demonising Leave voters. For some communities this referendum was the first time in 40 years that they felt as though they had a voice. It’s just a shame that the only person listening to them was Farage who opportunistically took on their problems, made them his own and offered them a false solution. Those communities have voted to be more vulnerable, poorer and further neglected. They were lambs, so distracted by the bleating about cows coming into the field and eating all their grass that they didn’t realise they were following Farage into an abattoir.
Of course there were reasons for voting Leave that were not about immigration. Some people didn’t want Brussels deciding how powerful our hoovers could be or setting the standards for imported fruit. Others were worried about those “faceless bureaucrats” making decisions about pollution levels – just to be clear – they’re not faceless – they have faces. I checked. Some claimed it was about democracy, sovereignty and control. Never have such powerful words had so little meaning. It turns out a catchy three-word slogan will trump wordy but rational arguments every time. This referendum wasn’t won on reason it was won with soundbites and few memorable lies: “£350 million a week for the NHS” being the most prominent. Sadly, those who swallowed Farage and Boris’ lies are now learning the hard way the importance of fact checking. Those people who genuinely believed that there would be more money for the NHS are not fools but they didn’t bother to check and Michael Gove told them to ignore the opinions of experts. Any attempt to point out the truth behind the lies or warn of the risks of leaving was shouted down as “Project Fear”.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the Remain campaign was equally abysmal. Corbyn, a man voted in by the young, was unable to even feign the enthusiasm and energy required to fight for the EU. Cameron had an even more difficult job. Having spent the last 6 years making people’s lives worse, closing their libraries and leisure centres, cutting their pay and running their schools and hospitals into the ground he had to somehow convince the general public that Brexit wasn’t worth the risk. Of course a leap into the unknown is worth the risk when you have nothing to lose. Cameron couldn’t say: “The reason your life is so hard is because my party destroyed your industries in the 80s without any plan and you never really recovered. Oh and then since 2010 I’ve bled you dry with my austerity agenda”. Corbyn could have said it though and he should have.
The more rational Leave voters are now on social media saying, “Look we know things are difficult at the moment: the pound is the lowest it’s been for 31 years, the Prime Minister has resigned, the opposition are collapsing and racism is back but if we work together we can make this work for us” yet they weren’t willing to apply to the same philosophy to the EU. They choose division and now want everyone united to steer us through this turbulent time. Even the most confident Leave voter must be slightly unnerved as they watch Gove and Boris squirming as they explain that no, Brexit won’t mean exactly what we told you it would mean. Immigration won’t end and the NHS won’t see any of that money. Oh and the most terrifying truth of all – there is no plan for what happens next. Nothing. Nada.
They’ve taken back control of our country. Yet, as I suspected, they have absolutely no idea what to do with it.