I went to bed early. I didn’t really imagine this, not really. I thought we would wake up to a triumphalist Remain, and while I’d breathe a sigh of relief, I’d feel sad and angry for all the people who voted Leave and were now even more alienated. I’d thought I would wake up feeling angry at Remain, at myself, wary of the smugness, and thinking of all the work that needed to be done to heal a divided country. But I am one of the minority. I guess the democratic sovereign woke up, not only grumpy, but very old. The age breakdown of voters shows that an entire generation is alienated from its own future.1 I desperately hope all the optimists were right. I also hope that our comrades in the US take November far more seriously than I took this referendum, and campaign hard against the new New Right.
There was much about the Remain campaign that I despised: the open and vile class hatred (at least it’s now open?); the smug elite Europhilia; the refusal to acknowledge that migration is a real thing that a democracy must deal with, that Europe has many losers, and many of those losers, in Britain and elsewhere, have been forgotten or abandoned by the political class. There were many reasons that “Lexit”—the left case for Brexit—was attractive, mostly to do with the deep failures of the Economic and Monetary Union. Outside the UK, some on the left seemed to see a vote for Remain as a failure of nerve. Call it project fear, call it a failure of European solidarity, call it neoliberal cosmopolitanism, call it the triumph of liberal constitutionalism against democratic sovereignty—I’m not really sure anymore.
But for me, there were many, many more reasons to vote Remain than not. I realized I cared a lot more than I thought I did, and not just because of my class interests, or because I have always thought of myself as European. I did not want to wake up on Friday to have Boris declare it Independence Day; it’s been a stock phrase for a while, but it went from little-England Toryism to something deeply fascistic when he used it. I did not want to legitimize even an ounce of the racism at the heart of Leave’s campaign. I think a Lexit was an illusion, and not because I am “anti-utopian”: I have a lot of sympathy with those who romanticize a lost British welfare state, but their dream erases too much national, and all colonial, history. The British welfare state was not simply a radical, leftist project but a warfare state, an imperial state, a conservative and patriarchal state where brown and black people were not welcome. We should be fighting for something better than the past, and the EU is not what stood between us and that better thing.
I am not squeamish. Against my better judgment, I often find myself not minding the militarist, masculine rhetoric of holding one’s ground or sacrificing a generation—rhetoric weaponized on all sides, left, right, Remain, Leave. It is often now said that many people have been sacrificed in the name of the European ideal, but choosing Brexit is a sacrifice in the name of an ideal too. I do not believe leaving the EU helps the people it is meant to help, or that it helps the left, the generation already sacrificed since 2008, the precarious workers in Britain and on its borders, or the many migrants whose lives were lost trying to reach Fortress Europe. I do not believe that leaving touches the power of the City, or helps socialism or even social democracy, or that it hurts the Troika, or that it is one step toward dismantling Europe in the name of solidarity. I do not think global capital will flinch in the long run, but a great many people will be hurt in the short run. Leaving won’t get rid of Uber, like the audience on Wednesday night’s Channel 4 debate were led to believe.
People in Britain think that Britain is powerless because they feel powerless, but giving Britain the power to leave the EU does not help those powerless people, or return “power” to Britain. Anyone who doesn’t think this campaign has been fought with poison, or who does not see the extent to which English identity has been made ethnic by it, and who does not admit that Farage and Boris have now definitively taken the place of the left and are successfully claiming to speak for the working class, is in an echo chamber.
My grandmother spent a sleepless night. At midnight she checked on the coverage while taking her medication for her blood pressure, but instead of going to bed, she kept watching the TV, too nervous to sleep. “How could I go to sleep if I couldn’t sleep?” she told my father when he called at 7 AM. He’d been up since 5. My grandmother is 81 and came to England twenty-four years ago from Bosnia. She wasn’t born here, and neither was I. This is the second time she’s watched a country fall apart. It’s only my first.
If you voted Leave, I’m your worst nightmare. An immigrant who stole your university places, your jobs, your eligible men, all under a name you can’t pronounce. It gets worse! They also granted me British citizenship.
In London I didn’t see a single Leave poster in my neighborhood; outside train stations people gave me Remain stickers and we smiled at one another. When I campaigned for the Green Party on Sunday and handed out Remain leaflets, members of the public teased me by saying, “I’m voting Leave!” before erupting into laughter because they thought it was such a funny idea, what a lark.
The rest of the country had other ideas.
London gleams with money and power, but outside of London it looks different. The bad houses, empty storefronts, betting shops, and food banks. Just when it seemed that right-wing politicians couldn’t hurt the country any more, they unveiled their greatest trick of all: they preyed on the vulnerability of the UK’s worst off and made people suspicious of one another—of the person behind the checkout, at the desk next to theirs, in the house next door. All to settle an old and boring political argument.
They’re arguing now about whether dismantling Britain’s place in the EU is going to be fast or slow, easy or hard. I haven’t even begun to try and dismantle my understanding of life in Britain as it exists inside the EU, and all the experiences and pleasures I’ve taken for granted. Or what it might mean that a majority of the country didn’t feel like this, didn’t share this identity.
It’s important to say, because we’re hearing it less and less, but I’ve always felt welcome in the Britain I’ve lived in. In the north and in the south I’ve felt safe, understood, and equal. Why else would my grandmother have stayed up all night, if not in hope that, this time, her country would do the right thing?
The referendum should never have been called. It was an irresponsible and divisive gamble by Cameron to shore up his position in his own political party. He risked the UK’s economic and social stability for the sake of party politics, and created the poisonous political climate that led to him losing.
His government has cut funding for public services and blamed immigrants for their resulting impoverishment. His rhetoric portraying immigrants as parasites on the British economy rather than valuable contributors to it has legitimized far-right arguments in the UK and brought them into the political mainstream. He has made Nigel Farage popular.
I feel wearied and sad. I think I will feel scared soon. There will be an economic cost to Brexit, and it’ll be felt most by people who are already disadvantaged and disaffected. Our political leaders—dominated by Leave politicians—will restrict public funding even further and continue to blame immigrants for their own failures. People will turn on those in the UK that seem most “foreign.” At the moment I don’t see a way out of an ugly political mood getting uglier.
David Cameron’s overconfidence going into this referendum was not unlike our own. This result surprised many—after all, not a single one of my friends supported the Leave campaign (or if they did, they did so quietly). Data suggest that the vote was split predominantly along lines of income and education. We have isolated ourselves from one another: physically, through income-segregated neighborhoods, consumption, and schools (Mr. Cameron is guilty of all three); and mentally, through targeting technology, media, and a general intolerance for views that differ from our own. Losing touch with the “median voter” has political, economical, and social consequences. As Britain moves forward with the conservative leadership election and the general election, it’s worth bearing in mind that “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk” applies to more than just Messrs. Cameron and Osborne.
To see the European far right unanimously overjoyed today is a sickening spectacle. If this is the beginning of a left-wing revolution, it comes in pretty good disguise. Euroskepticism in France is running high, with arguably even more people on the left convinced of the virtues of leaving the EU than in Britain. The pressure for a French referendum will likely mount. Celebrating the “patriotic spring” sweeping across Europe, Marine Le Pen hopes more countries will follow suit and “regain” their independence. Given the challenges ahead—inequality, migration, climate change, corporate tax evasion—these statements seem not just pitifully quaint, but a grotesque abdication of responsibility.
What lessons are to be drawn from Brexit? The editorial published this morning in Le Monde, a stalwart of the French center-left, makes for sobering reading. France is still living in the shadow of last year’s terrorist attacks and considers itself, in the words of president Hollande, at war. If the EU is to have any future at all, the editors argue, security must become a key concern. (When not conflated in the French media, terrorism and migration are now habitually entwined. The socialist government committed to take in 30,000 Syrian refugees, less than half the European average in per capita terms.) Greater military cooperation, an increase in defense spending, and a concerted effort to convince African states that it is in their financial interest to make sure migrants do not leave the continent will assuage the anxieties of European electorates. It is a stunning admission of defeat, forgoing even the customary—and largely symbolic—reference to a “social Europe”.
L’internationalisme est un combat. And we’ve been failing miserably. This could blow up in our faces. It’s much bigger than the EU. We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us.
Why don’t old people in the West understand that without immigrants their pensions will go bankrupt? That’s the central political confusion of our time.
The entire trick of Europe—the thing that makes it a great place to live—is that it managed to build a political culture on top of the ashes of the Holocaust that essentially made the far-right illegal. (That’s something we never figured out in the United States.)
The UK vote rips the lid off the postwar consensus. The English themselves will be fine, though significantly poorer; the idea that a sinking pound will be great for English exports is laughable—England doesn’t have any exports besides financial services, and that sector is set to shrink. The EU made the UK rich: it was significantly poorer than France or Germany before it joined.
The real losers are refugees from the Middle East, the long-tail casualties of recent Anglo-American wars. The UK vote will help raise drawbridges all over Europe, regardless of whether the National Front wins the next French election—a terrifying possibility which is now much more likely.
A lot of analysts are confusing the design flaws of the euro, which precipitated the Greek crisis, with inter-ethnic tensions within the European Union, which have led to Brexit. The euro is wrapped up in the austerity debate, but austerity in Britain has been homegrown—it has nothing to do with the EU.
Maybe Merkel, Hollande, et al. will find a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and use Brexit as an opportunity to bind Europe more tightly together. That would probably require punishing Britain as harshly as possible to dissuade other countries from jumping ship. Given the current political climate, it seems unlikely that Europe will emerge stronger from this crisis. It might not even emerge at all.
My mother came to the UK in the January cold of 1972. She’d made the trip from Ipoh, Malaysia, to join three of her sisters to train as a nurse in London. A Punjabi woman born in Malaysia, she was part of a wave of immigration to the UK from the British Commonwealth, a historical movement of people whose cultural and economic impact on the nation was deeply significant and, at least to the minds of most people, deeply positive. Since the EU granted freedom of movement to citizens of member states in 2004, we’ve seen more immigration to the UK from Europe, which, too, has had a profound effect on the country’s composition. When my American husband worked briefly at a coffee shop in London in 2009, his coworkers were mostly from other EU countries, some staying months, some years. In the run-up to Brexit I was saddened to read the words of many people—both politicians and acquaintances on Facebook—who seemed to ignore the reality that immigrants are people who make life-changing personal decisions to come to another country to work or study or be with the person they love, and in doing so enrich that country’s tax-base and our society.
There’s an odd double standard that I’ve noticed about British xenophobia: a friendliness toward individual immigrants (at a Costa coffee shop, I once saw a man with a copy of the Daily Mail happily chatting to the Polish shop manager about her hometown—many Brexit supporters have conversations like this every day), coupled with a nebulous yet firm belief that too many foreign people live in a country that is 82 percent white. When I was a child, my mother—who in her forty-four years living in the UK has become so acculturated and English in her habits and dress that with her white hair and light skin, she is sometimes mistaken for the Queen by small children—told me and my brother to be a bit careful around our next-door neighbors. They had complained to my mother and father about “cooking smells” of Indian food. The “cooking smells” Britons (along with others who have less xenophobic reasons for wanting to leave) have used their vote, and it kind of feels like I’m getting evicted from my childhood home. It’s a deeply sad day for me, and for Britain.
One of the first maps to show Britain in recognizable form is a drawing from the Middle Ages called the Gough Map. It’s the wrong way round, disoriented, with East at the top: the country lies on its side like a bruiser in a pub brawl, the Scottish islands small pools of vomit.
The Gough Map does not correspond to physical space in the correct way, meaning the way that we learn in school. It’s more of a symbol, in the manner of the ring of gold stars. As a tiny girl I had a sweater with the EU stars on it. I wore it to a concert in the park once, where a group of pretty young women danced with me in a circle—we went round and round.
Exploration and colonialism marks the beginning of history for modern Britons. Everything before that is fiction. And what comes next, what now? The meaning of Europe is conflict; the meaning of us is our place in the conflict. That’s why we can’t see the Gough Map warning us from beyond the time of modern empire. The English lust for dominance and isolationism springs from somewhere before the beginning of time, or perhaps from inside. It’s fearful, it’s violent, and it knocked us out before we even saw its fists move.
The majority of voters under 44 voted Remain, and the majority of voters over 44 voted Leave. The population left to live with this outcome the longest—voters between the ages of 18 and 24—overwhelmingly voted Remain. See http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-36616028 ↩