I recall a friend of mine describing the breakdown of a relationship – “I picked on a loose thread and before I knew it the whole sweater unravelled.”
In 2013 David Cameron picked on a loose thread in the Conservative party when he promised to tackle the issue that had divided them for years. Three years later it’s not just the sweater of the Conservative party that is unravelling before us, but decades of social, political and economic stability.
I’m deeply sad about the events that have unfolded in the past week. I want to believe that the place I’ve always called home is a relatively tolerant, open place. The past week makes it difficult to take this view.
I wouldn’t mind so much if I felt that the leave campaign won on the basis of its promise that Brexit would enable us to flourish as an international trading nation, liberated from a squabbling, fading continent; empowered to pivot eastwards and embrace ‘Asia’s century’.
Alas, I think that the platform on which the leave campaign succeeded was a regressive one – a rejection of liberty, internationalism, commerce, tolerance, responsibility, reason and compassion.
For the sake of my own sanity I want to share my experience of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
I’ve been a member of a political party before, but this is the first time that I actively engaged in politics. I signed up to support StrongerIn because I want Britain to be an open nation which actively engages with the world around us, starting with our closest neighbours. I accept the argument about Brussels bureaucracy and over-paid, unelected officials, but I’m more conscious of the decades of peace and prosperity overseen by the EU. My dad happens to work a couple of days a week supporting Southampton’s Polish community, but aside from that I think my affinity with Europe is pretty standard – I love the ease of a quick weekend in Europe and I appreciate the company of European friends who have settled in London.
My first experience of the campaign was leafletting outside Shoreditch High Street train station on my birthday. I recall the curiosity of European tourists: “which side are you on? We can’t vote but I hope you win!” I recall the enthusiasm of the guy they paired me up with – a German fella working in London for a big American bank. I’m not sure how he would have fared on the streets of Blackpool or Grimsby, but London’s hipsters and day-trippers didn’t question his credentials.
After a few more leafletting sessions (at Marylebone Farmers Market the only leaver I met was a trader at the cider stall) and one evening on the phone banks, I approached June 23rd with optimism. I was reassured by the opinion polls and even more so by the betting markets.
Even if the polls had it all square I was confident that the leavers were shouting the loudest in the run-up to the 23rd, and that on the big day the silent majority would come out and put a cross in the right box. Even if their heart said leave during the campaign, surely they would vote with their head in the polling station?
I was in Swindon on polling day. I said ‘good luck’ to the StrongerIn campaigner at the train station. The kids at the school I visited were in favour of Remaining. As I cycled back to the office from Paddington I saluted the StrongerIn campaign bus which I passed on Southwark Street – it was heading towards Royal Festival Hall, where the Remain campaign made its final stop. I also recall a convoy of Remain billboards being towed along by sodden eastern-European-looking cyclists. On Waterloo Bridge I noticed an advert which read ‘Brits don’t quit’ alongside a portrait of Winston Churchill.
After voting I returned home to watch the news. I checked the latest odds (<20% chance of Brexit by this point according to Ladbrokes) and went to bed with the rumours that Farage and Boris had conceded defeat before the counting had even begun. I was starting to regret my decision to buy 500 euros earlier in the week just in case we lost.
I woke up just after 1am and checked my phone:
From that point on I didn’t get a moment’s sleep. I refreshed my twitter feed every few seconds until 5am when I crawled through to the lounge to watch fate being sealed on the BBC. Ahead of me London was bathing in a brilliant dawn.
Restless and agitated I went for a run to the Bank of England. Broadcasters in bright jackets blocked the pavements; bleary-eyed bankers jumped out of black cabs.
Friday was dismal. Everyone I encountered was deflated. The attention of the media on Cameron and Johnson was a painful reminder that this was a localised squabble that could easily have been contained – the loose thread in the Conservative sweater that didn’t need to be tugged.
I latched on to the idea that the referendum might not be decisive and I rued my 100% English heritage – the three people that l had lunch with were already making plans to seek citizenship of Germany, Ireland and Italy through grandparents, parents and spouses.
It was the day that we all became political commentators as we ruminated on a result that we didn’t dare imagine. Amongst my family, friends and colleagues I could hardly name a single person that voted Leave. As Farage renounced the pledge to redirect the “£350 million” to the NHS it was hard not to feel aggrieved.
I happened to pass the houses of parliament at about 6pm. Even Winston seemed less than impressed at the path our people had chosen when faced with two distinct options.
I think StrongerIn lost for three main reasons: weak leadership (have our major parties ever been less able to influence their supporters?); the failure to build a compelling narrative for remaining (they couldn’t tell a story about a brighter future because we know what EU membership feels like already, and it feels, well, pretty ordinary), and because of the resentment that many people feel towards modern Britain. I mentioned people voting with their head and heart earlier, but my personal view (and I’ve already said that I don’t know many Leavers) is that those who voted to leave did so with neither their head nor their heart, but their gut. Theirs was a visceral reaction to a world that they feel is passing them by.
And of course it’s our collective failure that we needed this referendum to expose the deep rifts in our society; especially the rift between those who benefit from cheap city-breaks, cheap champagne and cheap cleaners and those whose relative wealth has declined steadily since the 1970s. I wish that George Osbourne’s ‘punishment budget’ announced before the referendum in case of defeat was in fact a ‘regeneration budget’ announced in case of victory, recognising the plight of ordinary people in forgotten corners of our nation, and committing to a comprehensive programme of social investment. It would be a lot cheaper than the money we’ve already lost by leaving.
In the days that followed the referendum I’ve been a bit nicer to people around me. I took the time to chat to a Spanish guy who was giving out leaflets for gym membership; I gave a nod to the security guard in my local supermarket who I always see but never acknowledge. Life goes on, but I’m gutted that we’re facing a future which is likely to be more isolated, more uncertain, more parochial.
I still hope that we will never leave the EU. There’s a chance of a general election in the next 12 months, by which time public opinion might have shifted. The status quo of EU membership on which the electorate weighed up last week’s choice has disappeared forever, so any future public vote (e.g. a general election between pro-EU and anti-EU parties or a referendum on the terms of our withdrawal) will be driven by a different dynamic to last week’s plebiscite.
In the short term, we need to get more young people to register to vote.
In the long term, we need to invest in our poorest communities. I guess we link big events to our own experiences, but it’s clear to those of us who work in schools that the areas that voted most strongly to Leave tend to be the areas where we find our poorest schools.
Nationally 45% of kids tend to leave school at 16 with little to show for their time there. In the provincial towns that voted out, the figure is much higher. It’s difficult to convince someone without an education that it’s in their interest for Britain to embrace the global marketplace.
It’s trite to bring football into this, but the timing of this week’s dismal defeat to Iceland seemed especially pertinent.
A deluded, frightened nation once again sought success on a platform of reputation and ego rather than teamwork and intelligence, only to suffer a ridiculous, humiliating and completely avoidable defeat.