Oh Britain, What Have You Done? The Brexit Nightmare Unfolds
Britain has voted to leave the European Union, but instead of swaggering like a brave buccaneer about to go solo, the national mood is shocked and anxious.
After the initial shock comes, well, more shock. Uncertainty. A sense of: what just happened? What did over half of us just do? What on earth happens next?
These questions, usually just asked after a seismic event, just recur and echo when it comes to the British referendum vote to leave the EU.
This seismic event continues to loom, its scale and shadow immoveable. The resignation of David Cameron feels like a dull thud of a coda, not the resignation of a Prime Minister.
Just over half of the votes cast—52 per cent—went to Brexit. The other 48 per cent is feeling (if the many emails and texts of friends seem to imply), that this is a crushingly sad day, a depressing day, and a stupid, short-sighted thing to do. It seems like a repudiation of the spirit of inclusion and openness that has blossomed in Britain over the last 20-plus years.
This is Britain, where even the most extreme calamity is greeted with the desire for a sit-down, biscuit, and cup of tea. How much PG Tips and how many Digestives are being consumed in Britain today would be something to quantify. But all the tea and Digestives in the world cannot ward off the change that will come: when, at what force, and with what consequences are unknown.
Suddenly, apart from the significant voting blocs of Scotland and London, the UK looks like an island nation closing down—and this after years of us opening ourselves up to the world, of progressing, and being known as progressive.
The vote is a venom-packed slap to liberalism, and as such reflects the rise of nationalism and right-wing parties and interests in many other countries, the US included. The shared motors in all this: immigration, economic hardship, political disillusion, a mistrust of those in power, the threat of terrorism, and anti-Muslim sentiment. A toxic cocktail for sure, ripe for canny right-wing operators to manipulate into a lot of voter fear.
You may have read a lot today about how the Brexit polling broke down: the old (leave the EU) outnumbered the young (remain); the academic, professional and metropolitan were outnumbered by their Brexit opposites.
All of this may be true, but what is also true is that a vote like this—while shocking—has history behind it that cuts across class, age, and occupation. Britain is an island that once presided over an empire. It has always been small, but played big, leading to a set of sometimes positive, sometimes negative permutations of national spirit.
There is a romance to Britain’s relatively small size, and its swaggering reach. It has the world’s most famous Royal family. It is a fascinating melding of regions and cultures, all characterized by a chippy bent for self-determination, as evidenced en masse in the Brexit vote.
The very old and the very new sit side by side in Britain; the best comedies out of my homeland contrast tradition or set ways of doing things butting up against the modern world. And now, the heart of that comedy—the clash of cultures, tradition, and the demands of an age of modernity—is deadly serious. The ‘British way of life,’ so long held up as being endangered by the EU, now seems more precariously in suspension thanks to the demands of those that it be fully self-governing.
Europe, and the countries of Europe, have also been serious and non-serious bogeymen for the British. We have laughed at the French, and our rage at the Germans, once World War Two enemies, is now filtered through a longtime cultural quarrel over sunbeds.
The EU has been a longtime bogeyman: Britain’s tabloids who would fulminate that “Brussels” was setting the rules for how ‘we’ should live, the size of bananas we could eat. Editors would rejoice if stories bloomed about some new legislative outrage originating from the EU. Why should ‘they’ tell us what to do?
But with the advent of the Euro, and border dissolution, and free movement between countries, came a more contemporary delight in being able to travel easily and cheaply to neighbors. The island on its own was merely a beautifully-positioned bicycle spoke, from which tapas in Madrid or a luxe weekend in Stockholm were only a few hours away. And the ‘old’ seemed to enjoy this new Europe as much as ‘the young.’
But the Eurosceptic fervor of the Tory Right never abated, and even if you did not share it, growing up in Britain—no matter how cosmopolitan you may be, how progressive and open and well-traveled and well-versed in other languages—means you grow up with a allegiance to the ‘small island’ you are on. At its best that is patriotism, at its worst, it becomes isolationist, narrow, and nationalist in the most negative sense.
In Britain, aided by a feverish tabloid press, establishment figures went on and on about the establishment and elites ruling facelessly and uncaringly over ‘ordinary people’s lives.’ This, despite, none of them—Nigel Farage included—being ordinary in the slightest, but rather members of the establishment and elites themselves.
It was Farage who set the ugly tone of the triumphalism of the Brexit victory, invoking it as a win for the ordinary, decent Brit, so long a victim of Brussels bureaucracy and meddling, as well as a (factually non-existent) immigrant tide.
Only Farage could, like Donald Trump, blunder so carelessly around the mood of the moment and say his mission had been achieved without a “shot being fired”—a pretty sinister thing to say anyway, but triply so, considering more than one shot had been fired, and stab wounds mercilessly executed, in the murder of pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox on June 16.
On Friday morning, the so-called respectable figures of the Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, looked as shocked and ashen as those who wanted to remain in the EU. If there is triumphalism it is of the most funereal sort. Britain is split down the middle, and all Johnson really wants to do is play politics, pitching at his first press conference to be Prime Minister.
The roiling Conservative Party rivalries and ideological turf-wars that pitched the country into the referendum remains on a low-boil.
On social media, passions run high, and then—because the British are British—we seek if not consensus (consensus on the EU issue, as the vote reflected, is impossible), then a tone of amelioration.
On Friday afternoon, for all the shock and disbelief being expressed, there was also a briskly practical tone of, “We need to come together to make this work the best way possible.”
But still, for many, simple shock and worry are the main moods of the day.
The Conservative Right’s grip on English political and public life has been strengthened: if Brexit has shown anything, it is how lacking the left has been, hence the likely challenge to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Not just one ball, but so many more, have been thrown in the air—and each new debate, or question, brings more balls, and more flailing hands trying to catch them beneath.
Another Brit-stereotype—soldiering on in adversity—is really only possible when that adversity has a navigable context. With the Brexit vote and its ramifications the unknowables feel huge and outside anything we know. Will Scotland leave the Union, will Northern Ireland? At the end of this, will England be left as a strange, insular husk, in proximity only geographically to a once-United Kingdom? Will the irony of the battle to extricate Britain from the EU in the name of Britain becoming stronger actually reveal that the country it is weaker, and more isolated?
There has been talk of coming together, of finding a way forward—and of course Britain will. It has to. Right now, whether you are for or against this new arrangement, the country is dazed, unsure, and unsteady on its feet.
Sense will necessarily be made, a way forward, or many ways forward forged.
But the mood as I write this, admittedly from afar, seems not one of anticipation, of self-determination being excitedly grasped, but rather of doors closing, vistas shortening, and a coachload of unnecessary trouble, intrigues, trauma, and agonies, suddenly being ushered in.
Perhaps this is temporary. Perhaps the land of economic new delights Boris Johnson and Michael Gove promise are realizable. Maybe a few Olympic medals will gladden hearts. Maybe our quite brilliant sense of humor will assert itself, and we will start laughing about this, as we orienteer a path through the fog.
But that is in the future. In the short-term, on the day after, that fog of anxiety and insecurity is cloaking the UK. The island doesn’t feel romantic. We are not yet pioneers of a brave new world. What just happened doesn’t feel very bulldog-British, but rather a brutal act of self-destruction, engineered by venal, ambitious politicians whose own material and personal circumstances are considerably more secure and well-appointed than the people they are supposed to represent when not immersed in their power games.
The British role in the European project has evaporated. The EU wants us out fast. We want time—how British—to sort things out. But what power do we have now to dictate any terms? Our presence has been diminished. The British reach has shortened. The drawbridge has creaked shut. What it means to be British, and perhaps what it even feels to be British, is in flux too. The Britain of the past—white faces, warm beer—has long gone, whatever Nigel Farage may wish. The Britain of the future is now, after the Brexit vote, even more unknowable.
Against a more familiar background of struggles for the leadership of the Conservative and Labour parties, and with talk of a general election, the country—having rejected its official affiliation with its European neighbors—is forced to look in on itself. From the outside, suddenly, and hopefully temporarily, the UK looks very isolated.
The only thing to do is make another cup of tea.