PARIS — When Alice climbed on the mantle and stepped through the looking glass in Lewis Carroll’s classic book, she thought at first that nothing much had changed. The fire, to her delight, was still burning in the hearth.
“So I shall be as warm here as I was in the old room,” thought Alice: “warmer in fact, because there’ll be no one here to scold me away from the fire. Oh what fun it’ll be when they see me through the glass in here, and can’t get at me.”
Those who voted for Britain to leave the European Union, and those who encouraged them to do so, seem to have had the same general impression. They’d be just as warm on the outside, and what fun to watch those dreary Continentals unable to impose their rules.
As Alice soon discovered, nothing was quite as it seemed. On the far side of the looking glass, common sense was nonsense, and vice versa, until madness came to seem rather mundane. But it was still madness. And some of it was deeply sinister.
So, too, in post-referendum Britain and Europe, where confusion is common, fears are rampant, and racism—pure and simple—has been unleashed like some long half-asleep monster, one that was always there but now thinks it has been given license and legitimacy by majority vote.
The hideous video making the rounds on the web of a couple of pink-cheeked beer-swilling young men trying to intimidate a dark-skinned Briton (who is considerably more articulate than they) is just a minor meme.
The real horror is in the numbers cited by Amnesty International U.K. on Monday night, which showed a stunning upsurge in hate crimes in Britain since the victory of the Brexit vote.
“Some people now feel licensed to express racist views in a way we haven’t seen for decades,” Kate Allen, director of Amnesty U.K., said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “The referendum campaign was marked by divisive, xenophobic rhetoric as well as a failure from political leaders to condemn it. We are now reaping the referendum rhetoric whirlwind.”
“Amnesty is deeply concerned at reports of verbal abuse, attacks on buildings, racist slogans on t-shirts, calls for people to leave the country, and other acts of intimidation and hate,” said Allen.
“People across the U.K. have suddenly found themselves in a country where they’re unsure of their future, their family’s future, and the security of their jobs and homes,” she said. “They need to be urgently reassured that they can feel safe, protected, and welcome here…We’re simply not prepared to stand by and let hate become the norm in Britain.”
Amid the ugliness on the streets, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies in Parliament, jittery financial markets, and truculent oratory on the Continent, one starts to collect incongruous anomalies of all sorts, even if their only connection to the crisis of the moment is emotional.
When, as happened Monday night, soccer powerhouse England is defeated in the European championships by Iceland—Yes, Iceland! which has a total population smaller than Aurora, Colorado, and a dentist for a coach—truly the world has been turned upside down.
More seriously, prime-minister-aspiring Boris Johnson and prime-minister-exiting David Cameron, the Tory Tweedledum and Tweedledee who’ve been quibbling contrariwise since Eton days, having brought us the ill-considered Brexit referendum, and having disagreed about whether to leave (Tweedledum’s position) or remain (Tweedledee’s), now hesitate to invoke the treaty clause that actually would start the process.
As they stall, uncertainty mounts in Europe and the world. It seems almost anything could happen, and some argue the question of whether Britain stays in Europe or not remains on the table—right along with the question of whether the United Kingdom remains united at all.
Legally speaking, the referendum was non-binding but expressed “the will of the people.” Or did it?
We now know that some of those who voted for Brexit are feeling betrayed.
The Leave campaign’s leading advocates, it turns out, were as duplicitous as the Walrus and the Carpenter in Carroll’s classic, who offered naive and enthusiastic oysters “a pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,” then ate them.
No, Britain will not save 350 million pounds a week that supposedly goes to the EU, so, no, that money will not be going into the National Health Service instead.
No, if you live in the poor working-class communities of Wales and northern England that have been funded heavily by the EU, you’re not likely to see that support replaced once Britain walks away.
No, Britain is not going to get a free trade deal with the EU that’s just as good as before but with fewer strings attached. If there’s one thing the other 27 members of the union are clear about, it’s that there have to be advantages if you are in their club, and significant disadvantages if you drop out.
“We'll ensure that negotiations don’t take place according to the principle of cherry-picking,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared on Tuesday. “It must and will make a noticeable difference whether a country wants to be a member of the family of the European Union or not.”
And, no, there will not be major curbs on immigration from Europe beyond those that have been in place, in fact, for years.
As for those racists who thought they’d be shutting down black and brown immigration by leaving the EU, the same ones trying to order dark-skinned passengers off “their” buses, they’re going to be mighty disappointed.
If they’re looking to make Britain white again, they’ll have to come to terms with the fact the vast majority of blacks and browns arrived not from the EU but from the Commonwealth. (Perhaps it’s time for England to pull out of that, too?) And, meanwhile, Scotland, which voted massively to stay in the European Union, is getting very serious, once again, about pulling out of the U.K. If these trends keep up, it’s going to get mighty lonely being English.
Yet, just as Alice, confronted with the craziness beyond the looking glass, held on to her good common sense, so, too, have many Britons when faced with the topsy-turvy world their leaders and their compatriots have handed them.
Miles and Melissa Wakefield, from Norfolk, England, have been visiting France for the last few days, celebrating his 29th birthday. He’s a warehouse statistics manager for a German company there in England, and she’s a self-described “stay at home mum” for the moment, taking care of their 13-month-old and preparing for law school.
Nothing about the couple suggested Europhile elitism as we talked in a busy Paris café. Both were dressed for rather warmer weather than we’re having in France right now, their bare arms showing off elaborate ink. On hers was the wolfish face of a dearly departed pet Malamute.
The Wakefields were still in Norfolk last Friday when the results of the vote came in. “There were nearly tears when we woke up,” said Melissa. Both of them had heard the racist talk of the Leavers, and both had been appalled. “I think it’s impacting the children,” said Melissa. “It’s not the world that we want to be in.”
“I don’t think the people who voted Leave really understood the magnitude of what they were doing,” said Miles, citing the racist tenor of the campaign against “immigrants” as one of the most obvious examples. “People don’t understand the difference between ‘immigration’ and free movement in the EU,” he said.
“The one quote that makes my blood boil,” Miles told me, “is, ‘Let’s make Great Britain great again.’”
“Why is that?” I asked, thinking, of course, of the Donald Trump mantra in America.
“It speaks racism to me,” said Miles. “It’s what people say when they haven’t got the facts or a sensible opinion. They say, ‘Let’s make Great Britain great again.’”
One has the impression that many Britons felt, or now feel, about the blizzard of lies and rhetoric in the Leave campaign the way Alice did when she read the poem about the slaying of the Jabberwock:
“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t know exactly what they are! However SOMEBODY killed SOMETHING: that’s clear at any rate.”