Thoughts on a Brexit

13 Jul 2016





If you don’t like how the table is set, the fictional master-schemer Frank Underwood tells us, the answer is simple: turn over the table.


This is just one of the few quotes that have come to mind in the days since the nation voted for Brexit. As a 24 year-old graduate Londoner you can probably guess that I voted to Remain, and keep true to that idea that committing to Brexit is a strategic, political, diplomatic, economic, financial, societal and moral wrong that will hurt us as a nation for decades to come.


So far, so stereotypical. You would expect me, due to my demographic and location, to be voting Remain.


Indeed, though the nation was awash with slogans of dubious veracity from both sides - of NHS millions and economic Armageddon, of Turkish hordes and fleeing corporates - I think the unofficial slogan can be summed up simply as:


Everyone I know is voting X


That slogan can help explain why the division caused by the vote can be so significant, yet so confusing; so complete, yet so incomprehensible. Britain divided along class and geographic lines in a way that traditional party loyalties and general elections don’t comply with. To bring a strikingly relevant quote from Mark Twain to the fore: ‘the nation is divided, half patriots and half traitors, and no man can tell which from which’.


London, Scotland and much of Northern Ireland were emphatically for Remain, with the majority of England and much of Wales just as enthusiastic for Leave. Those who don’t comply sit, like adversarial cuckoos in the wrong political nest, as islands of contrarianism in a sea of tribal uniformity.


Whichever way one voted, it was a decision of grand political gesture - a statement of identity, of one’s place in the world and one’s problems - as well as who or what that voter blamed for them. As such the UK’s position in the EU was in many ways incidental to one’s decision in the voting booth. There may have been votes against austerity or globalisation, out of fear for waves of migration bringing with it social unrest and threats of terrorism or alternatively due to a reaction to campaigning on such lines.


Those who voted out often seemed to be voting against London, or Westminster, or the international elite or the sheer maddening inevitability that whatever government assembled a majority on the green benches at Westminster, you could predict with bitter certainty that your community, your family and friends would be ignored or brutalised by policies dreamt up by officials and politicians you didn’t know or identify with.


Indeed, it is a cruel irony that the EU, scapegoated as the arbiter of these forces was in fact often a defender against them, providing millions in much needed funding to those areas that voted most heavily to Leave and therefore terminate it.


Though I feel my above unofficial slogan best sums up the nature of the referendum vote I do think the Leave campaign had the most telling of the official catchphrases - telling voters to ‘Vote Leave’ to ‘take control’. Aside from being pithy and clear, it proved highly effective on the type of voters who turned the result in their favour. It was a call for notice from the politically invisible, a demand to be heard from those too often ignored. It was, in the end a call for power from the powerless in the face of a decades long political settlement that inflicted change upon them with little opportunity for consent.


They have gained some power, temporarily at least. And it is Remainers such as myself who feel powerless now.


In fact, strangely enough, I feel a greater sympathy for many who voted Remain (along with a greater contempt for the floundering and plan-free Leave leaders who lied to them) as the days and weeks following the Brexit vote march by. To feel so out of touch with one’s country and its direction is a horrible feeling. It is a sense that compatriots are greater strangers than before, and that you can’t even begin to understand the moral framework within which they make their choices, yet alone the choices themselves. If this is how they felt then I can see the passion behind their choice on June 23.


They did, as Frank Underwood advised, turn over a table whose setting they didn't like. And, in so doing, they tore down the settings and truths that many of us Remainers relied upon.


Defeat is always difficult, and a setback as major as this is more difficult still. We can accept Brexit as fact whilst refusing to be voiceless in its aftermath. To add in a final quote, Winston Churchill once said that we must ‘not let spacious plans for a new world divert [our] energies from saving what is left of the old’. That task - of saving what is best of the old world before 23 June - is what we have to focus on now.


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