We live in a time of prejudice and fear of the other. I myself, in a London street or on the tube, have tensed up when confronted with an elderly white person. Leaving the capital in the past few weeks to visit Wales and the north of England, I’ve caught myself peering with suspicion at the middle-aged Telegraph reader in the tea shop and the red-faced codger in Wetherspoons, wondering, is this the face of Brexit? This would be a joke, if it were not partly true.
The demographics are striking. On average, Leave voters, who made up about a third of the adult population, were significantly older, more provincial, less educated, less diverse and less familiar with diversity. This was a howl of distress, some liberal commentators rushed to explain, from people suffering the ravages of post-industrial decline and the lopsided punishment of austerity, the victims of globalisation who feel abandoned by Labour. No doubt. But it was also a snarl from the hangers and floggers of Little England, nostalgic for a mythical past of sturdy independence.
This unlikely coalition of left and right was pulled together, with the help of the more unscrupulous newspapers, by a ragtag group of politicians who made extravagant promises that they would never be in a position to keep and that they walked away from as soon as the result was in. Within days there was a new word, regrexit, for what it felt like to realise you’d been duped. Polls suggest that the people of Wales, a region that can expect to lose almost £250 million a year in EU subsidies, would now vote to Remain if they had a second chance.
Too many people were induced to vote not only against their own interests but against the common good. Little thought was given to how Brexit might affect Scotland, divided in its attachment to the United Kingdom but overwhelmingly supportive of the EU; and even less to Northern Ireland, whose delicate peace agreement depends on a soft border with the Republic under the umbrella of Europe. Concerns about constitutional problems, along with predictions of economic damage, were dismissed as fear-mongering spread by ‘experts’.
The choice was reduced to two words, Remain or Leave. We knew what Remain meant – we’d been living with the evolving reality of European cooperation for 40 years. But it turned out no one had a clue what Leave meant, not even the people selling it. A month on, we’re still none the wiser.
The electorate spoke cryptically, in the manner of the Apollonian oracle, but the self-appointed high priests of Brexit are officiously eager to interpret. According to back-bencher John Redwood, ‘We voted to take back control of our laws, our money and our borders.’ For others it’s all about keeping out immigrants. For Bill Cash, any plan to stay in the single market – even if a deal can be done, as proposed by Boris Johnson, to ‘slash immigration’ – would be a betrayal. ‘If you’re out,’ Cash gnomically explains, ‘you’re out.’ Yes, indeed. And Brexit means Brexit. But what does Brexit mean? What is the model for what we hope to become? Norway? Canada? the Cayman Islands?
To add to the muddle, the anti-EU tabloids have been getting worked up about the suffering of Brits holidaying on the continent. Families rushing to France at the end of the school term were delayed by heightened French security in the wake of the Nice attack. ‘Dover hell’ the Express called it, claiming it was ‘revenge for Brexit’. More bizarrely, The Daily Mail has blamed the plunging value of the pound, as experienced by British tourists, on dodgy foreigners selling Euros at rip-off prices. Trade with our European neighbours? The free movement of people? We’re finished with all that. But why should it stop us hopping over the channel and buying their stuff whenever we feel like it?
There’s a book by Anthony E Wolf on coping with teenage children called Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall. That’s the level of thinking exhibited by the Brexit movement. This would be a joke, if it were not entirely sad.