Finding himself at the centre of the Brexit vote in the UK, Jack Nicholls, an Australian speculative fiction writer living in London, penned this letter to his family and friends.
England prevails. Though possibly not the United Kingdom.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, the UK fell into its worst crisis since … the Suez war in the 1950s? We effectively have no Prime Minister, no Opposition, and no plan. To me, the Brexit decision feels like the most momentous moment I have lived through since September 11. That’s not saying it is as terrible, but it feels on par in how it may change the world. Since it was time for me to write again anyway, I’m going to write a lot about that, and you are welcome to skip it if you’ve had enough Brexit blather.
It is supposed to be high summer here, but it has rained steadily since the vote. There was a huge thunderstorm just before the polls opened 10 days ago, with lightning flashing over London all night. On polling day, some people couldn’t get home to vote because the railways were flooded (though not enough to statistically impact the result).
We voted Thursday. By that night, things looked good for Remain. The stockmarket had shot up, which meant that London’s financiers believed the vote would go for staying in the EU. All the polling suggested that Remain would win.
I guess I was glad. I certainly wanted to stay in the EU, but I had sympathy for people who wanted to leave, and I had been pretty disgusted by the way the Remain campaign had been fought here. It wasn’t full of blatant lies like “Leave”, but instead of making any kind of positive case for why European cooperation could be good, it just played on people’s fears about job losses, stock market crashes and a plunging pound. “Stay in Europe because it’s too difficult not to” was the gist of the Conservatives pitch.”“I give Europe a 7 out of 10,” said Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party. Anyway, it looked like 7 out of 10 was going to be good enough for Britain.
But I woke up early the next morning to find the household in shock and tears. The internet was exploding. One tweet said, Britain voted “48% Sense and Sensibility, 52% Pride and Prejudice”.
The UK unravels
I had the day off from work that day, so was able to spend shell-shocked hours at my computer watching the UK unravel hour by hour. The Prime Minister resigned. The Labour party collapsed. Scotland’s rulers immediately began plans to secede from the UK. Boris Johnson (the ex-mayor of London who had led the Leave campaign) gave a “victory” press conference where he looked ashen-faced. It had all been a jolly game for him, where he could show his rhetorical skills and position himself to succeed his old school-chum David Cameron as Prime Minister. It quickly became very clear that he hadn’t expected to win, and he fled from the cameras to hide in his house.
It was surreal how huge it felt. On TV, hardened news presenters were reduced to tears, or stunned silence. And on the other side, people who had championed leaving the EU were shocked as well. They seemed too nervous to celebrate.
I didn’t really know to do, so I drifted to the hairdresser. It seemed as good a response as any, and when I came into work on Monday I found that a third of my office had done the same thing. My hairdresser was darkly cynical about the whole thing as she clipped me. “People are celebrating now, but just watch,” she warned. “We’re the ones who are goin’ to be licking our hands.”
London has become a headquarters of a wealthy, culturally globalised elite, so the people I saw that day were pretty dismayed. After dinner we went to our local pub, where the Event had broken down traditional British reticence, and people were talking to strangers across the tables. The shock was starting to turn to anger. “Who the fuck voted Leave! Fucking wankers!” hissed the neat young people around me. The Leavers, that mysterious tribe living far away from London’s cafes and libraries, were described as racist, stupid, hateful, self-destructive, little Englanders. More and more outlandish schemes were proposed. Could the Queen exercise a Royal Veto for the first time in 300 years? Could Scotland legally block Brexit?
The mood became more defiant as it got later. At midnight, I saw a crowd of young men singing La Marseillaise in the high street.
Within a week, the three leaders of the Leave campaign had more or less ended their careers. Boris refused to even stand for Prime Minister, Nigel Farage of UKIP resigned, and Michael Gove was surprised to find that after betraying all sides of his own party, nobody would support his own power play anymore.
I suspect that part of the reason for Boris and Nigel’s cowardice is dark opportunism. They know that the next year is going to be an unprecedented shitstorm, and whoever tries to steer the country will anger a lot of people. By refusing to help clean up their own mess, they can remain untainted as things to get worse, then step back in to make another push for power as things crumble.
Or maybe they’re just terrified. A lot of people are. Part of the reason that average Leave voters seemed so stunned, I think, is that most of them had no idea of How Upset it was going to make the Europhiles. They saw Leave as a vote to regain a bit of control from bureaucrats, Remainers (perhaps overreacting) saw it as a vote that could forever sever the cultural connection between us and everything we loved in Europe.
So people who made a protest vote against their lives that had become grey and hard while London got richer and richer, suddenly have half their countrymen screaming that they are racists and monsters. Elderly people nostalgic for their past have been told that they have literally destroyed the lives of the younger generation.
I am angry at them too, but I also don’t entirely blame a lot of people for voting the way they did. In a way, it’s the first meaningful vote against the status quo they’ve been able to make in decades.
I’ve always vaguely known how divided the UK is. In our walks and drives, Lucy and me noticed how run-down and lifeless the regional towns were, and like most Londoners we’ve plotted our travels between the cultural hotspots of the UK — going to Cambridge, Edinburgh or Brighton, while the bulk of England’s cities have been just station-names flashing past in the rain. And in the same way that I feel bad about distant famines, I would feel guilty for a minute and then think about something else.
To try and be balanced, I’ve been reading articles and Facebook posts from Leavers, and while there is some racism, and a good dose of conspiracy theory, the common denominator has been an aggrieved understanding of how they are looked down on by “the elites”. And a growing suspicion that the Remainers, who control government, business and much of the media, are going to try to take their victory away from them.
And both the disdain and the conspiracy fears are completely true. I work at a very international university, and we get at least 5% of our funding from the EU. We also get a lot more money from European students paying fees to study here. Our manager literally told us to “keep calm and carry on”, but the mood is pretty grim. And people don’t want to accept what have happened.
I work with two women (both immigrants, like me) who, at a conference last year, memorably rigged the “Best Chemistry Presentation” popular vote because they didn’t like the results. “It’s actually MORE democratic this way. It’s more democratic, it’s fairer,” I remember them saying. So it was no surprise that after Brexit, they were explaining how urgently we had to overturn the referendum. “I mean, its not really democracy is it? When people lie, and people are stupid. Why should we suffer because of that?” they said, to the nodding office. Then our co-worker, who is from Finland, burst into tears. “It’s awful,” she sobbed. “I feel scared … it’s like everyone has suddenly turned around and said they hate me. We have to do something!”
I feel awful for her, and for everyone. But the lack of self-awareness in conversations like those scared me. A lot of Britons, fairly or not, sent a very strong message that they were sick of immigration changing the face of their country, and that they also felt that their voice didn’t count in democracy anymore. This was clear not just in the Leave vote, but in polls and discussions around it. Listening to other (relatively) wealthy immigrants scheme about how best to subvert the democratic will just showed how much unpalatable truth there was in this sentiment.
I would very much like to somehow turn around this result as well, but I think most angry Remainers advocating a second referendum are still in denial about how seriously bad this could get, if mishandled. Britain is angrier and more torn up than I have ever seen it before, seemingly going in a month from Relaxed and Comfortable to American culture-war style hostility. An MP was murdered in the street less than 3 weeks ago, which now seems an epoch. Previously unthinkable eventualities now seem not impossible. When people like me lose a referendum, we stage protests and sit-ins, and vent on Facebook. If the Nationalist Right see their democratic victory taken from them, they might do a lot more than that. A bad scenario would be that UKIP has such a surge of support that the Labour Party ceases to exist, and politics becomes a contest between the Neo-Liberal right wing and the Aggressively Nationalistic right wing. But I can imagine situations even worse — where UKIP organises a angry, disenfranchised million-man march on London, for example. Like Mussolini’s March on Rome in the 1920s.
I might be overreacting. I whispered my fears to my friend Nick and he laughed. “UKIP voters have an average age of about 50. Let’s see who wins a street fight,” he said.
We had our own “March for Europe” on the weekend, which I went to because it felt Historical, and because I am hoping to hear someone put forth some kind of plan. For me, I think the best thing to do would be to get an idea of exactly what leaving the EU will entail, then hold a General Election on the specifics of the question. That might offer a path to stop this slow motion car crash, and give people a chance to honourably change their mind about leaving.
A field of blue EU flags
But even agreement on that broad a plan was out of reach. I stood outside Westminster in a field of blue EU flags, in a place where the Union Jack and Cross of St George would normally have held sway. A grotesque, troll-like statue of Churchill had his back to our crowd, as if we were traitors to his nation. Almost everyone around me was white, young, witty and helpless. The agonies of the soft left – nobody wanted to come out and call for the overturning of democracy, so the speakers couldn’t say “down with the referendum!” Nobody wanted to publicly insult 52% of the population, so the speakers avoided talking about Leave Voters. Nobody had any idea what to do next. So the only thing to be done was to bellow about how appalling a person Nigel Farage is, and that “We’re not going to take it!”
But what, exactly, we were going to do was left unanswered. I guess it made everyone feel better, but it made me angry too. Because I feel this ISN’T a hopeless moment, and that a united political will could drive us towards a solution. But right now, that isn’t happening.
Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of my favourite band Pulp, spoke a message of support at the rally, but I reflected that, in a way, he could be seen as a bit of a class traitor. Back in the mid-90s, Pulp’s songs tapped into the very same sentiments that drove the Leavers today:
Misshapes, mistakes, misfits
Raised on a diet of broken biscuits, oh
We don’t look the same as you
And we don’t do the things you do
But we live around here too, oh really
…We learnt too much at school now we can’t help but see
That the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about, oh-oh-oh
We’re making a move, we’re making it now
We’re coming out of the side-lines
Just put your hands up, it’s a raid yeah
We want your homes, we want your lives
We want the things you won’t allow us
We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs
We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of, that’s our minds
That really could have been Farage’s anthem, if he had any taste in music. As for the March for Europe rally, they ended by plaintively asking tens of thousands of people to sing along to ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’, which begins:
Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find
I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind
Whatever happened to our love?
I wish I understood
It used to be so nice, it used to be so good
A nice sentiment, but they had brutally misjudged the age of an average cosmopolitan London protestor, most of whom clearly weren’t sure about the chorus for S.O.S., let alone the verses. People mumbled with their hands in their pockets for a while, then hurriedly dispersed.
That weekend was also the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Both sides called on the spirits of the Glorious Dead to their cause: “They died to free us from Europe!” Vs “They died for a peaceful Europe!” Horrible.
A moment of magic
But on the way home from work, I was touched by a moment of magic. In Victoria Station, as I jostled my way along the platform, I suddenly stopped dead as a unit of WWI soldiers came towards me. They were young, weary looking, slow. More racially diverse than a 1916 regiment, but all in proper uniform of the period. Backpacks and all, and a mustachioed officer leading them. People stared, and they looked back in disinterested silence. It was completely eerie.
One man made eye-contact with me and handed me a small white business card, the first anachronism. In neat black lettering it read:
Private George Wynne Davis McLaren
2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders
Died at the Somme on 1st July 1916
Aged 19 years
Once home I looked it up, and saw that more than 1500 of these ghost soldiers had traveled all over the country to mark the anniversary. Sometimes they had sung old marching songs as they moved, other times they just stood and observed life go past. I think it’s the greatest war tribute I have ever seen, but I felt shaken, and it added to the strangeness of these days to think that the ghosts of Britain’s past watching us today. Judging in silence, one way or another.
So I’ve written an essay now, and I don’t know what I want to say, except that I wanted to let people know how things are here. I think that Theresa May will become the next PM (I put some money on it as soon as Cameron quit, and stand to make a pretty penny if she does), and that Jeremy Corbyn will resign. I think that, ultimately, Britain will find a way back from the precipice, but right now I don’t know how.
And I hope, though I am less sure, that this will be a wakeup call for people like me. All over the Western World, the electorate is becoming more radicalised, and in Britain things have reached the breaking point. We can’t just force globalisation onto people and tell them to accept it. And maybe we even shouldn’t? Either way, we have to stop telling people that the market will fix everything, and try something to make our lives better.
I have lived a very morally comfortable life, where I have tended to believe that what I want to happen is also what SHOULD happen in the best interests of everyone. But now I have been trying to ask myself, is what I want the same as what is good for the world, or is it just good for me? I remembered a quote from Oliver Cromwell, who hundreds of years ago told an English parliament, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” Is it possible that leaving the EU is a good thing? I don’t want to think so, but I have to admit that for a lot of people, taking a plunge into the unknown might be a rational choice, given that the status quo has brought them austerity, cultural malaise and (soon) a final erosion of jobs as artificial intelligence, automation and the sharing economy gut the remnants of 20th century labour patterns.
As for me, I want exactly what so many other pro-Europeans claim not to — a European superstate, one big country, where everybody can move as they please, and take the cultural heritage of the whole continent. But it’s now clear that most people DON’T want that. And with climate change heating up, economics as unstable as ever, and state systems breaking down, the tide of violence and refugees is going to get worse and worse. Right now, I don’t think the EU can survive it, and I’m afraid of what will grow out of its ruin.
I had a nightmare last night that I was in a field, and the people around me were erecting literal walls of wood. When they were finished they covered the top with a ceiling, and I was left in hot, sticky, darkness with all these angry strangers. That’s a not very veiled metaphor for my anxieties at the moment. I guess Lucy and I can just come back to Australia if things get worse, but after our travels I love this continent, and all its funny differences. And I’m feeling pretty bad about what might happen to it after we leave it behind.
Lucy sends her love. We both blew off some steam watching the Australian election, and we held a sausage sizzle on our balcony to mark the occasion. Maybe the first country to get a Prime Minister should buy the other one a drink.
(Jack Nicholls’ work has appeared in Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Aurealis and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine)
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