Eight days’ ago, my writing “to do” list looked something like this:
-Refine elevator pitch for The Gardener’s Boy
-Tailor cover letter to agents
-Wait for kind beta readers to return said novel covered in corrections and suggestions
-Catch up on the last three poems for the “52 poems project”
-Write travel piece on flying a light aeroplane in Mozambique
What I’ve actually achieved is more like:
-Flood Facebook and Twitter with dozens of incredulous/furious/sorrowful posts about, yes, Brexit
-Shout at the television and radio
-Read everything I could find on why why goddamnit why this has happened and where we might go next other than hell in a handcart
-Talk until my jaw stopped working to everyone I know who shares my stupefied horror.
And that last point is becoming the crux for me. I happen to live in one of the very few places in England which returned a majority remain vote. Most of my friends are remainers. Likewise, bar one person, so are my family and in-laws. I also spent over a decade working at an international law firm. Its clients – largely from the financial sector, FTSE 100 and comparable foreign-listed companies – tended to be international in set-up and global in outlook. We had offices in over a dozen countries and I was fortunate enough to spend time in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Ireland as part of my job. I made friends from all over Europe, some of whom are still very dear to me. And I ended up feeling very European. It is as much a part of my identity – maybe even a little more so right now – as my Britishness. Learning that my legal identity as a European is to be removed feels rather like bereavement: the disbelief, the growing anger and first-thing-to-greet-me-in-the-morning sorrow is uncanny in its similarity.
With an EU-focussed jobs, as mine was, I learned a good deal about how that sprawling, gargantuan organisation works. I am aware of how desperately it needs reforming in some aspects. I am also aware of how much of a force for good it is. I discounted half the headlines I caught sight of, particularly if they were in The Sun: everything from wonky bananas to EU legislation not being scrutinised by the UK Parliament before being adopted. I had an idea of just how much money was ploughed into deprived regions of the UK such as the Welsh Valleys, Cornwall and, yes, Sunderland. I knew just how much our financial services’ sector – our main export nowadays, for want of a better description – relies on being able to operate across EU markets thanks to the “passporting” scheme. I understood that in these days of increasing globalisation, more and more countries are forming trading blocs and that trying to negotiate with one of these as a single state might be a little like chucking someone down a crevasse and expecting them to haul themselves up again with no rope or crampons.
I can’t remember not seeing the risibility in the argument that Britain was just fine and dandy before the EU and so could be again. Hark back 120 years and we were riding on the bowed shoulders of an empire that rightly no longer exists but that, while it did, supplied us with low cost raw materials while we, in turn, forced them to buy our manufactured goods at prices that suited us better than them. Moving forward a little further, were the two world wars, both of which had their genesis in Europe. Quite aside from the human cost, those wars left us, and the rest of Europe, financially devastated. Once aid from the US-funded Marshall Plan stopped in 1952, it was still a long haul back into the black. Thankfully we had a strong manufacturing and mining industry. That’s all gone now, driven to obsoletion by lower priced competition from developing nations. And here’s the bit I let my London-centric, left-leaning, liberal, all-friends-together bubble blind me to: all those devastated communities, whose jobs and hope seeped away as mine after mine and factory after factory closed did not feel the same as me about what the EU had given them. Why should they? In what way did their lives bear any similarity to mine? Angry, bitter and increasingly disenfranchised by a political system that never fails to look after its own, who should be surprised that millions of those people voted out last week? It was the first chance they’d had to have a voice and to make that voice count – even if they were shouting the wrong way and at the wrong people.
The immigration issue that appears to have exercised so many people is too depressing to spill many words over. But this “fear of the other” that is apparently so entrenched in so many communities and that people seemed to have misunderstood, or been denied the information to help them understand, that the free trade they so desire to keep is, according to the current rules governing the EEA and EFTA, entirely unachievable without free movement of labour – the one thing that is abhorred above all else – makes me feel a sick stranger in what its supposed to be my own country. I am furious with the disingenuous, self-serving leave campaign that not only failed to deliver the facts but that flooded its recipients with hopeful lies. And I’m starting to find fury with the remain campaign, with myself, for not finding some better way of explaining all of this, with making some attempt to engage those people who felt they no longer mattered.
So we are where we are. And, frankly, it’s as if the grown-ups have gone away for good and left us to re-enact our very own Lord of the Flies. The Government exists in name only, prominent Leave supporters are falling over themselves to knife each other in the back, one individual who decimated our education and prison systems and spent years telling us “I can’t be leader, I’d be no good, I can’t be leader” is now asking his party to elect him, and the opposition is rapidly turning itself into a cult. No wonder the Irish embassy has just asked eligible UK citizens to hold off applying for passports as its systems shook under the weight of applications already received. No wonder China is holding us up as an example of why democracy does not work.
Where now? Where now? There has to be something beyond posting memes on Facebook, signing petitions and worrying over our children’s future. Who is going to show us what that is?