There is no reason for this post, except that I haven’t written about Brexit, and I had some time this afternoon, and I’m still not feeling better about it…
On the day after the 2015 general election, my partner and I sat in the back garden and worked our way through half a bottle of gin (the most excellent, locally produced, Twisted Nose, as it happens).
It felt like a very bad election to lose. Lots of things have happened since to prove it. The election returned a Conservative government, unchecked even by the Lib Dems, which immediately doubled down on ‘austerity’.
Yet, despite his unexpected majority, and the licence it gave him to pursue policies to appeal to the nasty wing of his party, Prime Minister David Cameron decided he needed to deliver on the EU referendum. The one he had promised to try and appease those inclined towards UKIP.
Appeasement never works, and the campaign was terrible. Cameron tried to argue he had secured significant concessions from the EU before it got going, but these were barely mentioned once it did.
Amazingly, it was reported that “what is the EU” shot to the top of Google’s search terms the day after the vote – so the niceties of whether or not Cameron had secured anything significant with his opt-out from the requirement for ‘ever closer union’ could never have been a deciding factor.
Remain tried to fight on the economic benefits of membership, but was shouted down for ‘scaremongering.’ The Labour Party went missing in action, with its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, putting out half-hearted support messages hedged around with reasonable but untimely concerns about workers rights.
Then, there was the nasty undertow of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Yet, despite all this, I thought the EU referendum was a distraction. An annoying one, inflicted on the country by a weak PM with a PR’s instinct for selling a message over worrying about substance.
I didn’t think we’d leave. And then we did. On 23 June my partner and I were on holiday in Leeds, so we’d voted by post some time earlier. In the afternoon, we went for a run along the Leeds and Liverpool canal, where we came across a number of Labour canvassers for ‘in’.
Beside a Victorian factory designed to look like an Italian palace, to show how cultured the builder was, they gave us the, in retrospect, less than reassuring message that “people are a lot less hostile” than they had been. I still went to bed thinking there would be a ‘remain’ vote.
At 2.30am, I woke up to find my partner sitting in bed following the declarations on his phone, reporting that “things are not looking good.” At 4.00am, I woke up to find him in the same position, reporting that “it looks like we’re out.” A bit later, we both gave up on sleep as the result was confirmed.
Then we spent the rest of the day in shock (actually, we eventually went to the Turkish baths in Harrogate, because it was the only place we couldn’t obsessively follow the reaction on news sites and social media).
That shock has not really gone away. It’s not just the economics. Ok, the pound has continued to fall, which makes it look as if we’re in for a nasty bout of price inflation as the impact feeds through into food, clothes, oil and other imported goods.
Financial services and manufacturing firms have seen their share prices fall and are indicating that they could leave the UK, if there is a ‘hard Brexit’. The new PM, Theresa May, made a hard Brexit more likely at the Conservative Party conference last week, by indicating that she would trade access to the single market for curbs on the free movement of people.
Her party cheered when ministers indicated those curbs might apply to “foreign” workers, students… and doctors; apparently unconcerned that the quid pro quo may be the re-imposition of visas to visit the continent, never mind work there.
No, even more than the economics, it’s the feeling that the UK, or England and Wales, or the poor bits outside their major cities, is cutting itself off from a wider community of nations. Nations committed to liberal ideas, rights-based legal systems, constitutional democracy and networks of academic endeavour.
Things those of us in ‘the 48%’ were brought up to believe in. There is no doubt that the EU imperfectly realised those ideals. Or that it could be bureaucratic. Or that it could have done more to stand up to the vested interests and global business that inflicted the hardship that the ‘out’ vote is now seen to be reacting against.
Or that the remaining 27 countries have some worryingly right-wing, anti-immigrant fringes. Yet Britain already feels like a smaller, narrower-minded place out of it.
The May government does not help. May reminds me of the Brown Owls who ran town councils in my childhood. Church minded ‘independents who weren’t even Tories because they couldn’t conceive of right thinking people thinking other than they did.
They got things done, but by making complex decisions simple and ordering people about. They even hankered after grammar schools; the inconvenient abolition of which my comprehensive got around by organising its classes into rigid ‘sets’.
Education, travel and hard work were the escape routes; and, unfortunately, they are the things a good chunk of my country has just decided it does not want. Meantime, Labour (and I’m a Labour Party member) has remained missing in action, with Corbyn alternately refighting the 1980s, acquiescing in the Momentum take-over of the party, and buying ex-blankets on Hadrian’s Wall.
And as for the Lib Dems… on the rare occasions they’re seen on in the media, it’s hard not to revive the old Wimbledon call of “come on Tim” [Henman/Farron]. May has now said she will incorporate EU law into English law, so the Tories can abolish the bits they don’t like at their leisure, and then trigger Article 50 by April 2017.
So more or less two years after the May 2015 general election, we will have just two years to leave; and apparently get back to the 1950s. It’s all incredibly depressing. I’m not nearly over the trauma. And we’re all going to need a LOT more gin.