It’s been a bruising few days for us Britons.
When I woke up on Friday morning, having driven a 300 mile round trip during filming to vote in Newhaven, and still recovering from a violent bout of food poisoning (which seems poetic in retrospect), I was KO’d by the referendum result. I lay in bed actually clutching my temples and feeling winded.
After days of rain and vomiting, the sun was shining, so I took my body-blow for a walk up onto the beautiful cliffs over Newhaven West Beach.
For me, the “Leave” vote meant generations of British people impoverished, cut off from the prosperity of one of the world’s biggest trading blocks, it meant further austerity, insularity, xenophobia in the face of global crisis and change. But watching a fox sniff across the rain-bright chalky uplands, I also felt physically nauseous from a sense of social split within my own circle, my own community.
I looked back over the town of Newhaven and knew that the majority of my fellow burgers had probably voted “Leave”. I knew two neighbours on my street who flew “Leave” pennants from their windows. I knew that as a Ferry port with a on-going battle with the French company that owns the harbour, most people in my town are at best apathetic to and mostly disgusted with the idea of Europe.
Walking back through the sunny but as-yet deserted streets I felt there was division in the air. I saw people and my first thought was :”How did they vote?”
Later that day, at work, when it was hinted that a colleague may have voted ‘Leave’ as well, both myself and my other “Remain” colleagues found it hard to talk to them. There were strong feelings of fear, of anger, of distain. Within families younger generations were angry with older parents and grandparents who had seemingly sold their future of free-travel and prosperity down the river. For a few days it felt like I was afraid of others in my own country and the split seemed irreparable.
But the weekend was healing in all sorts of ways. Some friends of mine got married, as a surprise, during their daughter’s naming day ceremony. I met my partner’s family (who had voted mostly to leave) and they didn’t have six-heads and poisonous eye-darts. I started to exit the bubble of Facebook and read what other sides were saying…
When I woke up alone that Friday, I took comfort of going on-line and checking-in with my friends on Facebook. I needed a safe circle of friends with similar views to hold my anger and upset.I was too upset and highly charged to be high-minded and equanimous.
But over the dizzy course of the next 48 hours, I thought about simply going to my “Vote Leave” neighbours and listening to what they had to say, how they felt, what they hoped might happen. I didn’t do it – but would it be so frightening to just listen to someone who had views 180 degrees from you – not argue or convince them, just accept that they exist?
I began to think about Facebook and the way that I and many of my friends get their information. I began to think about the way that the Referendum was reported and the way people encounter fact and opinion.
The very things that I fear most from a “Leave Vote” – isolation and intolerance – seem to go on all the time in the echo-chamber of a Facebook feed or a self-similar news source. Comforting as it is, to have a circle of friends mirroring and reflecting the same views and sentiments, the violence and contempt that erupted on Friday across social media was also scary. People saying that they wanted all “Leave Voters” to de-friend them and the branding the people who voted differently as racists and proto-Brownshirts massing on the edge of imagination – all this magnifies the division and tribalism in a different but equally troubling way.
A lot of us in the Remain camp feel angry and frightened by the consequences of (what most agree was an ill-informed) Leave vote but it is troubling to see how many people said they were “shocked”. Shocked? Really? With polls running neck and neck for weeks and “Leave” pulling ahead a couple of days before the 23rd?
I was so angry with the Daily Mail and the Sun and Express for their poisonous drip-feed of anti-immigrant stories but I reflected on Sunday that I’d never actually read any of them. So putting aside my life-long allergy to these right-wing papers I started adding them to my news feed. I found this in the Sun. I don’t agree with their politics and from my point of view, the protest vote of “Leave” is only going to leave the working classes more economically disenfranchised but you can suddenly see how the “Vote Leave are all ignorant racists” trope might feel from a Sun-reader’s point of view.
The Daily Mail, who’s raison d’être is to moan and complain and generate a sense of envy and discontent, seemed all at sea as their readers were suddenly stranded abroad with no money because of the Pound’s collapse. It was intriguing rather than disgusting to see this paper’s Brexit fervour curdle. Founded at the end of the 19th century with a female readership in mind, it’s the biggest selling paper in the UK and is still predominantly read by women. What do the women who read the Mail think when they read this paper?
Weirdly, as I opened up to the “leave” side’s half-hearted and jittery ‘celebrations’ my sense of anger and anxiety started to recede. The “us vs. them” split is the oldest and most powerful tool in anxiety’s toolbox and any deconstruction of it leads to a softening of the heart. And that felt really good after 48 hours of frightened constriction.
As the new week begins, I have to wonder too whether my much-beloved BBC was at fault. After the shock of Friday morning passed, there was as sense, during the weekend, of seeing things sharp and fresh: scouring multiple news sources, following the street protests, hearing opinions from friends in Berlin and from America, noticing on-line petitions, the politics of the wider EU, a sense of global history unfolding. And then when I turn on Radio 4 this morning it’s the same tiny Westminster focus that we’ve heard for months and months: a Tory MP talking about Boris Johnston; a live-broadcast of George Osbourne’s platitudes. It suddenly felt stiflingly parochial and small-scale.
I’ve written elsewhere about how the decision to give equal weight to Leave and Remain despite the massively unequal evidence distorted the debate considerably. I’m not sure what else the BBC could have done but I suddenly can see how the sense of a “Westminster’s Insider Club” can gain traction across the nation.
Despite these questions, I still feel that Friday’s decision was a protest vote gone wrong: an act of global vandalism. (We hear about ‘Regrexit’ where Leave voters are waking up from a trance to see the ruinous consequences of their vote.) And, if parliament goes on to ratify the referendum and we do go ahead and leave the EU, I still believe the economic, cultural and social consequences will be painful and permanent. We will suffer further from cuts and a catastrophic collapse in funding; free-marketeers will take advantage of the lack of EU legal protection to dismantle the NHS, roll-out environmentally damaging agriculture and tear-up our few remaining labour laws; and there will be nasty and permanent increase in racist attacks on our citizens. (Let’s not forget that an MP was MURDERED by a racist and people still voted Leave).
However, I do sincerely hope that the rupture that this vote has caused will wake us up from our bubble-chambers and self-selecting tribes and force us to LISTEN (not hector or convince or argue or rant at) our fellow citizens. The one thing we can’t let it do is shut our minds to 17 million people and walk the streets in a rictus of suspicion and hatred. Because then the racists and hate-mongers have really won.