by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2016
Honestly, I’ve not known what to write this past fortnight: so much things to say.
But, then, so’s everyone else. I was at a big dinner last night in the Remain stronghold of Oxford (numerous ‘in’ posters, and even a pristine EU flag, still defiantly displayed), saying farewell to my old boss, Tim Gardam, principal of St Anne’s. Lots of people I knew, but hadn’t seen in some time, which is usually the cue for amiably redundant small-talk.
Yet, without exception, the conversation turned immediately to Brexit and their wretched dismay. Of course if Leave had won, plenty of their voters would also have been despondent; but they at least would have taken solace in gallant defeat.
For those of us who voted Remain — the majority of working Britain — there is instead just grim dejection. The 23rd June represented a rupture: not just from an institution which, however imperfect, has helped bind together the UK with our neighbours; but also from our fellow citizens.
Suddenly those of us who would regard ourselves as non-judgemental cannot help ourselves: we know that Leavers walk among us – they must do, they won – and we start instantly sizing up total strangers, wondering if they can be ‘one of them’ based on nothing more than crude stereotyping.
It’s not pretty, I know. But I can’t apologise, I’m afraid: if you voted Leave you’re diminished in my eyes.
Because for me it’s personal. My partner is Spanish. She first came to England on an Erasmus scholarship. She later returned to work as a teaching assistant in Oxford, where we met. In a parallel Brexit universe we would never have got together. In the Brexit universe to come, we will have to queue separately in the airport, she with our son who (thankfully) also has a Spanish passport. She wasn’t surprised by the result – she’s endured enough xenophobic backchat over the years, experienced a side of our nation I haven’t.
I know, of course I know, that plenty of Leave voters (and certainly not those of you I know personally) did not do so out of spite. There were valid reasons for voting to leave the EU — its remoteness, indirect accountability, over-reach — I’ve even said (and I meant it) that I could imagine doing so myself.
But, then, I also explained why I knew in the end I couldn’t: because of whose team it would place me on: Farage, Galloway, Trump. For every person motivated solely by the respectable principle of sovereignty, who simply wants to ensure the UK parliament makes our laws, there was at least another one who just wants to see those bloody foreigners sent packing. And in the end your votes counted equally for the same side.
Unfair? The decent Leavers, and I know there are lots of you, will say yes. But this is how it feels for we Remainers who were defeated. We didn’t just lose an intellectual argument; we lost a slice of who we are.
When he’s older I’ll have to explain to my son why we voted to leave the EU. Perhaps by then everything will be sorted. Once the high emotions of the last couple of weeks have subsided, Theresa May will patch together an agreement with Angela Merkel, and there will be some limited restrictions of free movement in return for the UK retaining access to the single market. It’ll all be sensible enough and we’ll muddle along okay.
But I know, you know and he’ll know that’s not what motivated 17 million to vote Leave on the highest turnout in a generation. For a lot of those people — I don’t know how many, none of us does — it was simply that they didn’t want more immigrants, people like his mother, in this country.
I’m not sure how he’ll take that. I’m still shocked by it. The depressing thing is: I don’t think he will be.