We found out the Brexit result at the top of mountain in Italy, the alpine hotel’s shaky internet connection making it almost impossible to read more than the headlines. Our reaction was disbelief. Like me, most people, whether Remainers or Leavers, couldn’t have predicted that Britain would vote to leave the EU. “Shocking news from the UK this morning,” I said to the six London bankers in the hotel’s breakfast room, a passing statement which felt pointless but important. They sat glued to smartphones piecing together market developments before one of them shook his shoulders and announced, “Right, this is too depressing. Let’s get out walking.” We happened to be driving back to Germany that same day, with me reading the news all the way through Austria, relaying the plummeting pound, the resignation of the Prime Minister, the incredulous disappointment of most people in my predominantly pro-remain social media bubble.
The ensuing events have been well reported – how the public faces of the Leave campaign scuttled under rocks as if they hadn’t really wanted to win at all, how the Labour Party plunged into (still ongoing) turmoil, how the first analysis suggested that old people had voted young people out, but then it turned out that too many young people didn’t bother to vote at all. The anger of the side that lost is well known too. The Leavers call them sore losers, but in the wake of a political gamble to satisfy a decades’ old internal party conflict, a campaign marred with tall stories and manipulated statistics, only to be capped with the desertions of its most prominent advocates, and with the rise in hate crimes against migrants immediately after the result, the soreness felt justified.
Given my age, social background, university degree, and expat residence in Germany, it’s not surprising that I know many more people who wanted to stay in, but I do know a good few who (publicly) wanted out. Whilst one or two fit the over-pedalled, anti-immigration, overly nationalistic, inward-looking stereotype, most of the Leavers I know did not. Their reasons varied: arguing for greater sovereignty or for better control of British borders; lamenting the economic stagnation in Europe, only to be avoided through closer British alignment with China and the US, or the unsatisfactory status quo – optimistically suggesting that the unknown would herald an age of greater prosperity. I don’t agree with them, but they are entitled to their opinion and to the referendum result, for which they campaigned harder (though less fairly) than the other side.
Of course, I feel strongly that there are many areas in which we need to reach out beyond our national borders, to be more united with like-minded countries than less – to humanely manage the refugee crisis, to find a route to peace in the Middle East, to stem the rise of terrorism, to tackle climate change. Keeping Britain as part of the EU would, to my mind, help rather than hinder all of that. That said, having just spent two weeks on holiday in Britain – in Hull no less, a heartland of the Brexit vote (68% of residents voted out) – ongoing doom and gloom is misplaced and pointless. Whatever people voted, Britain remains Britain: an open-minded, politically stable country, where immigrants can prosper and contribute, where people are as funny as they are friendly, where holidays to France and Spain and Germany and Greece and Italy are exactly what most people want to and will continue to do, where people are almost as good at sorting their rubbish and building wind farms as they are in Germany, where the government has said at least that it will work to address the disparity of opportunity you find around the country.
Letting anger override a sense of pragmatism that Britain now must make the best of some poor decisions would be destructive and divisive. Looking at how different regions voted reminded me of my first week at university in Oxford, hearing the gap year stories of privately-educated, wealthy students who had built schools in Africa. For all their interest in poverty elsewhere, I thought then, they knew little of the tangible poverty in their own country – the type that some (but by no means all) of my school classmates in Hull grew up in. If you see Brexit as a protest vote – which is how for many it must be understood – it has at least made the political establishment take sharp note that it is not sustainable for just a few regions to persistently prosper while the rest, stuck in the cyclical deprivation of a post-industrial decline, do not. Naive as it may sound, on this level, good things can come from the awareness the Brexit result brought; Theresa May’s first prime ministerial speech, directly addressing those who have not prospered, was hint that this good may indeed come.
My other naive hope is that the political establishment of the EU will also take heed of the legitimate dissatisfaction. I will not write of the Eurozone, which works for some economies but knee locks others into barely limping along, because I lack the expertise and others are already doing it far better. But beyond Britain, there are many within Europe who feel that the EU must do a better job – with less cumbersome legislation, less bureaucracy, less sense that the economic union is stealthily becoming an ever more stifling political union only very few ever wished for. A vote like this should be an opportunity for self-reflection, not just in Britain.
So, I regret the economic difficulties Britain may face as they extricate themselves from the EU. I regret the nationalistic, anti-immigration sentiment that holds sway well beyond Britain. I regret that this complex issue was ever put to a referendum and I wish that more people had seen the need for pulling together as I do. But, I can’t see anyone being sent home, from the UK or mainland Europe, and I really can’t see Britain losing much of what makes it the country most Europeans are actually quite fond of.