Last week, the UK voted 52% to 48% to leave the European Union following weeks of emotional debate from both sides. Here, writer Anna Hart delves into why the Leave result has hit her so hard – and why Remain voters are entitled to a period of mourning and Brexcuses...
“Sorry this is late. The truth is that I lost 48 hours to the Brexit crisis and I’m still struggling to pick myself up off the floor.”
As a freelance reporter, I know that missing deadlines isn’t a good thing. But you know what else isn’t a good thing? Being narrowly outvoted on an acutely emotive issue of both national and international importance, and watching your country fall apart in a matter of days.
So this week, when I let deadlines slip, I felt I should at least offer an honest excuse. A Brexcuse, if you will. And thankfully, every editor and co-worker granted swift compassionate leave because for the most part, they’re also grieving Remain voters.
When a friend who works at a charity which relies on EU funding cancelled her birthday dinner at the weekend because she “just couldn’t face trying to celebrate”, I understood entirely. A museum educationist I know called off all her regular meetings this week with a simple explanation: “Busy working out how to mitigate this complete disaster for science, education and charitable funding.”
Brexcuses are entirely valid; for the Remain camp, last Friday morning felt like being hit by a truck, and we’re still reeling (NB I’ve been hit by a truck, and Brexit feels worse). We still had to drag ourselves to work of course, but in London (where 60% voted Remain) I was surrounded by similarly hollow-eyed, despondent, occasionally tearful fellow commuters. An oddly intimate, “The news is just awful, isn’t it?” replaced the standard awkward British greetings. You could spot Remain voters a mile off. We looked wounded. We felt wounded.
I can’t really picture the sort of person who can shake something like this off on the tube and go on to have a 100% productive working week, but I’m sure as hell not one of them. I wasn’t able to blithely ignore BBC breaking news alerts that sterling had slumped to a 31-year-low against the dollar. Or shrug off the fact that the prime minister had resigned. Or not feel waves of nausea as Twitter users used the hashtag #PostRefRacism to document the appalling rise of post-Brexit racism.
As a pacifist feminist with a neo-Marxist worldview (a whole string of -ists), the last 15 years have made me no stranger to political disappointment. But for my generation of Remain voters, this is by far the biggest political blow of our lives. Brexit kicks us hard in all sorts of places, including some places we didn’t know it could reach.
There’s the horrible dull ache that racist and xenophobic attitudes have found statistical validation in Britain, a country that has historically measured our progress by our levels of tolerance and our access to international culture. There’s the sharp shooting pain of watching a government in freefall and widespread economic chaos ensue. There’s a series of successive slaps as we realise so many British ways of life and institutions we hold dear are directly and immediately under threat, from entrepreneurs and small businesses (who no longer have free access to the European single market) to the cultural institutions, charities and academic institutes whose entire business models have just been scuppered.
But really, what hurts the most is that 52% of British voters voted for this.
Because this was the ugliest of political campaigns. The Leave lobby largely campaigned on a platform of fear, anger and threat, mobilising the masses by making the have-nots of Britain feel like the little that they had was under threat – from immigrants, from bossy foreign lawmakers, and from an unpatriotic, overeducated British elite out of touch with ‘normal’ British people.
One unignorable truth to come out of the referendum is that Britain in 2016 was plainly failing huge sections of the community; they felt that the cards they held were worthless, so they chose to roll the dice. But I know I felt Britain was better equipped to tackle issues of social justice when we had economic stability, valuable policy direction from Europe and a vaguely cohesive national culture.
Today, Britain has never been more divided. Farage and the Brexiteers divided and conquered, driving a rift between old and young, graduates and non-graduates, north and south, Britons and Non-Britons, left and right, global capitalism’s winners and the economically marginalised. Post-Brexit, half the population thinks the other half are racist morons. And that half thinks that lot are unpatriotic posh twats who don’t get it.
And one week on, the Remain camp is still suffering from a crippling ideological hangover. I wake up most mornings with an urgent sense that something is horribly wrong. And then it hits me again. The fallout of this decision – the economic crisis, the resurgence of racism, the threat to the Irish peace process, small businesses, cultural institutions, charities, the NHS and education – still has the power to make me cry hot, angry tears before I get out of bed. As one friend put it on Facebook, “The worst at the moment is the ‘Cheer up, move on, that's democracy!’ people. Let people be upset. This is a colossal decision that will have impact on our kids. It hurts like hell.”
He’s right. We’re correct to mourn the collapse of tolerance and economic stability. So if you’re still making Brexcuses this week, give yourself a break. Let’s allow ourselves a grieving period of anger, despair and Brexcuses. But this much I know: if you’re floored this week, it means you care enough to be politically active next week. The more the Brexit crisis hurts and horrifies you, the more post-Brexit Britain needs you.