I’ve been meaning to write about Brexit for three days – the fact that I’ve been hoping I will go to sleep and wake up to see it has all gone away hasn’t helped. In fact a friend of mine in finance actually thought it was a joke as she heard it on the radio on her way to work. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
At 3am on Friday my husband woke me up to tell me leave were leading. I told him it was the humidity, turn on the fan and go back to sleep. He did so, being a well trained husband.
At 5 am we were getting ready for my husband to leave – ironically – for Europe where he is currently for two weeks of meetings. I was warming a throbbing hand (arthritic) with a cup of coffee and my husband was stuffing something into his bag. ‘Switch on the radio,’ he said ‘wonder what’s going on.’
As I moved to do so, I got a text from my sister in India –hey did leave win then? At five in the morning, I thought to myself and wrote back we don’t know yet. No no BBC is announcing leave has won.. What nonsense, I switched on the radio.
My husband stopped mid-stuff looking mildly stunned. He wasn’t really ever convinced of the economic case of Remain. He could not see us sending our kids there to study. Visa free travel he was convinced would stay. He also did not see any sense in importing cheap working class people who were outdoing our own by working for less salaries. Truth be told, he was also annoyed by the high handed bullying of the Hungarian president when Cameron had gone to negotiate immigration and benefits concerns with the EU.
Still he was Remain, with all these doubts. The reasons were partly disgust with local politics and the racist undertones of the Leave campaign (other part financial markets unpredictability). What kind of society are these people building? A politics of envy and class hate. This is not the England we know and love, he said.
Still finding it hard to grasp, we drove to Heathrow in silence. He called me from the airport: the pound is in free fall. ‘It’s down to €1.07 to a pound – they have to stop this.’ His voice was sombre and shocked.
But it became even more surreal. The pound fell further – to a 31 year low. £2 trillion would be wiped off the FTSE before the day was done.
By 0930 David Cameron had resigned. A fully-functioning prosperous thriving country had gone from 60 to zero overnight.
Late morning an ashen-faced Boris Johnson at last emerged to give a press conference. Unbelievably he announced there was no rush to do anything just yet.
That press conference made it clear to many Boris watchers like myself that he’d gambled one too many times – here he was caught with his pants down. He had no plan clearly. Also it became clear Cameron by resigning had managed to deliver the master stroke. Handing a poisoned chalice to his successor. One Eton educated elite boy outsmarting his long term rival, friend and fellow Eton student.
Nothing changes. The havoc their infighting had triggered in the world was clearly not their concern. They were cushioned by their off shore accounts.
By afternoon the Bank of England was announcing a 250 billion injection to prop up the money markets. I wonder how many years’ worth of EU membership that is. (Twenty four I learn actually) The pound rallied slightly.
An angry Juncker came on television and said the UK needs to go, pronto, quick March my feller, he told us. But I thought we are a big importers from the EU -surely there’s some deal on the make?
Round the same time Nigel Farage came on television and said he never promised 350 million to the NHS. A couple of hours later a head in hands Evan Davis watched in disbelief as Dan Hannan the UKIP spokesperson said oh well the people are going to be disappointed if they think there will be no immigration from the EU – there will still be free movement of labour.
‘Why didn’t you tell people that?! An exasperated Davis looked close to tears.
By the evening, as it started becoming clear that older over-65s working class people had mostly voted the UK into Brexit and plunged the country into crisis, unrest spilled on to the streets. People marched out, booed Johnson, demanding a second referendum. (A petition on government website has 2 million signatures.) Contrite dazed looking Leave voters started appearing on television – we never thought we would win. (Over 1.1 million have so far switched sides since the referendum.)
A grim looking Nicola Strugeon on the television, talking of a second Scottish referendum, ending three centuries of unity.
Meanwhile on the Daily Mail comments section there was jubliation – they had shown the rich. They had shown the bankers. They had put two fingers up at the Tories. In Huntingdon in East Midlands, outside primary schools, signs stating Leave The EU, no more Polish vermin were distributed. Decades of assimilation started unravelling as comment sections started using ‘foreigner’ and ‘immigrant’ interchangeably.
By evening the UK had slid from the fifth largest economy in the world to sixth. I rubbed my eyes and tried to sleep – but for the first time, since Lehmann Brothers collapsed, I couldn’t.
As I lay down in the dark, I thought of England as when the Polish, Romanians and Hungarians had not arrived. It was definitely more peaceful, I thought nostalgically. Although has to be said it was harder and horrendously expensive to get anything done.
Competition is something the British needed as they had been cushioned for several years by their government. And that cushion can only last for so long. But there seems to have been little planning as to how families would be protected by sudden influx of working class Eastern Europeans who were ready to work for minimum wage; simply not enough to survive in the UK.
Can you fault people though for wanting to better their lives? Especially since they are cheerful hardworking people who offer a good service in return for lesser money than local workers? Those are questions that need to be answered as well. Is it fair to force people to use local workers in that scenario? Free movement of labour is the 101 of free market.
Maybe no effort was made to retrain the local workers? Maybe local workers should have made that effort themselves – like the Indians from Uganda did in the 60s.
But what will happen next? From what we have seen of Johnson, I get the he feeling if he takes up the challenge and becomes Gordon Brown to Cameron’s Blair – he’s a lot less clever and a lot more power hungry than I ever thought him to be. So what will happen to this result (not legally binding). Will this referendum be forgotten as one mad summer that the English lost it and almost toppled globalisation? Or will it bring real change? A more compassionate globalisation which also takes into account the working class?
My fears are the Tories having burnt their fingers will withdraw to form and impose austerity forever – such a terrible squeeze on services that the working class will find themselves stripped of all shreds of self belief, dignity and respect, being happy for whatever morsels come their way. Certainly the poisonous language I’m hearing from young people or people with young kids around me (these pensioners should have their pensions cut, why should we support them. These people in the sink estates should have benefits stopped, let them starve) leads me to fear the Tories will have full support of the people who vote for them.
As a history buff I would advice caution. Oppression never ends well. Globalisation, with its shiny temples to finance, luxury bags, glittery cars, is leaving behind far too many people. (Although I believe it is a force for good lifting more middle class people worldwide out of poverty than ever before in history.)
Brexit is a wake up call. Boris Johnson is a charlatan but let’s listen to the people and their real concerns. One message though needs to be also got across – global prosperity cannot be held ransom to racist nationalism. We have had enough of that in the Continent in the past century. Politics of hate and envy needs to be shown the door.
So what of Brexit? Here’s my feeling: what with a caretaker PM, then another election, then the matter comes to vote with most of the Parliament Remain, it will be just quietly forgotten. The EU will heave a sigh of relief while making an internal note to forever keep a watchful eye on this renegade member. The world moves on.