The New English Revolution
On Friday morning I woke up at 3:30 and broke the vow I had made to my husband not to go on-line in the night. I had gone to bed assured that whatever the polls said, my adopted country was phlegmatic and essentially conservative, does not like radical change, and would vote to keep the status quo as it has done since the days of the Glorious Revolution.
By the time the Leave vote was declared at 7 am, I was sick to my stomach, full of grief and fear of the unknown. It was like someone had died, and I could not understand why I felt it so much. I have voted for the losing side before — many times: I did not vote for Reagan, Bush, Cameron, but I woke up from those votes disappointed rather than terrified.
On Friday night, we went to Glyndbourne to see The Barber of Seville. For my non-English readers, Glyndbourne is an opera company located in a beautiful manor house in the English countryside. It is so good and so popular it is almost impossible to get tickets. You can go on the subscription list but you have to be invited by a member. The waiting list is 25 years long.
We are on the waiting list and it gives us priority to get tickets left over after the members make their choices, but on this evening, we had prime tickets given to us by one of my husband’s colleagues. All around us, older English people drifted in their evening dress, calmly drinking champagne. It was almost like being in an ironically scripted scene about elites blind to their fate: the lawns full of grazing sheep, the paunches in their penguin suits, the overflowing hampers. The 1816 opera which uses a smart-ass Figaro to skewer the befuddled ruling classes, was good.
On Saturday, we went to see my daughter rowing with her school on the Thames. I ran into two parents — a barrister whose parents were corner-shop owning Sikh immigrants and a woman who I think does something in film. She is a new friend, and because this is England I know very little about her other than she has a posh voice and is nice. The lawyer was furious at David Cameron for letting the referendum happen, and then for losing it. She voted Remain but was sanguine.
“Everything will pretty much go back to normal,” she told me. I decided to believe her.
On Saturday night, my husband and I watched “Searching for Sugarman” the Academy Award winning documentary about a working class Mexican American Bob Dylan whose music died in his own country but who became a superhero among liberal white South Africa during Apartheid, and whose gentle anti-establishment lyrics turned into national protest songs. We were worn out with talking about the referendum, and went to bed.
I spent Sunday glued to my computer, watching the news unravel and trying to find what was going on with my friends. One of them put a story up on Facebook about her husband coming out of the train station on Saturday night and encountering a group of young men in their twenties who were harassing two women in burkas. He said everyone ignored them. When he shouted “stop” they crossed the road, pushing an Indian couple on their way. My local Conservative councillor tweeted that the Polish Centre had been vandalised. This is a large and rather ugly building across the street from my son’s school which was built in 1967 to thank the Poles of West London who had come here during the Second World War to fight the Nazis.
I commented on people’s posts. I signed a petition to make London a new European city-state. I signed the petition to re-run the referendum that has now garnered 3 million pledges. I read about the leader of the Labour Party firing the son of his mentor in the middle of the night, and then watched as his own shadow cabinet tried to depose him.
My husband tried to work. He is also a barrister and is running a case between two big companies about how much money one owes the other based on a European regulation about finance. For now, nothing had changed.
He too, has been sick with worry. His father arrived in the UK as a baby with his parents who had escaped the Gestapo by a hair’s breadth. They were from a prosperous, embedded German Jewish family and arrived with the clothes on their backs. In our house, the European Union was the guarantee that what had happened to them would not happen again.
We had been telling ourselves that after all, England would survive and that it was our job to make sure that in the post-European world the values that membership stood for would be preserved: human rights, freedom, co-operation across cultures, worker’s rights, solidarity, sustainability, and the rule of law. We also decided to downplay the vote in front of the children.
Before we went to sleep, my husband tried to explain from a legal perspective only the scale of the change the Leave vote has initiated.
Over forty years, the regulations and laws that have allowed people to resolve their conflicts peacefully in the courts have been developed hand in hand with our neighbours in Europe. Some of them were rejected; some accepted. Some have been incorporated into English law. Some have been agreed automatically as part of membership: laws about maternity leave and pesticide use and building regulations and mobile roaming charges - thousands of codes of behaviour that will need to be replaced.
How will that happen?
When I woke up this morning, it finally hit me.
If the English government obeys the will of the people and leaves the European Union, a large percentage of the way we govern ourselves will be gone, wiped out overnight. The English Parliament on its own passes less than a hundred bills a year. Right now, the two major parties cannot even agree if they are run by the status-quo middle or the fringes on each side. It was the radical left and right united together which delivered our Big No.
Who will deliver our Yes?
The most powerful person in the country on Friday morning was not Boris Johnson, who won his game of Quidditch against his Bullingdon club Old Etonian rival. It was Nigel Farage, who gloated that a victory for the “ordinary, decent” people of England had been won without a shot being fired (except of course for the shot that killed beautiful Jo Cox).
Boris looked sheepish and unconvinced by himself as he talked about our Glorious Future. Maybe he was thinking of Danton.
Nigel Farage was triumphant. When the history of this time is written, it will be remembered that a man with no constituency took down the elected government. Whoever comes into power next will have to be a “Brexiteer” we heard many times yesterday. Because if they don’t, the threat implied was that angry people who deposed the country’s leader are going to be even angrier.
These are the people who think they are getting their country back from the rest of us: immigrants, experts, the metropolitan elite, the educated classes. Right now, they are roaming through England looking for people to harass. One of the tweets I read this weekend asked us to report hate crimes to the police, along with a page of tweets from across the country about people who have been experiencing them. One of the tweeters wrote: “It happened to me, and I’m Greek!” like — hey I am even white so how did they target me?
I like to think that not everyone who voted for Leave voted for this outcome. In fact, I am sure a lot of them did not. My friend Marta was explaining to me yesterday that the English people like a protest vote; they are used to making them during bi-elections, electing MP’s as one-off’s to send messages to the top. Marta is also an American married to an Englishman and has been here many years. She was born in Africa, but she is white, ejected from Nigeria during the Biafran War. After twenty years, she still feels like a foreigner.
That was one of the threads in the news yesterday: “Bregret” — people waking up to realize that they have voted not as a protest against uncontrolled immigration but for the break-up of the union, billions wiped off the pound, an elected prime minister gone and an unelected one about to decide their future. The letters in the Daily Mail yesterday went something along the lines of “I didn’t realize my holiday was going to be so much more expensive.”
It is so much worse than that.
A way of life built up with slow accretion over forty years has been rejected. The rules about how we should live with each other — not just with Europe are void. All weekend I have felt as if someone had died. Now I see why.
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You might also be interested in: Becoming English, Life Through Two Lenses or On Cross Cultural Unions, Conflicts and Compromise