There’s no avoiding the gloom cast by the wretched outcome of last week’s referendum. I’m not sure when in that long horrible night I realised that my forebodings would prove to be well-founded. But one moment has been etched indelibly into my psyche. In the early hours of the morning, the cameras zoomed in on the leering features of the self-appointed people’s hero as he proclaimed victory for the ordinary and downtrodden and celebrated the dawn of a new age of independence and freedom. A veritable revolution had been achieved, he said, democracy had triumphed, the people had spoken and not “a single shot” had been fired. The victorious crowd around him cheered and hollered, the appalling irony, the vulgar insensitivity of this last remark apparently entirely lost on them.
And now, we are into day five of this new reality and I have settled in to a pattern of lurching from black despair to bleak optimism and back to simmering rage. None of this needed to happen, did it? I’ve read the papers from cover to cover every day for the last week, followed the news programmes, read the twitter feeds and facebook posts, always in the vain hope that we might wake up from this nightmare and find that it was all a dream. Bobbie Ewing wasn’t dead after all and we can start a new series with the cast intact. An unwelcome Tory government isn’t really going to be replaced by an even more messianically right-wing government in the next few months. My generation doesn’t really yearn to turn the clock back to the old days when Britannia ruled the waves and foreigners were kept at bay.
I asked a gentleman in the polling station, a civilised-looking chap of retirement age, how he was voting. The response was a sharp, smug, no-nonsense declaration: “For freedom and democracy!” a rallying cry I’d heard from the mouths of a handful of educated individuals who surely should have known better. That, and “I want my country back”, seemed to sum up the sentiments of those whom NF (rarely could an individual boast more aptly chosen initials) considers to be “decent, ordinary folk”.
So, let’s take a quick tour back to the good old days of glorious sovereignty, before those meddling Europeans began to erode our hard-won freedoms. I grew up in England at the dawn of the welfare state, in the shadow of the war that devastated Europe and galvanised the survivors into creating a body aimed at uniting rather than dividing Europe’s many nations and cultures. The welfare state was generous to my generation, lavishing gifts on us throughout our childhood and youth: free milk and orange juice for all, and for a lucky few, scholarships to exclusive schools. I received the additional luxury of a scholarship to the junior department of one of this country’s great music colleges followed by a fully funded university education. But these were also the days when to be of mixed race was to be at best an oddity, at worst the object of abuse. By the time I was a student, mass immigration was becoming a reality and words like “wog” and “paki” were common currency. Enoch Powell proclaimed that the country would be swamped by a tide of immigrants, that “rivers of blood” would flow, that this island nation would be swept along on a tide that would eventually engulf it. In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed the spectacle of angry, dispossessed, inarticulate English men and women, ground down by austerity and the brutalities of free-market globalised capitalism, turning their rage against the immigrant communities they fear will engulf them. As the demagogues preyed ever more confidently on the frustrations of those people, it seemed to me that the ghost of Enoch Powell was indeed stalking the land.
While post-war Europe worked to find a way to bring its peoples together, this island remained on the sidelines, hesitated and eventually plunged into the fray. I missed the vote last time around, living abroad. I returned to Thatcher’s Britain and to the depressing spectacle of the systematic destruction of communities rooted in mining and industry. While the English working class was cynically cast aside and sacrificed to the forces of free-market capitalism, I joined the ranks of prosperous, liberal-minded Londoners delighting in the new freedoms offered by the falling away of barriers between this country and the rest of Europe. Shuttling back and forth to France, Spain, Italy, loading up the car with wine, revelling in the speed and ease of travel on the Eurostar, weekends in Paris, why would I not love being a citizen of the EU? Diversity and multiculturalism have always been my lifeblood. Nasty Nigel once claimed with horror that he’d found himself on a train in England surrounded by people speaking a babble of foreign languages. Yes Nigel, some of us thrive on such things. But it’s not hard to understand that for the dispossessed of England’s once thriving industrial heartlands, all of this takes on quite a different meaning. During the tawdry referendum campaign, I watched with a growing sense of alarm as the Brexit spokesmen exploited the fears of those who have suffered most from the unleashing of global market forces. Once the touchpaper of the immigration question was lit, there was little chance that rational argument would win the day. Enoch Powell would have glowed with pride to see today’s Tory opportunists following in his footsteps so skilfully.
And now, as the pound plunges ever lower and Parliament implodes, this little kingdom by the sea drifts on an unpredictable storm surge of its own creation. The far right populists all over Europe are energised by this lurch to the right in the not so United Kingdom. Europe has clearly failed to come together to find a solution for the millions of refugees and migrants clamouring to become Europeans too. Young people are angry, and so they should be. I’m disgusted with those of my generation who should have known better than to lead us all into the blind alley we now find ourselves in. Shame on you for aligning yourselves with fear-mongering demagogues. Now that the angry protest votes have been cast and the genie is out of the bottle, a sense of dismay seems to have overtaken even the advocates of this ill-conceived adventure. Perhaps they too wish they could hit the stop button and play a different tape. How nice it would be to wake up and find that all of this has been nothing more than a bad dream.