As I awoke to the news that more than half of Britain had voted to leave the EU, I felt sad and surprised. The world hasn’t ended and the drawbridge has not been pulled up, but I fear for where the UK may be headed. I voted remain and would do so again, because I believe that the EU has made a valuable contribution to unity, peace, cooperation and understanding in Europe. Prior to 23 June, I could have moved to Madrid, Paris, Stockholm or Rome whenever I wished to live, work or study.
Whether freedom of movement is a casualty of the EU referendum remains to be seen, but ending it was an avowed desire of a significant proportion of Brexit voters. Others may not feel any affinity towards Europeans, but I do. Some of us have a tendency to look back, without a trace of irony, on how “great” Britain is. If we really were great, we wouldn’t have chosen isolation, shirking the many challenges that Europe faces, from the refugee crisis to Russian aggression.
The referendum was never truly about letting Britons have their say. It was a political manoeuvre that David Cameron hoped would enable him to take complete control of the Conservative party and banish the issue of Europe at our expense. He gambled with the futures of millions of people for purely selfish reasons. The British public have had decades of stories peddling EU myths, ramping up fears about migration, decrying “unelected bureaucrats” and making it seem as if the UK is a powerless victim of EU grand designs and follies. It has been a convenient bogeyman, blamed for all of society’s ills.
I doubt that Cameron genuinely believed, against a backdrop of wilful misinformation, that we were capable of making such a fundamental decision. This is not said out of bitterness because my side “lost” the vote. We may yet all lose. The people who voted to leave because of legitimate, or unfounded, fears about high levels of EU migration, when it looks likely that little will change in this regard. Those who championed the out cause because they were told that our EU contribution would go towards the NHS. Voters who wanted to retake control, when any deal in the UK’s economic interest will likely see “rule from Brussels” continue. And those who trusted the leave side only to subsequently discover that jobs could be lost.
The EU by itself has not made housing unaffordable for most Britons, although EU immigration will have contributed to demand. The EU has not left former industrial towns and cities starved of investment. The EU has not concentrated the vast majority of the UK’s wealth, jobs, culture and opportunity in London. The EU has not decimated social care, introduced insecure “zero-hours” work or ensured that wages have barely risen over the past eight years.
The EU is also not to blame for the war in Syria. It has been largely ineffective in the face of the millions of people coming to Europe to escape a brutal conflict, but the entire world has been paralysed by Syria. Many Brexit voters used the referendum to register their dissatisfaction with what Britain has become. Will the government be held to account for its role in shaping our country? No, because the EU has supplanted it as the bullseye on the pub dartboard.
I am no great lover of the EU. It is bureaucratic and often wasteful, and the euro is a deeply flawed construct. Moreover, the EU has wilfully imposed austerity and unemployment on Greece and allowed 20% of Spaniards to be out of work. However, despite what we are told, the UK has never been shackled by Brussels; we have long enjoyed opt-outs, subsidies and privileges. It is doubtful that, with Britain a committed participant, a European army would have been created or Turkey would have joined the EU. For decades, we got much of the best of Europe while avoiding some of the worst of it. Who knows what we will get now.
Older voters, who largely backed leave, will be mostly unaffected by being unable to go to university in Prague without paying exorbitant fees, or find work in Berlin without needing a visa. Many younger people, including the 16 and 17-year-olds denied a vote in the referendum, are facing a country where buying a house is impossible without a parental endowment, where university education costs £9,000 a year, where the Conservative party looks likely to rule for decades and where the attitude towards “foreigners” is becoming increasingly toxic.
Then we come to the politicians who led the leave campaign. Rarely has the phrase “rogues gallery” been more appropriate. The narcissistic coward Boris Johnson, the backstabbing Michael Gove and the grandstanding buffoon Nigel Farage. Here is a man who was considered so irrelevant that the people of South Thanet, a hotbed of Euroscepticism, saw him unfit to represent them. And now he has won a victory that he celebrated with sickening joy in the European parliament. Having spent 17 years as an MEP actively trying to undermine the organisation paying his wages, he paraded around like a sad little Englander with a Union Jack flag. This may be a personal triumph for him, but it feels like a defeat for Britain.
Originally published on The Huffington Post on July 7 2016.