It’s been a strange few days. Britain’s decision to leave the EU has trumped all other news concerns and most other topics of conversation among family and friends. What is most striking to me is just how fragile Britain has turned out to be. The referendum has ripped the country down the middle, destroying both our main political parties in the process. We are left on the threshold of a huge turning point in our history, with no discernable government leadership and no functioning opposition. It’s a very disconcerting place to be.
Of course, millions of people think we’ve achieved some kind of heroic victory, and that the millions of others who voted to remain are ‘sore losers’ – a phrase I’ve heard several times now. But since there is no clear vision for a post-EU Britain, we don’t know what it is that we’ve supposedly won.
I suppose the nearest thing we have to such a vision is Boris Johnson’s article in the Telegraph today. It is essentially a claim that we can have our cake and eat it: that we can walk away from all the bits of the EU we don’t like, and keep the bits that benefit us. We will have all the rights we currently enjoy as EU citizens and none of the onerous regulation. This is not in Boris’s power to grant, and it’s almost childish in its optimism. It reminds me of when I was five and I tried to work out if there was a bike ride I could do from my house and back again that was downhill all the way.
So we’re nowhere, and as Leave campaigners gradually row back from each one of the claims they made in the run-up to the referendum, it is increasingly clear that there are no winners. There are those who know they didn’t get what they wanted, and those who are about to find out.
There’s a lot I could say here. I’ve already written and then deleted more than one post. What has stuck with me, and that I think might actually be worth sharing, is more of a feeling than an argument or a solution. It feels to me like we are mourning something. I certainly am, and I know many of my friends are. We are carrying around a weight of sadness about what has just happened. It is bigger than losing a referendum. I was on the losing side of another of those not so long ago, and it didn’t hurt like this. I’m quite used to being on the wrong side of a general election too. (Come to think of it, I have yet to back a winner.) Neither is this sadness the loss of the EU, which isn’t the object of any great affection from anyone I know.
So what is that we’re grieving? Have I just been caught up in the hype? Am I over-reacting? I’ve been trying to put my finger on it, and this is what I have so far:
- I mourn the triumph of false hope, as so many people have pinned their aspirations on an out vote in ways that reality cannot possibly live up to – hopes for jobs, a foot on the housing ladder, a Britain for the British. There will be further disappointment in store as those false hopes unravel, with anger and betrayal to come.
- I see men like Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, and Rupert Murdoch getting what they wanted. I see politicians putting their own careers above the needs of the country and succeeding, the weight of lies on both sides, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that evil has triumphed.
- In theory, a referendum is a form of direct democracy. But this one, like the last one, has been called for political gain – a ploy by David Cameron to shore up his own party. On this self-interested gamble we have redirected the whole story of a nation. Democracy has been abused.
- Whichever way you voted, how can you not been sad about the ugliness of our media and our public discourse over the last few months? There has been so little regard for truth, for facts, for reason. The biggest decision we have had to make in my lifetime has been made on half-truths and wishful thinking.
- I mourn the divisions we have created and the brokenness of our society, the way the exit vote gives a tacit sanction to xenophobia, suspicion, and a turning away from global issues and the needs of the most vulnerable.
- Perhaps most of all, I mourn the irreversibility of the decision. Unlike a general election, we can’t change our minds in four years time if it doesn’t work out the way we planned.
Perhaps if you don’t take an interest in politics, it still feels like a game. Perhaps it’s fun to see a political system collapse on itself. But mourning feels like the right reaction to me, and if you’re posting ‘keep calm and carry on’ Facebook posts, then you’re not paying attention.
I’m not the only one experiencing that grief, as the five stages of grief are being played out all around us. It’s worth remembering what those are:
- Denial – witness the millions of people signing a petition to run the referendum again, or the obsession with the number of people who have expressed regret at their choice or who wish to change their minds. David Cameron’s resignation and the disintegration of our political class could be seen as a form of denial, a refusal to own the consequences of what they’ve just unleashed.
- Anger – there’s a huge sense of betrayal in the air at the moment and because it’s a referendum, it’s on all of us. Relationships and friendships are frayed over it, new family feuds have emerged. That anger is legitimate, but often misdirected. We can’t blame Britain’s marginalised communities for voting in hope. We certainly can be angry at the newspapers and the politicians that exploited their sense of alienation.
- Bargaining – perhaps we can just ignore it. Perhaps Article 50 will never be triggered. Let’s write to our MP and ask them to block things in parliament. Maybe Scotland can veto, or a general election can put it all right again.
- Depression – the stages aren’t linear. We swing from anger to denial and back again. And then depression sets in. We withdraw and give up. What’s the point?
- Acceptance – this feels like it’s a way off yet. We have a lot of denial and anger to burn through. We’ll get there. Who we will be on the other side of Brexit remains to be seen.
Apologies for a depressing post. This blog isn’t about British politics, and I won’t write endlessly about the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. But I thought it might be helpful to try and articulate what I’ve been experiencing, and try and name the peculiar pain of this moment.