The Right to Remain Island

By Dalton Fischer Linnett

I met Barry and Trev at the Hemingway while stopping over in Reims just over a week after my country voted, by a small majority, to leave the European Union. The pair, both blue-collar workers from the East London suburb of Romford, approached me as I discussed the referendum’s outcome with a friend. Both were Eurosceptics – Barry was an abstainer self-described as “on the fence” though admittedly leaning toward Out; Trev, the older of the two and an aircraft repairs specialist at Stansted Airport,  was a “Brexiteer” who had voted to leave in the referendum.

I made it clear, particularly to Trev, that although I disagreed with him, I did not begrudge him his decision, and asked him why he had chosen to vote as he did. His position was nothing original – it was, he asserted, a question of freedom; reclaiming Britain’s right to choose for herself. I asked him if he was not concerned by the nosediving Sterling or by revelations that a promised £350 million reallocation of funds to the National Health Service would not, as had been promised or intoned by Leave campaigners, actually materialize.

“How do you know they’re lies?” he asked. I replied that it had been demonstrated rather clearly in the news and even admitted, in as many words, by leading campaigners like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. “So you know from reading the paper,” he summarized for me. I conceded the point and asked where, then, he had found his information. “From the paper as well,” he said. “So you and I are on the same level.”

Like much that was to follow in this discussion, I knew Trev was wrong but understood how he had arrived at his conclusions. Clearly the nature of the medium does not equalize the merit of all its content, but in an argument, this point is surprisingly more difficult to prove than it may seem. Trev’s logic felt emblematic of many of the false equivalencies around which the Leave campaign had gathered. Money not “sent to Brussels” does not instantaneously become free after a departure; membership of the European market and free trade with, for example, the Commonwealth are not mutually exclusive. The fact that “all politicians are liars”, as Trev asserted, does not mean that there isn’t truth on either side.

In spite of this, I knew somehow that even if I could have proven to Trev that the NHS will not be £350 million richer or that Johnson and Gove had sought only to play him for a chump, it would have done nothing to change his view. Contrary to the news media’s focus around high-profile Leave campaigners, Trev and many others like him are apathetic toward politicians and their views. Rather, they are, as Michael Gove (ironically) put it: “tired of experts”. It was the dear mistake of the Remain campaign, its supporters, the Government, and the news media, to assume that a mountain of economic evidence or warnings of political fallout would seduce embittered Britons. Most who cared were already convinced.

This is not to belittle those who voted to leave. Though neither was highly educated, neither Barry nor Trev was a fool. It is not because they cannot understand economic or political arguments that they do not care, but because they are weary of them. Both born in the 1960s, it is their generation that has witnessed the unflagging convergence of Britain’s mainstream political parties. There was the rejection en masse of Labour’s left-wing Michael Foot in his bid for the premiership in 1983, Labour’s lurch to the right under Tony Blair at the turn of the millennium, and David Cameron’s centrist leadership of the Conservative party. Some have since rebelled – successive Labour leaderships under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn have sought to steer Labour back to the left; Conservative MPs and voters alike have defected to the United Kingdom Independence Party. Until now, all such efforts had failed, some (as in the case of Miliband’s Labour) spectacularly. In more ways than one, Leave’s victory in the June referendum was a first triumph for a probable majority of Britons who have become disenchanted with the political structure over decades of increasing homogeneity.

Compared to Trev, Barry was less concerned with sovereignty or freedom. In his view, Europe has punished Britain since its admission to the Union in 1973. His refrain (albeit a half-drunken one) was: “we’re not that bad”. “We’ve atoned,” he said. “We used to be bad – we were the worst of the lot in the days of the Empire – but now we’ve apologized, and we’re really trying to do right in the world.” Europe, as he saw it, has refused to accept this. Instead, the EU exerts Draconian regulations on Britain and extracts more than its due. His interpretation of political history was certainly confused – if nothing else, it is difficult to imagine a union dominated by France and Germany eternally castigating Britain for the wrongs of her past. Regulations and monetary contributions apply to all members; as Britain discovered last winter, there is no special treatment. What may be true is that prolonged British obstinacy toward European projects – flouting the euro and the Schengen Agreement, for example – and groaning at European objectives has cultivated a mutual resentment on either side of the Channel from which neither side is willing to back down. Indeed, Europe’s leaders were clear when they warned David Cameron of the futility of his quest for renegotiation of Britain’s membership terms. After decades of petulance, Britain had earned little goodwill in Brussels.

Interestingly, Barry’s view is in direct contrast with what has become the common image of the Leave supporter. Far from the pasty Brexiteer draped in St George’s Cross lamenting the loss of the Empire, Barry resents the imperial past, if only because (in his conception) it has led to harsher treatment of the European Britain. He expressed a passion for traveling in Europe (I did, after all, discover him in Reims). It was not distaste for foreigners or any particular chafing at actual EU policy that repelled Barry, but a lack of love for the Union. For all his absurd rhetoric, Boris Johnson had a point to call the “In” campaign “Project Fear”. Badgering the British people with economic uncertainty would never capture the hearts of millions of Barrys and Trevs who cast votes of emotion. The EU, and too many of the popular arguments for it, are uncharismatic. Europhiles who still have the chance would do well to acknowledge this.

In the weeks since the result, it has grown tiresome to listen to Europeans disparage an apparent British arrogance. It is not my experience of Britain that her people feel they stand above the Continent. They do, however, feel they are different. The “Island” mythology is overused, but not entirely untrue. The plugs in British walls have three holes, British cars drive on the left side of the road, and road signs still show distances in yards. Certainly the Leave vote had racists and imbeciles in its ranks. Many others, though, voted out of a sense of difference the Leave campaign had effectively prodded. The Remain campaign, with its graphs and figures, was broadcasting on a different frequency.

Everything remains to come. Theresa May seems unlikely to invoke Article 50 for some time. The outcome of the ensuing negotiations is impossible to predict. Those who claim to know what will happen or to be experts (Brexperts?) on the topic are lying.

The sun is not yet setting on Britain, and there is no guarantee her relationship with the EU will be torn to shreds. But the uncertainty about her future will linger for some time; probably for years. For those who would belittle the British for their decision, it will be important to remember that this is the attitude that held open the door for a Leave vote. Euroscepticism on the Continent is not going away soon; when all votes are equal, those who dismiss the opposition’s concerns and demean their motives might find themselves outnumbered by them.

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