Fifteen years ago I was on a work trip in France and the owner of the company I was visiting seemed unusually perplexed.
‘There’s been some kind of a disaster in New York, we don’t quite know what,’ he said. ‘An air crash. One of the Twin Towers had collapsed.’
There was no internet on the move then. I drove south listening to the radio, my schoolbench French not good enough to make sense of the constant news reports that were increasingly hysterical, but it wasn’t until I found hotel that night deep in the Vendée and turned on CNN that I knew what had happened and why 9/11 would be date nobody would forget.
It was one of those gut-wrenching ‘what the fuck has happened?’ moments, similar to the feeling on Friday morning when it was apparent that Britain had voted out of the EU, bringing with it the understanding that nothing will be the same again, the certainty that the rule book had been thrown out of the window and a new one hadn’t been written yet.
Britain is effectively in turmoil, and it’s anyone’s guess how long this is going to last. The Remainers are understandably livid, just as the Leavers would have been if it had gone against them by a margin of less than 2%.
It has been a filthy campaign on both sides. There have been lies, barefaced lies and counter-lies thrown at the voting public for the last six months, as well as a few truths carefully hidden in there, just to confuse us.
It turned out that the Remain campaign, which hinged on the fear factor of the unknown and the economic consequences of leaving wasn’t as effective as the Leave campaign, which focused in the last few weeks on immigration. Hate seems to have been a marginally more potent factor than Fear. What is also becoming apparent is how woefully ill-informed British voters have been, and how ill-served they have been by the media, especially the sensationalist red-top newspapers.
It hasn’t taken long for some of the big lies to come apart. The notion that £360 million saved every week on contributions to the EU could instead be routed to the health service was dismissed as a ‘mistake’ only hours after the result, and it seems that immigration won’t be curbed by leaving the EU after all – while the mayor of Calais has demanded that Britain take back control of its own borders, implying that it’s time the Jungle shantytown next to the Eurotunnel terminal was moved across the Channel to Kent.
There’s jubilation on one hand and the recrimination on the other. Some colossal faultlines have opened up in British society. The young voted in, the older generation voted out. Cities voted in, the shires voted out. Two of Great Britain’s constituent nations voted to remain, two voted to leave, along unmistakably clear dividing lines. Scotland is already making noises about a new independence referendum. Overt racism has made an unwelcome appearance as people who might look or sound slightly foreign are jeered and yelled at to go back to wherever they came from – which for many of them is right here.
There are regrets and the grim realisation that there’s no such thing as a protest vote – a vote is a vote. That’s precisely how democracy works.
There’s the bizarre sight of the parts of Britain that have benefited most from EU support, the blighted industrial regions, as precisely the ones that voted most decisively to dump the EU. One council leader has congratulated the voters in his area for voting to leave, and in the next breath demanded that Westminster make up the half-billion quid or more in support that has – until now – come from Europe. It makes you wonder what part of ‘out’ is so hard to understand.
Maybe a close look at the EU Directive on having one’s cake and eating it is needed here.
The outgoing Prime Minister, soon to be on his way to spend a long retirement with his memoirs (undoubtedly to be serialised in the Daily Mail) has handed his successors a turd sandwich by conspicuously not pressing the red button to trigger Article 50, the mechanism that starts the irrevocable process of leaving the European Union. So whoever takes his place will have the responsibility for this momentous decision, assuming it gets that far as it seems both Northern Ireland and Scottish assemblies may have to agree on this, plus it’ll have to go through the tortuous process of both Parliament and the Lords before it can become reality.
In the meantime, both major political parties are tearing themselves apart from within. Labour ran a lucklustre Remain campaign and you could tell their heart wasn’t in it as the traditional Labour heartlands voted out en bloc. The victorious Brexiteers of the Tory party have emerged blinking into the daylight, wondering what the hell to do with a victory they almost certainly hadn’t expected.
The politicians have all gone into hiding. Where has the Chancellor vanished to? It appears that nobody even scribbled a few contingency plans on the back of on envelope, a post-referendum to-do list. There’s no apparent plan and nobody’s in charge as the current government has become a ramshackle gaggle of caretakers, while the opposition is also busily ripping itself to shreds. There’s no statesmanlike figure on either side who looks either trustworthy of capable of uniting his/her own party, let alone a nation that in the space of a few months has become deeply divided.
Is it all over? Hell, no. The narrowness of the referendum margin guarantees that this is going to run and run for a long time yet. A petition to Parliament for a second referendum is gathering a thousand signatures every minute and was already past an unprecedented three and a half million as this was written.
What next? If you have access to a crystal ball, you tell me.