I have always thought that writing is a lot like code-breaking. Especially when it comes to writing about something meaty and problematic – you have to sit there and stare at the facts, pluck ideas out of thin air and dismiss them; you have to try one angle, then another, until you find the right one. But when you find the right one, everything falls into place – in crisp HD colour, satisfying as a slot machine win. A path lights up; it’s just filling in the blanks from there.
As you can imagine, I spent Friday writing this post in my head, over and over again. I wrote a furious version – all rhetorical questions and an over-reliance on the word “fuck” – and a weepy and waily, end-is-nigh version. Friday was a long, dark, heavy day, in spite of the sunshine. I went to bed on Thursday night – well, dozed off in front of my laptop – tentatively optimistic. “It’ll be like Scotland all over again,” I said. “We thought they were going to leave, but when it came down to it, they didn’t.” (Insert bitter laugh here.) I didn’t so much wake up at 5.30 yesterday morning as jolt upright, grab my phone, peer at the BBC news alert and go cold. With no regard for the early hour, I shook Drummer Boy until he opened an eye: “Leave won. We’re leaving. Shit.” After that, it was tears and tea, and hovering in front of the news until I had to get the train.
And so I, and everyone else who voted Remain, descended into a loop of anger and sadness. Grief and rage. Grief for what we thought we were compared with what we turned out to be. Grief for futures that now hang in the balance. Grief for Jo Cox. Without a bullet being fired, Nigel? Are you absolutely sure?
And rage at those who voted Leave – how could they go against what every economist, scientist, academic had advised? How could they be so cavalier about the dangers? How could they disregard the facts so brazenly?
It took me an embarrassingly long time to get it, but I finallly did. After going off on a rant about how it was all probably lost for Remain the moment Michael Gove made his “we’ve had enough of experts” comment – because if the Justice Secretary has no respect for the truth, then the truth is that we are fucked – I understood.
It wasn’t out of wilful stupidity and selfishness that Leavers made their choice – though that was our instinctive reaction. They heard the economists, the academics, the figures and facts. It’s just that when you’ve been on the sharp end of the figures and facts for decades, and when those figures and facts mean nothing to you, why would you heed them? If your communities have been destroyed, if your industries have been hollowed out and smashed, if your job security is non-existent, if higher education is simply not an option for you… why would you care about “facts”? And if you’re encouraged to blame high levels of immigration for this instability, this relentless fight, by those in power and the vile, unregulated right-wing side of the press, who claim to speak for “hard-working” people – what are you going to blame?
Maybe this was always going to happen. Maybe if it wasn’t a totally unnecessary, ill-placed referendum on the EU (and I can’t stress that bit enough. This decision should never have sat with us in a million, billion years; this was not one for democracy), it would have been something else. Like squeezing a spot, going to therapy, or an exorcism – maybe the crap had to be drained so the healing could begin. And what a huge amount of healing we now have to do.
I am scared of what’s been exposed. I am angered by it. Furious. But I know for certain that it is misplaced anger that got us to this ugly place, and to perpetuate the cycle of firing rage in the wrong direction would be catastrophic. I’m bitterly disappointed, too – obviously – but bitterness has never, ever achieved anything except spreading further darkness and pain.
I’m also curious as to what happens next. Because as this piece, and also this one state, Article 50 (the beginning of the leaving process) hasn’t been activated. Obviously, the complication is that David Cameron didn’t want to leave, and it would sit with him to activate it. So he’s decided to step down – but in a moment of almost-impressively-crafted cowardice, he’s not doing that yet either. He’s going to hang around until the autumn. If Boris does become the next PM, and that’s far from cut and dried, it will be up to him. And if you saw his speech yesterday… well. He’s never looked less like Boris, has he? That was not the speech of a man who’d got what he wanted. That was the speech of a man who had “Oh, JESUS” running through his head the whole time.
And as for Nigel Farage: he doesn’t have any power, and won’t be part of the Brexit negotiations, if and when they go ahead. He’s just another liar in a bad suit.
It is unescapably awful, that we’ve chosen this. That more people in this country would choose fear and anger and isolation, over hope and openness and collaboration. That 51.9% of the population would rather see economies crash, and fragile, painfully-fought-for unions thrown into doubt, and young people totally shafted, than pay attention to “experts”. I don’t know what that makes us, or who we are today.
So we must come up with an answer to that question: who are we now? After an identity crisis, you eventually have to opt for something.
And if we look at the ash, the anger, the wreckage and dividing lines amidst which we now find ourselves, and decided to just… let things happen, then we really will be the laughing stock the rest of the world currently thinks we are. There is a space for a liberal Left-leaning, properly cohesive group (because where on earth have Labour and Jeremy Corbyn been for the last eight weeks or so?) – if such a group would only come together.
Remember: power has never, ever been given away, like a flyer for a shit nightclub. Power has always been grappled for – clawed from the cold, lifeless fingers of those who hoard it by those who crave it badly enough to see off everybody else.
It’s a human-made system that’s got us into this sorry mess. Some humans decided that this is how things would work – so when they stop working, when the system starts to fall in on itself, and eat its own tail, humans have to step in and make something new.
If we don’t take this opportunity – because it’s the most open the goal has ever been; no-one’s got a clue what to do next – then we will never forgive ourselves, and rightly so. Calling all kitchen-table world-changers, the people at dinner parties who are secretly thrilled when the conversation turns to politics, because it means they can show off how lovely and liberal they are; calling all mad dreamers who have the audacity to think that maybe, just maybe, they can make a difference: this is your cue.