I am just over 50 years old. When I was 16, my parents took what seemed like an impossible step and emigrated to Australia. I have written about this before on the blog. It did not so much turn my world upside down as fracture it and although I have the benefit of two passports and dual nationality I end up feeling like a cuckoo wherever I am settled.
In terms of years, England is still ahead. I have so far spent thirty of my years in the country of my birth and twenty in Australia, this last stint being the longest. Now that the Internet is well established and thanks to social media tools, it is pretty easy to keep in touch with what is going on in, ‘the old country,’ but this week, it has been a distressing experience to watch.
It is all very well for me to sit on the opposite side of the world and gaze in wry amusement at something that looks at first like a joke gaining momentum until it seems to be a prevailing force – and by this I mean the extraordinary rise of Trump in the USA – but it can also feel like watching a car crash in slow motion. Standing far enough outside the forest that you are able to see the trees, but are powerless to do anything but watch hopelessly as the drama unfolds.
So it was with Brexit. I, like many people – including apparently some who voted to leave because there was no way they thought it would happen – felt quite certain that the UK referendum would be held, that the leave campaign would look like it was gaining momentum briefly and then falter and die. People who are unsure tend to go with the status quo and so it is quite difficult to get a change through a referendum vote. The leave campaign had also been tainted with xenophobic nastiness. Despite the fact that this was about free trade across Europe, somehow it became about controlling the UK borders from the ‘flood’ of immigrants who apparently make up less than 5% of the total population, but were presented as, ‘coming over here, taking all our jobs.’ It was also fought over the myth that 350 million pounds a week currently paid to the EU could be poured back into Britian’s NHS, a system designed to offer free health care for all but which has been systematically dismantled, abused and disempowered by the government charged with looking after it. I use the term myth because within literally hours of the outcome being announced, that promise of 350 million pounds a week for the NHS was swiftly dispelled as inaccurate by the leave campaign that had been touting it.
I wonder what has happened to the country I left? It is tempting to think of England as a place of green lawns, the thwack of a leather cricket ball on willow, gentle applause. Soft dappled light, cosy fireside chats over a convivial pint in the pub. In reality it is crowded, dirty and for the most part grey. People are squeezed together, the cost of living is insane and there is a tendency to distrust strangers.
So what were people voting for when they put a cross in the box to indicate they wanted out from Europe? Was it nostalgia – a time when Britain really was Great? When was that last? 2012 during the Olympics? Or do we have to go further back to the blitz spirit of World War II, or back further still when the map was pink and the sun never set on the British Empire, so far did it stretch around the world?
Boris Johnson who led the leave campaign has so far done a very good job at playing the loveable buffoon. The Brits love a character and the Brits love an underdog, and so far he has been able to ride that public persona with considerable political success. While other politicians get caught having affairs, Boris on being confronted about his considerably younger mistress having his child said something along the lines of, ‘Gosh, what can I say? Golly, it has been a bad week.’ And everyone kind of rolled their eyes and exclaimed, ‘Oh Boris!’
That he has had his eye on the prize of Number 10 forever seems to be an open secret, and with his latest victory, leading England to possibly break their involvement in a free trade agreement that, if effected will have lasting implications and possibly lead to the break up of the UK itself, he may well be edging closer to his goal.
I had to get off Twitter yesterday, it was so depressing. Given the nature of the beast it was like being trapped in an echo chamber of depression as people tweeted figures on the plummeting pound with more being wiped off the UK economy in two hours than had been paid to the EU in 40 years. Laments too from the 16-25 age group, most of whom voted to remain, but whose futures appeared to have been hijacked by the baby boomers because they were fed up with NHS queues to get their hips replaced. Spain is now moving in on Gibratar, and right wing parties in Holland and France started voicing support for their own leave campaigns.
Boris was quick to try and calm the situation by assuring the public that the UK would be in no hurry to invoke Article 50, which would trigger the process of withdrawal. The EU, however seemed to think otherwise and basically announced that the sooner UK packed its bags and got out, the better.
Britain is nothing if not resilient, though and will weather whatever storms are ahead. No doubt the outcome will neither be as bad as the doomsayers predict nor as positive as the optimists want. All I know is my absence made no difference. I would have voted to stay, but then 70% of the people of Brighton did as well, so it would have made no difference.
Divorce is tricky and messy. Boris Johnson may be a step forward to getting his Number 10 prize but has already demonstrated his preference for having his cake and eating it too in his personal life. He may already be reeling somewhat in the unpleasant aftermath of this first unexpected victory. Be careful what you wish for, Boris, you may just get it.