Brexit Britain … where next?
London on Thursday was hammered with rain. Not just a few summer showers but full on downpours. Tube lines were flooded. Train lines were closed. Traffic ground to a standstill. The glass tower of The Shard building disappeared from view. Two polling stations in Richmond were moved due to flooding.
It was, in retrospect, a dramatic backdrop to the decision of voters that day to end Britain’s membership of the European Union.
The United Kingdom and the rest of the world woke, somewhat shocked, on Friday morning blinking into bright sunshine. As I walked around Westminster, groups of Leave campaigners leaving their all-night parties strolled around happily, some draped in Union Jacks. A driver in a white van speeding past the assembled media outside Downing Street shouted: “…Power to the people!”
Which really summed it all up.
The question is, now that the people have exercised their power, what happens next?
The uncertainties piled on during the course of the day.
David Cameron’s resignation speech left a question mark over when, exactly, he will resign. The lack of a coherent response from those who campaigned to leave raises questions over who will take charge. The boos which greeted Boris Johnson when he emerged from his Islington home a reminder that a significant minority voted to remain.
The results from Northern Ireland and the even clearer result from Scotland reverberated like cracks in a building shook by an earthquake. The giddy declaration from UKIP’s Nigel Farage outside Westminster that June 24th should be declared a British national holiday chimed with the bizarre tone of much of this campaign.
Downriver from where he made his cheery suggestion, the traders in the City may have wished what he said was true. Stocks collapsed. The pound plunged. And no amount of uninformed speculation from bookies and currency traders could help them.
But the result in the UK’s EU referendum is much bigger than the fevered focus on stock markets. It’s much bigger than that. And the loss is a lot bigger, I think, than the trailing red on traders’ screens. Markets recover relatively quickly. Politics and societies, if they are damaged, take a lot longer.
I’ve reported from various parts of the United Kingdom over the course of the referendum campaign. The one constant I’ve noticed is that whether the people I spoke to were in favour of Leaving or Remaining, they expressed their views in terms of what they feared. They feared an economic catastrophe and isolation if Britain left. They feared what the continuing tide of immigration meant and a future European super state, if Britain stayed in. They were uniformly unhappy, and some, angry with how they saw the world.
Something has happened to make people here (and perhaps not just here) fearful about the future. There are many possible explanations. People in low-paying jobs -or with no jobs- believe they’ve been left behind. The ability of politics, now wrapped up in carefully crafted slogans, to improve lives is questioned…even scoffed at. International institutions once seen as the pioneers of forging peace and progress are derided as self-serving and ineffective. It’s them and us. It’s young and old. Fears over a Britain which closes its door to the world vies with fears of leaving that door open.
Friday didn’t deliver a bouncing celebration of the boundless possibilities of Britain’s new dawn. Many prominent Leavers couldn’t agree if the UK should pause and reflect or immediately begin formal negotiations to sever its ties with the EU.
The uncertainties highlighted during the campaign are no longer uncertain. They’re here. And few in Brexit Britain seem to know where to turn next.