June 2016

It’s been a bruising few days for us Britons.

When I woke up on Friday morning, having driven a 300 mile round trip during filming to vote in Newhaven, and still recovering from a violent bout of food poisoning (which seems poetic in retrospect), I was KO’d by the referendum result. I lay in bed actually clutching my temples and feeling winded.

After days of rain and vomiting, the sun was shining, so I took my body-blow for a walk up onto the beautiful cliffs over Newhaven West Beach.

For me, the “Leave” vote meant generations of British people impoverished, cut off from the prosperity of one of the world’s biggest trading blocks, it meant further austerity, insularity, xenophobia in the face of global crisis and change. But watching a fox sniff across the rain-bright chalky uplands, I also felt physically nauseous from a sense of social split within my own circle, my own community.

I looked back over the town of Newhaven and knew that the majority of my fellow burgers had probably voted “Leave”. I knew two neighbours on my street who flew “Leave” pennants from their windows. I knew that as a Ferry port with a on-going battle with the French company that owns the harbour, most people in my town are at best apathetic to and mostly disgusted with the idea of Europe.

Walking back through the sunny but as-yet deserted streets I felt there was division in the air. I saw people and my first thought was :”How did they vote?”

Later that day, at work, when it was hinted that a colleague may have voted ‘Leave’ as well, both myself and my other “Remain” colleagues found it hard to talk to them. There were strong feelings of fear, of anger, of distain. Within families younger generations were angry with older parents and grandparents who had seemingly sold their future of free-travel and prosperity down the river. For a few days it felt like I was afraid of others in my own country and the split seemed irreparable.

But the weekend was healing in all sorts of ways. Some friends of mine got married, as a surprise, during their daughter’s naming day ceremony. I met my partner’s family (who had voted mostly to leave) and they didn’t have six-heads and poisonous eye-darts. I started to exit the bubble of Facebook and read what other sides were saying…

When I woke up alone that Friday, I took comfort of going on-line and checking-in with my friends on Facebook. I needed a safe circle of friends with similar views to hold my anger and upset.I was too upset and highly charged to be high-minded and equanimous.

But over the dizzy course of the next 48 hours, I thought about simply going to my “Vote Leave” neighbours and listening to what they had to say, how they felt, what they hoped might happen. I didn’t do it – but would it be so frightening to just listen to someone who had views 180 degrees from you – not argue or convince them, just accept that they exist?

I began to think about Facebook and the way that I and many of my friends get their information. I began to think about the way that the Referendum was reported and the way people encounter fact and opinion.

The very things that I fear most from a “Leave Vote” – isolation and intolerance – seem to go on all the time in the echo-chamber of a Facebook feed or a self-similar news source. Comforting as it is, to have a circle of friends mirroring and reflecting the same views and sentiments, the violence and contempt that erupted on Friday across social media was also scary. People saying that they wanted all “Leave Voters” to de-friend them and the branding the people who voted differently as racists and proto-Brownshirts massing on the edge of imagination – all this magnifies the division and tribalism in a different but equally troubling way.

A lot of us in the Remain camp feel angry and frightened by the consequences of (what most agree was an ill-informed) Leave vote but it is troubling to see how many people said they were “shocked”. Shocked? Really? With polls running neck and neck for weeks and “Leave” pulling ahead a couple of days before the 23rd?

I was so angry with the Daily Mail and the Sun and Express for their poisonous drip-feed of anti-immigrant stories but I reflected on Sunday that I’d never actually read any of them. So putting aside my life-long allergy to these right-wing papers I started adding them to my news feed. I found this in the Sun. I don’t agree with their politics and from my point of view, the protest vote of “Leave” is only going to leave the working classes more economically disenfranchised but you can suddenly see how the “Vote Leave are all ignorant racists” trope might feel from a Sun-reader’s point of view.

The Daily Mail, who’s raison d’être is to moan and complain and generate a sense of envy and discontent, seemed all at sea as their readers were suddenly stranded abroad with no money because of the Pound’s collapse. It was intriguing rather than disgusting to see this paper’s Brexit fervour curdle. Founded at the end of the 19th century with a female readership in mind, it’s the biggest selling paper in the UK and is still predominantly read by women. What do the women who read the Mail think when they read this paper?

Weirdly, as I opened up to the “leave” side’s half-hearted and jittery ‘celebrations’ my sense of anger and anxiety started to recede. The “us vs. them” split is the oldest and most powerful tool in anxiety’s toolbox and any deconstruction of it leads to a softening of the heart. And that felt really good after 48 hours of frightened constriction.

As the new week begins, I have to wonder too whether my much-beloved BBC was at fault. After the shock of Friday morning passed, there was as sense, during the weekend, of seeing things sharp and fresh: scouring multiple news sources, following the street protests, hearing opinions from friends in Berlin and from America, noticing on-line petitions, the politics of the wider EU, a sense of global history unfolding. And then when I turn on Radio 4 this morning it’s the same tiny Westminster focus that we’ve heard for months and months: a Tory MP talking about Boris Johnston; a live-broadcast of George Osbourne’s platitudes. It suddenly felt stiflingly parochial and small-scale.

I’ve written elsewhere about how the decision to give equal weight to Leave and Remain despite the massively unequal evidence distorted the debate considerably. I’m not sure what else the BBC could have done but I suddenly can see how the sense of a “Westminster’s Insider Club” can gain traction across the nation.

Despite these questions, I still feel that Friday’s decision was a protest vote gone wrong: an act of global vandalism. (We hear about ‘Regrexit’ where Leave voters are waking up from a trance to see the ruinous consequences of their vote.) And, if parliament goes on to ratify the referendum and we do go ahead and leave the EU, I still believe the economic, cultural and social consequences will be painful and permanent. We will suffer further from cuts and a catastrophic collapse in funding; free-marketeers will take advantage of the lack of EU legal protection to dismantle the NHS, roll-out environmentally damaging agriculture and tear-up our few remaining labour laws; and there will be nasty and permanent increase in racist attacks on our citizens. (Let’s not forget that an MP was MURDERED by a racist and people still voted Leave).

However, I do sincerely hope that the rupture that this vote has caused will wake us up from our bubble-chambers and self-selecting tribes and force us to LISTEN (not hector or convince or argue or rant at) our fellow citizens. The one thing we can’t let it do is shut our minds to 17 million people and walk the streets in a rictus of suspicion and hatred. Because then the racists and hate-mongers have really won.

Just in case you don’t have 20 minutes to listen to Prof. Dougan’s talk here are the main points (and yes, Dougan is the Jean Monnet chair at the University and it is funded by the EU. Nonetheless I have not read a single thing on the Brexit side that has more substance or factual accuracy).

SOVEREIGNTY: The UK is a sovereign power and the ultimate power lies with Parliament. The EU is not even a sovereign entity – it has no power in our country unless parliament grants it.

US vs. THEM: People talk about “Brussels” as if it were an alien entity. We are one of the “Big Three” (the others are France and Germany) who have the deciding say in everything that the EU decides (with 73, 74 and 96 MEPs respectively). Most decisions are made by consensus. The Commission does not dictate. The Council (all countries’ representatives at a table) and the Parliament (directly elected by national populations) decide what will be most beneficial to all involved. We are one of the most power decision makers in Europe.

LAW: European Law does not supersede UK law. When the UK judges sometimes overrule British decisions in favour of the EU it is because the UK parliament has told them to do so. If we leave the EU then all our laws will have to be re-written in short measure. And, Prof, Dougan, argues Parliament will not have the time to do this – it will be left to unelected bodies.

TRADE: The the EU is the most sophisticated and powerful trading block in the world by a long way. Not just the lack of tariffs but much more importantly the lack of regulatory construction (where the UK can’t sell its computers to France because of different health, environmental, safety laws). To leave the Single Market would bring us back to square one. The “Norwegian option” means that we would have to abide by all EU laws but have no say in how they’re made – also we would still have to pay a huge fee to trade. If we wanted to limit free movement of people then we would have to leave completely. This would mean we would have to negotiate from scratch bi-lateral agreements with all countries of the world which would take up to 10 years. (Switzerland is still negotiating these treaties after voting not to be in the Single Market in the 1970s).

I don’t usually write about political things on here although as the years pass I find myself moving to a more radical and left-wing view of the world – (It’s a stubborn counter-move to that awful belief that we’re socialist in youth and conservative in old-age). The significance of the Brexit vote for British citizens and the sense of moral decay in the air, prompted me to post this.

The horrific murder of more than 50 LGBT revellers in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the equally shocking murder of the British politician Jo Cox moved have moved me like they moved millions – and they have made me vocal and angry about not only the two murderers but about the whole undercurrent of hatred and bigotry that cultivated their murderers’ mindset.

It is impossible and duplicitous, for example, for American establishment figures to wring their hands about what happened in Orlando while at the same time turning a blind eye to the fact that Ted Cruz, a leading candidate for the Republican nomination, was happy to shake hands with a right-wing pastor who advocates execution for gay people. Similarly, it is impossible to ignore the obvious connection between Cox’s murderer shouting “Britain First” and the paranoid and distorted rhetoric being used by UKIP posters and the loose-canon Brexiteers in the run up to UK’s referendum on leaving Europe.

The revolting drip-feed of negativity towards ‘migrants’ and Muslims in British newspapers like the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Express is clearly complicit in this national drift towards an atavistic and small-minded fear mentallity. It is out of this tragic and terrible manure that the murderous acts spring. Not from some ‘evil’ unconnected to the press and the media.

Rather than bracketing the Orlando killer and Cox’s killer into the ‘insane’ or the ‘jihadi/extremist’ bracket we have to acknowledged that these men acted in a context of increasing bigotry and close-mindedness. The brutality of these men (and indeed of ISIS executing gay men and non-Muslims) is the very extreme end of a spectrum that begins with civilised people closing their minds and hearts to people who are different from them.

One of the heart-numbing aspects of the Brexit debates in the UK is the idea that there always have to be a ‘balance’. That if most people (for example 95% of scientists and economists) agree that leaving the EU would be disastrous for the country and our children’s future in the world, then we have to find someone in the 5% to “balance” the argument. Both are given equal airtime and the truth is distorted. If most people (100% of scientists) believe that evolution provides a robust explanation of life on Earth, then we don’t have to give a platform to the nonsense of Creationism as a ‘balance”.

The fact is that some things are just bad ideas. Putting your hand into a fire is a bad idea. We don’t need to balance that by having someone argue that it is a good one.

Toleration, kindness, openness, communication, trade, dialogue, open-mindedness, co-operation, compassion, curiosity are qualities that lead to positive life constellations. Bitterness, close-mindedness, greed, deafness, rigidity, isolationism and hatred lead to increased misery and conflict.

I don’t doubt that there are a huge number of Britons who sincerely believe that leaving the EU will be good for the country. But the overwhelming evidence shows that it will not. The EU (flawed as it may be) has brought environmental safeguards, labour laws and peace and prosperity that our grandparent’s generation only dreamed of in the post-war years. The access to culture, funding, research, trade, security and social fields is a huge boon for the generations to come. The Brexiteers who clamour for ‘less red tape’ are also the free marketeers who are keen to scrap maternity leave, sickness pay and labour protection. The energy and tax that young migrants bring into an economy far, far outweigh the cost to the infrastructure of a country and besides, as a union of 500 million people we have a duty to help the many millions displaced by a war in Syria that we are indirectly responsible for.

Staying in Europe makes it easier to police our borders and protect our welfare. (Do the Brexiteers imagine that France will continue to hold refugees at Calais once Britain leaves the EU border conventions?) Being part of the EU will allow our youngsters to study in universities that get European research grants and work abroad and be inspired about being part of a wider European family. And quite apart from the mere economic benefits, I feel that there is a much more resonant cultural and emotional connection.

I have always been delighted to feel part of Europe. To hang out in Berlin, drink Pernod in Paris, eat paella in Barcelona, explore the Carpathians, swim in the lakes of Mazuria. I have taken full advantage of studying for free in Berlin, working in Germany, paying tax in Germany and using German swimming pools and roads paid for by my taxes. I have criss-crossed boarders willy-nilly and learned languages and I am constantly learning from the counter-point that other nations brings to the experience of being English.

When I lived in Berlin in the 90s I came into a much clearer and prouder relationship with both my Britishness and my Englishness. But I also came to be full of admiration for the unique history that Berliners lived through and had a much more vivid sense of the Second World War there where the scars of the Cold War were still so visible. Being a European is just one concentric circle in my life. Within it there is being British and being English. Beyond it is being a Buddhist and being a human. Many circles makes for resonance.

What terrifies me is the growing constriction of circles that Brexit hints at: closed borders, closed economy, closed minds. It’s an isolationist creed that finds echoes in Donald Trump and i believe it’s the very opposite of the thing that has always made Britain great: our openness to the world, to science, to trade, to diplomacy and to others. Voting to remain a part of a greater whole can only empower us. Closing doors will leave us to stagnate and founder.