Guest post by Niall Griffiths
At the time of writing, six weeks have passed since the EU referendum and what have we learned, in that time? That ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (whatever that means), that ‘we’ve got our country back’ (the same), that ‘we’ve regained our sovereignty’ (ditto, because we’d never lost it) and ‘taken back control of our borders’ (you get the picture). We’ve been told that to categorise every Leave voter as an uneducated, xenophobic hick is offensive and wrong (but that every Remain voter was a spoilt middle class brat), and that people were sick and tired of answering to an unelected elite; Nigel ‘Breaking Point’ Farage has told us this, as has Boris ‘Piccaninnies’ Johnson, and Michael ‘Had Enough of Experts’ Gove, and we should believe them, exclusively educated and powerful as they are, because they’re evidently superior to us. And we should believe Theresa May too, unelected leader though she is, because, well, the disenfranchised have spoken, haven’t they? They’ve had their voices heard, and now they want something to be done, although no-one has any idea of what that might be. It’s just, well, y’know; British values and all that. Freedom from Johnny Foreigner and his wily ways. Straight bananas, health and safety gone mad, that sort of thing.
So, what will be your abiding memory of the last days of June 2016? Will it be of Farage, declaring ‘this is our independence day’ and that ‘this was a revolution without a shot being fired’, or will it be of Jo Cox and her shattered family, or of the fact that many countries on the planet have their own independence day and it usually signifies independence from Britain? Or will you remember Nige in Brussels, little man with his little flag, scion of Dulwich College, son of a wealthy stockbroker, telling the gathered grandees that they’ve ‘never done a proper job in their lives’? Or will it be of the Lithuanian representative, cringing at those words, the man who was born in a gulag, everything in his early life militating against the highly respected and successful heart surgeon that he would become? Perhaps you’ll remember Nige and his Breaking Point poster; the immigrant-descended, immigrant-marrying heroic defender of Britain’s borders using an image of Syrian refugees attempting to enter Slovenia from Croatia to illustrate the threat to Lincolnshire of eastern European agricultural labourers?
Or maybe you’ll remember Bojo; loveable, bumbling, zip-wire, man-boy Boris on the morning of the result, giving his speech before dashing off to post his Daily Telegraph column, for which he is paid a quarter of a million a year (a sum which he describes as ‘chickenfeed’), his speech in which he declared that nothing would change, that everything would stay the same? Because he was speaking for the downtrodden, wasn’t he, him and his mini-me Michael, defending the zero-hour-contracted, the rent-crippled, the sacked, the struggling, the stigmatised? They were his people, weren’t they, in that summer of 2016; it was his concern for the deracinated that drove him to join the Leave campaign, not slavering opportunism, no, not monstrous self-promotion. Alexander Boris De Pfeffer Johnson, indicting the elitist establishment; how that hypocrisy must’ve stung him, hurt his very soul, because the beneficiaries of his validation of UKIP’s carnival of hate, and of Brexit itself, will be the working classes, not his political career, even though the man who has insulted almost every country on earth has now been promoted to Foreign Secretary (what larks! What jolly japes!).
Or maybe it’ll be Cameron’s jaunty little tune that you remember, as he abandoned the country that he ‘loves so much’ to the wreckage that he made of it. Maybe you’ll remember the immediate spike in hate crime; of the Polish family labelled as vermin, of the black children spat at, of the grocery shops with non-British-sounding names above their doors fire-bombed. Maybe you’ll remember the 350 million a week promised to the NHS, a figure denounced by its author the very day of his triumph. Or the puerile squabbling of those who should’ve been able to put their differences aside and provide the coherent opposition that a well-functioning democracy needs. Odds are you won’t remember Scotland or Northern Ireland in all of this, because neither Leave or Remain thought them important enough to mention.
And the memories, now, are they helping you in any way? Are they illuminating the place where you are now, this length of time on from the ‘historically democratic event’? Perhaps they’re helping to heal the familial rift, the generational breach, that has occurred with the realisation that those dearest to you harbour thoughts anathema to your own, which you in fact find repellent, which they were encouraged to express, and that they voted for an upheaval, the negative consequences of which they won’t be around to see or suffer. Perhaps the memory of Farage’s union jack shoes scurrying across the stately home lawn towards Rupert Murdoch – no unelected elite, him – is a balm across this wound. Maybe those shoes are helping you to cope with the realisation that, well, some of the Leave promises were a teensy bit exaggerated; that it might be, in fact, further austerity that will support the ailing NHS, rather than the 350 million that isn’t given to the EU every week. That maybe there won’t be control of immigration after all, because the free movement of labour is a precondition of involvement in the single market, and that maybe immigration of labour is a good thing anyway; and maybe it works two ways, and that the freedom to live and work and study in 27 other countries is, actually, quite a good freedom to have, or was. Maybe the promised gains are, really, losses. But never mind that because Marie Le Pen and Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are happy for us, and you’ve got to keep the neighbours sweet, haven’t you? Even if they’re not, y’know, ideal.
And the memories, now, are they anchors against the uncertainty of the future, as Britain goes forwards into 1952? Perhaps they’ll help when Scotland secedes, and when Northern Ireland starts to bleed again, because after all, this is freedom from tyranny, isn’t it? When it’s recognised that the collapse of public services is due to underfunding and not to the presence of foreigners, and that rents are unaffordable not because of demand but because of exploitation by the rapacious empowered by inequality, maybe the recalled image of Nigel’s little flag will pull you through, even when that flag has to be re-designed (and not by a vexillographer, no, because we’ve had enough of experts). Repeat the phrase ‘the voters have spoken’ because that’ll gloss over, maybe even deny completely, the bitter tatters of the country you live in, rent by self-serving monsters masquerading as our selfless betters. ‘Britain is great again’, ‘we’ve got our country back’; repeat these phrases, and let them, and the memories, be what we’ve been told to believe they are; emblems of national pride, and most definitely not national fear, or national disgust, or national shame. Definitely not that.
Niall Griffiths is a writer, and the author of the acclaimed novels Sheepshagger, Grits and Stump, amongst others.