This blog chronicles, in a way I didn’t intend at the outset, my feelings about Brexit since 2016. I’ve been thinking of posting more, now we’re into ‘endgame’ territory, but I couldn’t decide what tone to aim for. Then, today, two (perhaps three) voices and a news story helped me decide. I’m sad.
This blog began shortly after the Brexit referendum in 2016. At that time, my aim was to celebrate Europe – both the political/economic union of the EU and everything else that makes many of us proud to be European. In the wake of the vote, my first instinct was to proclaim that identity and find the areas of unity and shared experience with others from across the continent. Hence my early interviews – which now look rather naïve despite the brilliant responses from my interviewees. They were my attempt to point out that 48% of us voted to Remain and that we love our European neighbours, with whom with have more in common…
Partly through this blog, I then discovered a community of other people who felt the same – the Remainers, Remoaners, #FBPEers, People’s Voters, Saboteurs, Enemies of the People, Citizens of the World, Snowflakes. My interviews changed from interviewing European friends and connections about Europe to interviewing and profiling the people fighting for it, at grassroots level.
All of this in the spirit of fighting back. Of proving the Britain I had loved and identified with still existed. Of making our voices heard.
Then I stopped blogging. Because it became very apparent that no one was really listening and, perhaps, that Britain was an illusion, a half-remembered dream looking at bit like the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. Our government continued to bang on about ‘the will of the people’ and drive us all towards the edge of the cliff. It didn’t really seem to matter whether we shouted about it or sat quietly in the back of the doomed vehicle. I also stopped blogging because I didn’t know how to feel. You can’t always be angry and you can’t always fight – and I have been campaigning on this since before the Referendum. I stood on the streets in my ‘Stronger In’ t-shirt and listened to every ill-thought-out reason to vote Leave there was – and it can be awfully tiring, after a while.
The People’s Vote March in October helped convince me that there was still some hope, and yet I wasn’t motivated to write about it. As we watched and waited, I think we all felt as though we were in suspended animation. No one’s view was changing, nothing was any different.
Then Theresa May and the EU reached the Withdrawal Agreement. No more waiting but, instead, a prospective deal so awful that it has united the nation in condemnation. There is no joy in the confirmation that there is no Brexit deal better than Remaining. We knew that anyway. I was briefly confused – is a deal which is being portrayed as virtually ‘Remain but without freedom of movement or influence’ actually a bad thing, if you’re pro-EU? The confusion lingers still.
So, in writing a new blog post, I prevaricated. What approach to take? Anger, protest, satire, the hopeful conversational tone of the early interviews? No.
Today, we were told Brexit would make us financially worse off – however it plays out.
Harry Leslie Smith passed away.
Then James O’Brien read a William Blake poem on the radio and made me cry.
And I realised what it is I now feel. Sadness. A horrible, bleak sadness which can only be overcome in order to go about my day by ignoring it, because I don’t understand how to make it go away.
Harry Leslie Smith was a connection with the past – the past we have always been told to learn from in the spirit of ‘never again.’ That he lived to see us begin to descend again demonstrates what a short time it’s actually taken for us to lose sight of that lesson. He wrote (quoted by the Guardian today) “Today, the western world stands at its most dangerous juncture since the 1930s.” He had the legitimacy to say something like this without it being sensationalist. He bore witness in a way that very few can, to that time before. And I was reminded that this is about so much more than Brexit. So much more than trade deals and the colour of passports and the train wreck of the Conservative Party.
This is about who we are.
We have reached a point where Harry’s warnings – history’s warnings – have been discarded by so many. We are, apparently, prepared to sacrifice our economy in order to throw away our freedom of movement – just to stop anyone else having that freedom. Quite how one less EU migrant in the queue for medicine will help us when the economy falls apart, no one can quite say. But we’re still being asked to unite behind that idea.
The time that Harry warns us about is a historical period marked by an economic downturn and the turning of nation against nation. That we are once again staring into that same abyss fills me with fear and sadness. Brexit is just part of that picture, which also includes austerity, Trump, climate change, the rise of populism worldwide and much more. That the UK is leading the charge into the abyss seems alien to everything I thought about my country when I was growing up. I thought this was the country of people like Harry. Not of Brexit and being told to unite behind disaster and division, as if to condone it. If Brexit leads to further poverty in our austerity-stricken country, what new hell will we find ourselves in? But how do we stop it when people – as demonstrated on the radio today by a caller to James O’Brien on LBC – will still say they support Brexit when they are clearly shown to be incorrect in their reasoning?
And then, on William Blake’s birthday, James read out this poem, written by Blake in the eighteenth century.
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.
For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appal.
A poem written in 1794, in the context of the French Revolution and absolute poverty on the streets of the UK – the context of bread riots, machine-breaking protests, and wars, for the next two decades and longer, and which also heralded draconian law making as the rich tried to keep the poor in their place – can have any resonance today is truly shocking and saddening. Hearing it – because poetry is always most affecting when someone reads it aloud – helped me (if help is the word) find those tears of sadness that had eluded me in all the clamour and anger of Brexit debates.
So yes, my sadness is for Brexit and the attempt to take away my right – and that of my European friends – to share our continent, culture and heritage together, in every way. But it’s also for what we have become, for where our country seems to be heading – and because I don’t know how we rescue it. Stopping Brexit MUST be the first step, because Brexit only makes everything worse.
But what then? I suspect many of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to answer this. And trying to stay away from the abyss.
It is my plan to blog more – please do check back.