June 23, 2016, annoyingly a week and a half early for expats fond of coincidences, Britain voted to leave the European Union. This is an entity difficult to describe to an American. Or maybe not. It’s kind of like a wannabe United States.* Although the EU is comprised of separate countries (as is the UK itself, to add to the confusion), they are bound together politically and economically, even as they are quite distinct culturally.
The groundwork for this ambitious project was laid way back in the previous century. The grand hope was that by uniting, a long history of bloody conflict might become, well, history; and that a homogenization of standards and liberalization of trade leads to greater prosperity for all. Time and treaties eventually culminated in the union as it is today, with further evolution on the cards.
Those who voted to stay are known, logically enough, as remainers. Since the surprise referendum result, they have been pitted against the leavers. An uncivil war of words has raged between the two camps ever since.
Leavers want to go for various reasons which boil down to a desire for independence — or as much sovereignty as a nation state can achieve in an increasingly interconnected world. Many also are unconvinced the EU can only get better. They think we’re getting out just in time.
Remainers are having none of it. They figure things may not be perfect, but are going reasonably well. You can usually tell a remainer by the “I’m with Stupid” T-shirt they’re wearing.
The UK itself is divided: England and Wales voted leave, while Scotland and Northern Ireland wish to stay, making us one big unhappy family, with a whopper of a headache along the Irish border. Not since the Star Wars prequels has trade been such a major plot point.
Anyway, the date set for splitsville was March 29, crucially missing an opportunity to call it an elaborate April Fool’s joke. The intervening years had been presumed to be enough time to settle terms and prepare for life outside the firm embrace of the EU. Given that most of that time has been spent arguing over what exactly Brexit means, clearly this wasn’t the case. This has been described as the worst. Divorce. Ever.
You may have seen our parliamentary debates on the news and wondered if the footage was actually shot at the London Zoo. In the middle of the cacophony stands prime minister and masochist Theresa May, hoarsely entreating the opposition on all sides to come together to break us apart from the EU, as requested by we the people. Her main qualification for the job is that nobody else in the Tory party wants it at the moment. She was a remainer, by the way.
The problem is, most politicians don’t really want to go: thus all the stamping of feet and refusal to agree on a specific course of action (they might consider repeatedly kicking the can down the road to be mission accomplished). They prefer the status quo where the buck stops in Brussels, the seat of EU government. It’s easier to lay the blame for unpopular laws and regulations across the English Channel.
The EU really really doesn’t want us to brexit. Britain is wealthy, and losing our contributions will hurt. What’s more, it might encourage other dissatisfied countries to initiate divorce proceedings.
As the referendum was technically advisory rather than binding, it’s theoretically possible parliament will wiggle out of their duty to implement the result. This would destroy public trust in the system, and perhaps the Tories, which the opposition sees as a bright silver lining.
Reporters are having a field day, as are political scientists — but it’s far from an academic exercise. Most of us are heartily sick of it all.
Recently I had a chat with the electrician hired by our landlord to give our house a checkup. He’s led quite a life so far, including two tours of duty in Iraq, with nightmares not advertised in the brochures. He also served in the Queen’s Guard for Buckingham Palace, which sounds like a cushy job except for having to hunt down and skin your own bear for a hat.
It turns out he voted leave, his other half, remain. As the EU insists on freedom of movement of labour, his industry has been hit hard by cheap workers flooding in from the continent. Economic migrants are like Woodward and Bernstein: they follow the money. This usually means there’s less of it to go around. …
His wife, who works in an office, has been less affected.
People vote according to their personal circumstances, their hopes and their dreams. As someone who plans to live the rest of his life on this previously sceptered, Chicken Littles would now say scuppered isle, I hope we finally do leave, and eventually arrive at a better place.*
*Form an orderly queue for chagrin