The stupidest thing I have ever lived through

Jonathan Este of The Conversation UK writes us a post-Brexit letter from Britain’s gobsmacked Remain camp. Cartoon by John Shakespeare.

“Britain has collapsed — politically, monetarily, constitutionally, and economically.”
— Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, quoted on Channel 4 evening news bulletin a few days after Brexit

So, it’s one week after the British public voted in a referendum to leave the EU and Rutte’s words are being borne out in the ensuing chaos. Britain has lost its triple-A credit rating, both the UK’s main political parties are tearing themselves apart and racists, a small minority in a usually tolerant country, seem to be popping up everywhere to howl abuse at anyone who looks different, never mind whether they are migrants or not. May you live in interesting times, goes the Chinese curse. Is this interesting enough for you?

Brexit is turning into the biggest story most journalists in the UK have ever worked on. It’s the ultimate developing story – one with the fate of a nation at stake. Or, if you want to adopt the bleakest possible interpretation, the fate of the world.

Speaking on the Sunday after the vote, Alastair Campbell – chief of communications for the Labour Party under Tony Blair – noted that only four major leaders had applauded the Brexit vote: French far-right leader Marine le Pen, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the leaders of ISIS. A break-up of the EU, which could follow Brexit, would be a major threat to peace and stability, he said.

Most of us who have been observing the EU referendum campaign at close quarters for the past few months believed that this would go a similar way to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. There would be plenty of soundbites and slogans, polls would swing from side to side the way polls often do – and, in the end, people would get into the privacy of the ballot box and sanity would prevail. There was, in short, too much to risk – especially given the dominance of slogan over expert opinion during the campaign.

It was hard to find any seriously credentialed academic willing to argue for Brexit.

But as leading Brexiteer Michael Gove (a former senior executive at Rupert Murdoch’s Times newspaper) said: “People in this country have had enough of experts.” As one of the editors at the UK edition of The Conversation, I can say there was no shortage of expert opinion predicting financial, political and social instability in the event of a Leave vote.

In fact, it was hard to find any seriously credentialed academic willing to argue for Brexit.

Many of those who make it their business to study and research in this area were happy to concede that the European Union – and the UK’s relationship with it – is flawed. Not for nothing is it generally known as the “European project” – it’s a work in progress. But virtually everyone with expertise in the area agreed that the UK was better in than out.

And when you look at the way this was covered in the media, most of the more sensible quarters of the press agreed. Despite being owned by an arch-Eurosceptic, The Times came out in favour of Remain, as did The Guardian, the Financial Times, the Independent. That left just The Telegraph among the so-called “quality press” to trumpet Brexit, alongside the Daily Mail, Daily Express and the red-tops, The Sun and the Daily Star. But, as a team from Loughborough University which was monitoring the campaign coverage warned, the weight of circulation among pro-Brexit papers gave the Leave campaign an 82 per cent dominance.

And they agreed with Gove. Who needs experts when you can spout such hand-on-the-heart nonsense as “We want our country back”.

Early indications on polling night were that sanity had, indeed, prevailed. The first edition of The Sun ran with a front-page story that UK Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, had conceded defeat. Another story was circulating that 84 pro-Brexit Conservative MPs had written to Prime Minister David Cameron to explain that – despite campaigning against him – there were no hard feelings, they thought him a marvelous chap and could they still have their jobs please. It was beginning to look as if Remain would walk it.

But somewhere between midnight and 4am on Friday, June 24, the results from northern England began to come in for Brexit. It gradually became apparent that millions of working-class voters had believed the Brexit camp’s blandishments and voted for the pie-in-the-sky optimism offered by Farage, Gove – and, most of all, Boris Johnson, whose scruffy knockabout exterior hides a fierce ambition to be prime minister and whose campaigning to take Britain out of the EU appeared to be an ill-concealed plan to snatch the job from Cameron.

We woke up to find the UK had voted 52-48 to leave the EU. So it was small surprise to read that, almost before the final count was in, Farage was rowing back on the Leave campaign’s mendacious promise to provide £350m a week in extra funding to Britain’s National Health Service. The unmasking of that particular lie was followed the same day by a senior Leave campaigner’s admission that, contrary to all the pre-vote promises, leaving the EU would not actually help Britain take control of its borders, because to opt in to the European Economic Area, (a looser, non-EU trading partnership including Norway and Switzerland) would involve accepting free movement of people and would also cost almost as much as full membership of the EU. And so it continued.

As I write this, many Leave voters are experiencing considerable buyer’s remorse. An article in The Sun, the day after the result was in, pointing to all the downsides of a Leave vote was greeted with horror in the comments: “Thanks for telling us before.” Even the bumptious former Sun editor, Kelvin Mackenzie, who had campaigned furiously for a leave vote, admitted to being “fearful of what lies ahead”.

Meanwhile the ramifications continue: The Labour Party has turned on itself, and its MPs are in open revolt against its leader, left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. The Tories are winding up for what promises to be a bruising and divisive leadership election, which has already claimed Johnson’s scalp – almost as big a shock as the referendum result itself. Meanwhile, constitutional lawyers are busily puzzling over whether the referendum is final and absolute or whether we can pull back from the brink of disaster. And meanwhile the market turmoil shows no sign of abating – selfishly, those of us who plan a holiday in Europe will find it a lot more expensive (and, possibly, will face a cold reception from our European neighbours).

Families are divided and friendships broken over this vote. And, most depressing and dangerous of all, this disastrous vote has given the small minority of tiny-minded racists boldness, born out of the notion that they are the majority. They are crawling out of the woodwork of what is at heart a tolerant and open country and shaming us all with their abhorrent bigotry.

June 23 will go down as a disastrous day for Britain.

Jonathan Este is associate editor of The Conversation UK. He is a former director of communications with MEAA. John Shakespeare is a Walkley Award-winning cartoonist and illustrator for The Sydney Morning Herald.