Brexit Day in France – a bore with a sore head
Whatever I might have said or done on Friday 24th July, I plead not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity.
Last Wednesday, I was among a bunch of friends who headed happily to France for a few days of golf. It was an annual trip whose date was set many months in advance, long before Britain’s EU referendum was anything but a campaign promise waiting to be fulfilled.
Of those who met on the Portsmouth car ferry for the Wednesday night sailing to Saint Malo, the vast majority were Remain voters. There was one carload that was firmly on the Leave side.
Dinard, where we stayed, is where the Welsh football team have their headquarters. Welsh dragons were in abundance – flags flying from hotels and signs welcoming Gareth Bale and his teammates to the pretty little Breton town that has been their home since the tournament began. The welcome seemed all the warmer because the town was playing host to Celtic cousins.
After a rain-sodden round of golf and a raucous evening full of the usual banter, we retired for the night. Brexit figured in the conversation, but the consensus seemed to be that Remain would win the day, just as it was back home.
The next morning, I woke early to check the results. And that’s when I realised that a big stick had poked the British anthill. The colony had gone mad. And I went mad.
I can’t remember any British political event that has made me as angry as the Brexit vote. At breakfast I let out a stream of loud invective at nobody in particular about the idiots who had created this chaos. Not just those who had voted for Leave, but at the politicians who allowed the whole exercise to happen. I’ve written about this already, so I’m not going to repeat myself now.
But what shocked me more than anything else was the fury – you could almost call it hatred – I felt against all the people I knew, including the occupants of the Brexit car, who had been prepared to push my country off the parapet into an utterly uncertain and unquantifiable future on the say-so of a motley bunch of liars, demagogues and self-servers.
I watched Nigel Farage intoning about a victory for “decent people”, popping up onto his toes to make a point as small men do. I looked at the faces of his supporters, frowns etched on their faces, eyes gleaming with righteous anger, and saw thugs and gauleiters – Hess, Rohm, and Goebbels risen again.
I felt as though people I had considered friends and in whose company I have happily spent time over many years had let me down. They were not the people I thought I knew. They were longer friends. I wanted to say “OK, you gullible fools. You have what you wanted. I hope you’re satisfied. Now watch as the promises you believed in turn to dust.”
Walking among the French, the Bretons, the Europeans in this little seaside town, I wanted to say – as many people subsequently did via the social media – how ashamed I was of my country. How ashamed I was that my generation, the ones who have the least time left, have imposed their will upon those who the most time. And above all how disgusted I was that so many people had voted for the basest of reasons – racism, xenophobia, small-minded parochialism.
I apologized to the young guy at the hotel reception who voiced disappointment because he had hoped to be able to come to England so that he could gain work experience.
For the rest of the day I was a bore with a sore head. Burning with an anger that wouldn’t go away. But I was equally distressed at my own reaction. I thought to myself “this isn’t me. I’m a rational person. Yes, I get angry from time to time, but my anger quickly passes. I’m not fanatical about anything. I believe in discourse, in the power of logic, in respecting the other person’s point of view”.
Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I felt like a member of a threatened tribe, ready to lash out at those who didn’t see things my way, who wanted to change my life without my consent. In that day of rage, I had become the kind of extremist I have despised and – from a distance – pitied throughout my adult life.
I had become the kind of fanatic that likes to say “my way or the highway”.
I had been writing for months about Donald Trump, and the polarization of America that he has exploited. About ISIS, and the uncompromising ideology from which it sprang. I had been lamenting sectarianism and right-wing extremism.
Yet suddenly I found myself unwilling to accept any argument in favour of Brexit. I was right. They were wrong. And that shocked me as much as the result itself.
By Saturday, the temporary insanity had faded. I didn’t end up murdering anyone. I largely internalized my rage, and friends remain friends, or at least I hope so.
Yesterday, before we boarded the ferry back to Portsmouth, a Brexit voter, one of the mildest-mannered and yes, decent, people I know, quietly reminded me that we live in a democracy.
I wanted to say that in a democracy you wouldn’t hold a referendum to determine whether God created the universe. Nor should you use that device to settle a question so complex that the answer for those of us who, as Michael Gove said, “aren’t experts”, can only be rooted in belief, gut feeling and emotion, because the consequences are potentially profound yet largely unknowable. That we are a parliamentary democracy, and such issues are for parliament to decide. Isn’t that what we elected them to do?
But I didn’t engage. The rage was done, even if the anger remains. What matters now is the new tomorrow. More on this in future posts.