Brexit Blues In London



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I woke up around 3:30am to learn the world around me had changed. What by all accounts seemed impossible had become true: Britain had decided to pull back the drawbridge from Europe. A part of Britain but not London. And certainly not my London: my borough – Hackney – was the place with the biggest percentage of “remain” votes in the country, 78.5 per cent. If living elsewhere in the UK had always seemed unlikely, since the early morning of June 24 it is for me unthinkable.

The destruction of the country’s industrial infrastructure since the 1970s, the unequal distribution of wealth between London and the rest of the country, years of austerity and cuts, in conjunction with the reactionary migrant-bashing propaganda constantly excreted by a large part of the British media, coalesced on June 23 to convince 52 per cent of the voting public to cast a ballot against their own interests. The European Union is far from a charitable organisation – it is by all means an instrument of neoliberalism. But it also provides a framework to keep the much more unhinged neoliberal forces of British conservatism at bay – Britain isn’t undergoing a socialist experiment, after all. The EU also guarantees the free movement of its citizens, granting opportunities to impoverished Europeans who can seek a better future elsewhere. We can question the reasons that force people to move in the first place and the discriminatory nature of this idea of freedom so dependant on an abstract document – a passport. But we can’t ignore the experience of those already displaced. Sadly this is exactly what is going right now, with three million EU migrants currently in limbo, bargaining chips in what will be a thorny negotiation with the continent.

It is mourning for feeling comfortable in the place we call home. And it is mourning for the freedom to move, for the freedom to decide where to live, where to spend one’s life.

The situation still unfolding. The long-term consequences of this national tantrum are hard to guess. But at the time of writing, just 10 days later, both main parties are deeply immersed in their own crises and an economic debacle is looming. Nevertheless, the worst aspect of Britain’s bravado, I would argue, is that it has legitimised and empowered racists and xenophobes of all persuasions: in the week following June 23, racist and xenophobic attacks increased a fivefold, according to The Huffington Post. There have been cases reported in London but these sentiments run stronger beyond the M25, particularly in areas where many years of austerity have been felt much more strongly.

In this climate, talking to neighbours and people I know is a disheartening experience. Londoners, my Londoners – migrants from Europe and elsewhere and those Brits who welcome this cosmopolitanism – seem incapable of getting over Brexit. It feels like mourning.

But it isn’t mourning for croissants and weekend incursions into the continent, as many in the pseudo-leftist commentariat would want to see it (from behind the safety of their British passports). It is mourning for feeling comfortable in the place we call home. And it is mourning for the freedom to move, for the freedom to decide where to live, where to spend one’s life. Coming from South America, having experienced the restrictions that the wrong passport imposes on a person, I am deeply sensitive to this.

In a collective piece about the referendum published by 3:AM Magazine, the great Hungarian/British poet George Szirtes summed up the future of the UK with this words: “Smaller, meaner, frailer, poorer, but strutting about our own bunker”. I can’t help feeling he got it right, that the world around us is getting smaller and meaner.

Hopefully the storm will pass this country will continue to be the place it was a few weeks ago. Never an utopia. But not an insular bunker either.