Tuesday 23 August 2016

Talking to people in England about Brexit

I thought of going to Iran but in the end I decided that the most interesting place to go, since I like holidaying in political hotspots, was England – with a two day stop in Nice where eighty innocent people had been mowed down by a Tunisian immigrant a few days earlier.

And, of course, England is the most astonishingly beautiful country. It has the most beautiful countryside in Europe, even more beautiful than Romania’s. It has wonderful summer weather. Meaning temperate. I speak the language, better than my compatriots. And it has so many wonderful cathedrals and churches, albeit much damaged by the Reformation. And full of such nice people, much nicer than in the 1980s.

So, my first summer holiday in England after emigrating to Romania eighteen years ago.
But I wanted to know what people thought of Brexit. I arrived a month after the referendum, when people were almost getting used to the result. It almost felt old news except people were still in shock

What did I find?

My very inscientific survey. Most (not all) nice people were Brexit. The nice people who voted Remain tended to do so mostly from fear not enthusiasm, pragmatism not ideals.

Many ambitious people were Remain, but by no means all. The City, which had done well out of the EU, or so it thought, was Remain and is very shocked indeed. The academics, almost to a man or woman, were Remain, though not the ones I know. They told me they had to keep their opinions secret. 

More than a third of Labour voters voted Leave but you wouldn't guess that, as most middle class Labour people were volubly Remain. But there were exceptions. A Labour friend (the goddaughter of Barbara Castle) was delighted about the result, as would her godmother have been.

Rootless people and people who hold dual passports were usually Remain. And people who don't like our country very much and would like it to be another country. There are quite a lot of them.

Most Muslims, I was told by two Muslims I know, voted Leave because of immigration from Eastern Europe, but the polls show that three quarters of Muslims and Hindus voted Remain. Blacks and Jews voted by the same majority, more or less, as the general population to leave.

I lunched with a young barrister at Inner Temple. She told me all the barristers of her mid twenties cohort were Remain, but all the clerks in all the chambers voted Leave.
We checked this. It was the same in every chambers.
My schoolfriend at the Norwich bar said he didn’t know anyone with any sense who voted Leave. A friend at the Exeter bar said the Exeter bar had split evenly between Leave and Remain. A naval officer said his colleagues were evenly divided. Three servants at the Reform Club told me it was a very bad result. They were all Caribbean. People on the club table at the Reform Club were very unhappy. A young servant at the Oxford and Cambridge Club said
It is very bad and very good.
What do you mean? 
It will be very bad at first, but very good later. But then I am only a foreigner.
I asked him where he came from and learnt he was Romanian, from Constanta and delighted by London. In the Oxford and Cambridge Club he found the England that Romanians expect from books and films.

A Cambridge undergraduate told me undergraduates were 85% Remain. If you were Leave you told no-one. Why not? 

My seventeen year old nephew said at his VI Form College opinion was 97% Remain and the 3% kept quiet.

My Euro-panjandrum friend, who is very nice, said
I voted Remain but I have to admit I see in my work how corrupt the EU is.
I was pleased that Ruth Dudley Edwards, the historian and journalist, who hesitated till near the end, voted Leave. Three civil servant friends voted Remain, for fear of the consequences of leaving, not from love of the EU. 

A rich British Indian friend, who voted Remain, said
The EU is a completely useless, completely corrupt, completely undemocratic institution, but leaving will be very, very painful.
A nice couple in their fifties in a pub in Wivenhoe, who evidently had some money, said
I don’t think we should have been asked, because we didn't know enough. We voted Remain because why rock the boat when things are going well?
I liked this answer.

Apart from the two Muslims, only one person, a woman in Rochester from whom I bought an ice cream, mentioned immigrants.

The decent people who work in shops and pubs outside London were usually Leave. People whose judgment I instinctively trusted. A man at the airport gave me a cappuccino on the house after I said I was Leave. A nice 25 year old barmaid in Rochester put it best: 
Whatever happens, at least we'll make our own laws now.
Her blonde colleague agreed. So did I.

Brexit was not about economics. Only a materialistic, decadent people would think it should be. We proved we were not decadent or materialistic or cowards.

But it will be good for us economically in the long run - the EU, I see now, is an insoluble mess. I hoped our leaving would give the EU a chance, but it won't. Then I started to wonder if the EU would come to an end soon. Would another country leave? Now I think it will go on and on interminably.

As every day goes by, it seems more natural that we are leaving the EU and more odd that we lasted so long. How wonderful that we can put our energy elsewhere and, also, how humiliating our 43 wasted years now seem.

A nice woman at Marks and Spencer's in Colchester told me she had worked shelf filling for 15 years. 

I started at the bottom
she said and added, 
I suppose I still am at the bottom.
She voted Leave and told me gesturing to the taxi rank outside, 
All the taxi drivers voted Leave.
That settles the question. Taxi drivers and barbers know everything and are pretty well never wrong on serious issues. I bet the barbers voted Leave too. 

The last remark is not a joke, by the way. I remember what a canny Romanian political analyst, Silviu Alexe, said to me. 
If you want to understand politics don’t ask the man who reads the paper cover to cover every day. He knows far too much. Find a man who doesn’t follow politics, a man who says he only buys a paper once a year. He is the one who understands what’s going on. 
When Michael Gove said in an interview that “people in this country have had enough of experts” he was being oracular.


  1. "Brexit was not about economics. Only a materialistic, decadent people would think it should be. We proved we were not decadent or materialistic."

    Exactly. It was about the principle.

    1. For some people. Polls show people voted for Brexit for many reasons - it was a wide coalition. Some people wanted more economic and political freedom, others on the contrary hoped for more protection from globalisation. Some people wanted to be able to influence legislation more easily if decisions are in the hands of people they own (i.e. Murdoch) others believed smaller units of government are better managed and lead to better results. Some people voted against the bankers and the fat cats in London. The anti-systemic vote is a big component. If you're dealt a bad hand you have a major interest in a reshuffle. We'll see what comes of this as the interests now diverge into many directions and it will not be possible to make everyone happy.

  2. I would say 100% of British taxi drivers voted Leave.

  3. I could not agree with this more. Whether the EU does well without us economically does not matter any more than whether we do better. I hope we can all do well. However, I truly believe that Britain's greatest contributions to humanity are parliamentary democracy and Common Law. I voted no to ensure that we do not go gentle into the good night of rule by the unelected and dirigist economic management, as predominantly practiced in the EU.

  4. The renewed connection may well stand as reference for Europe's inevitable transformation. Wishing for more bilateralism - a thicket not impeded by classical borders, dense enough to hold a soul; and much less representation, etc. Looking forward

  5. There are bigger questions/anxieties than the economic future of GB Ltd. I had hoped that a vote to remain would maintain some stability within the EU but the result threatens to promote yet further Europe's perilous return to the 1920s ... witness also the condition of Turkey, Russia's meddling and the isolationist and vindictive posturing of Mr. Trump.

  6. You use the word "nice" too often. What does it mean? The phrase "nice people" to me conjures up an image of a group of people who are polite, perhaps friendly, but unambitious and uninformed. On the other hand, clever people are often not nice. They may be excellent company, but are frequently provocative, opinionated and ambitious. Interestingly, the main clusters of clever people in England are in places like inner London, Oxford and Cambridge. In these places, people voted hugely, overwhelmingly (often by more than 80%) for Remain. Are they to a man materialistic, decadent and cowardly? Of course not. That is arrant nonsense. They see something in the EU that appears to have quite escaped the myopic Brexiters. They see that the underlying concept of the EU is the bright, shining ideal of a Europe that is freed forever from constant strife between nation-states, in which the rights of citizens are universally respected, under the rule of law. The young are idealistic, so they recognise the power of this ideal. By contrast, what is Brexit based on? Hatred (of immigrants) and ignorance (remember that surge of enquiries to Google during t?he night of the referendum count asking "what is the EU" as people began to realize that they may unwittingly have voted for something they really didn't understand?). Hatred and ignorance - those are "principles"? Or is some vague, wholly undefined concept of independence a principle? A hazy, blimpish view of restoring greatness to Britain through re-establishment of the nation-state? Where is the idealism in that? The EU may not have developed as its founding fathers envisioned, but that does not mean that the vision is flawed: it is a work in progress that needs further refinement - which would have been more easily achieved with Britain inside the EU working for that betterment. No sir, in an increasingly inter-connected world, British independence is a chimera, a dream of old men mired in the past with no ideals left to believe in ... And this is why many people are reluctant to admit that they voted Leave. Deep down, they realize that the decision to leave the EU is essentially based on a lack of any ideals. It is short-term, egoistic, and puts the UK on the wrong side of history. Who wants a return to European nation-states constantly at war with each other, where the British send every other generation of their young men to die on dreary fields in the name of "balance of power"??

    1. Nearly everyone is too young to recall why nation states were once sanctified as means of keeping people from wielding their rights under the guise of law. Living is believing...

      Europe's growth pains are too much to ask of Britain to bear - yet again.

      Just a thought or two ...

    2. Yet again? We lost a lot of blood for Europe's sake and I think Britain might have done better not to get involved in European wars. Europe's growth pains? Europe is dying. I do not mean the EU is dying but Europeans are dying and not having children.

    3. You'd need a ~ 34 km wide wall to keep Europe wafting into Britain; one reason why I am not finding this #Brexit tantrum all that grave.

      As for my breeding choices, they are not likely to sink any continent.

      Europe cannot die anymore than Britain can be rid of it. Someone's going to be around - very obvious idea around Al Andalus.

      One take ...

    4. The continent itself will not die but will have a Muslim majority.

  7. Andrew Roberts commented:

    I’ll be quoting this somewhere
    Excellent analysis: Brexit was not about economics. Only a materialistic, decadent people would think it should be. We proved we were not decadent or materialistic or cowards.

    1. I think the vote proved all three. It was a result carried by rather mean minded ostrich politics.

  8. http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/08/george-osbornes-gone-thank-god-so-whys-mark-carney-still-around/