Brexit Bullies

No, this is not about The Daily Mail, Boris Johnson or David Davis. Nor is it about high-profile victims Gina Miller, Supreme Court Justices or Peers in the House of Lords. This is far more personal.

We think it started during the EU Referendum campaign, when my David and I discovered that an egg had been thrown at our front door. Ours was the only house at that end of our long street with a Remain sign in the window. We didn’t think at first that the splattered egg had anything to do with politics. When we entertained the notion, we quickly dismissed it. After all, we live on a street with pedestrian traffic between the convenience store and the primary school. It was probably kids mucking about. We also reminded ourselves that we live in Ely, among other things a dormitory town for Cambridge with its universities and high-tech businesses – people who are likely to vote remain.

Those explanations have been reconsidered and our analysis has been rewritten in recent days after the rear windscreen wiper of our car had been torn off – no easy feat. It had happened during the night. But why our car when we’re at the brightly-lit end of the street? Straight away we suspected that this act of vandalism had something to do with the small EU flag in our front window – the only EU flag on our street and only one of a few in the whole town.

The gooey broken egg and now a part of our car. We were feeling targeted.

I’ve been on the wrong end of bullying before, once at a job and at other times in my own family. But my past experiences with bullying had some sort of logic to them, an acting out of envy, with the intention of removing me from the scene. That is, I held meaning in the lives of the bullies.

When an absolute stranger(s) attacks, one wonders why. Instead of acting out of envy, these aggressive brexiteers are likely acting out their anger that Brexit is not going the way it was planned or promised – the NHS is not going to receive more funds, in fact, it’s losing staff – the great trade deals with America and Commonwealth countries are laughably unlikely – problems with the Irish border could result in a fudged Brexit within the domain of the EU – to name a few.

The displaced anger is obvious, the intent less so. Do these vandals think that their actions will turn me into a brexiteer? Or are they trying to scare us into removing our signs and flags so as to not advertise that there is an organised movement against their views?

I filled in an online police report about the ripped off windscreen wiper. After giving all of the routine information – make, model, location, damage etc. – I was asked if I suffered any personal physical or mental injury. I ticked the mental injury box without hesitation. I was upset and shaken and felt vulnerable. This triggered another box to appear, asking if I wanted to join a support group. Really? Is there a support group for people who have had their cars vandalised? Or better still – is there a support group for people who have been bullied by brexiteers? This latter group I imagine would be full to capacity and I’d have a place on one of those notorious NHS waiting lists.

enemies of the peopleThere’s also the possibility that I’m all wrong. Our egg-stained door and damaged car could be coincidences and could have nothing to do with Brexit.  But in the socio-political climate we live in, an innocent explanation is hard to contemplate. I guess I’ve been writing about The Daily Mail and its political heroes after all.

Brexit: Time for a People’s Vote

Writing in anger is a lot like speaking in anger. It’s soon laden with regrets. With that in mind, I waited some days before writing about a couple of recent infuriating incidents.

Incident 1 – As I was handing out leaflets about a People’s Vote on the final Brexit Deal, one person angrily barked at me, ‘We already voted – it was democratic.’ To which I said, ‘So is this – that vote was nearly two years ago.’ As is often the case, this person stomped off in a huff before I could say anything more.

Incident 2 – When I mentioned to a friend, who had surprised us all by voting Leave, that I was supporting the People’s Vote campaign, he dismissed it, saying ‘it’s trying to overturn a democratic vote.’ I was offended by this suggestion that I wasn’t being democratic – so offended that I couldn’t answer to it, and I usually do answer to his comments about Brexit. While I tried to find my composure and words, the dinner table, full of chatter, quickly changed topic.

Thank the gods for blogs – here’s what I wanted to say.

What kind of democracy do we have in the UK? It’s certainly not winner-take-all. After a general election, the winning party isn’t the only party in parliament. As other parties win constituencies, they too are represented and have a right to debate and vote in parliament. Okay, we know that referendums aren’t quite the same thing.  But PM Theresa May has interpreted the EU referendum result in a way that alienates about half of the country, giving the losers nothing and referring to us remainers, us ‘citizens of the world’ as ‘citizens of nowhere.’ If the PM and the Brexit elite in her cabinet continue down the road to a hard Brexit, those who didn’t want any Brexit or who expected a soft Brexit have not had their voices heard. I have a hard time seeing the democracy in this – unless of course, the people can vote on the final Brexit deal.

Democracy, no matter how you define it, also didn’t end on 23 June 2016. Things have happened since then.  Trump has been elected. He’s a libertarian protectionist and cannot be counted on for a good trade deal. Nor can we count on the Commonwealth countries – India has already snuffed us on trade without a loosening of visa restrictions. As the Brexit wheels have started turning, trade deals aren’t the only items to start falling off the cart – the Irish border, the Customs Union and Euratom, to name a few. I don’t recall these points coming up during the referendum campaign and now they’re key issues. And let’s not forget that since the vote in June 2016, we’ve had a general election. Result: the pro-Brexit government lost its majority. Now we’re being led by a minority government being bolstered by a political party that most of us in the UK cannot even vote for – or more importantly, vote out of power. The only way to counter all of these changes is a people’s vote on the final deal.

End of rant.

Obviously my opposition to Brexit has generated a lot of anger in me. While anger is often an emotion that can impede reason and turn grown-ups into children, it can also be useful. I’m hoping that enough British voters, angry at being duped during the referendum campaign or angry at the minority government’s ineptitude at Brexit negotiations, can put their anger to good use and demand a final vote.

peoplesvote2

A week in the life of a pro-Europe activist

Saturday: Spent one and a half hours in bitterly cold Ely Market Square working at the Liberal-Democrats’ Exit-Brexit market stall. One passer-by screamed at us, once he was far enough away to avoid conversation “The majority voted!” Another man blames the EU for Eastern European workers. I briefly told him how Britain invited Eastern Europeans here in 2004 and that other EU countries have different immigration policies – but I stopped myself. I’m grateful Eastern Europeans are here working on our farms and in our hospitals, making our country culturally richer. The man continued to say that because of the EU he can no longer go to his local pub.  At that point, I gave up and stepped away.

Sunday: Too cold to go out. Stayed indoors and wrote my blog about hearing Lord Adonis addressing Brexit issues earlier that week at a town hall meeting in Peterborough.

Monday: Ely for Europe co-chair Virginie stopped by with Open Britain and European Movement surveys. We discussed a strategy for getting our members to fill them in and get people they know to fill them. With hostilities in the post-referendum air, we can’t expect people to knock on strangers’ doors.

Tuesday: Sent an email to MP Lucy Frazer about the debate on how Brexit will impact the NHS in Parliament scheduled for Thursday. Urged her participation. Started following Lord Adonis on Twitter.

Wednesday: Signed online government petition demanding that the Referendum vote be made null and void due to illegal activities and influence surrounding Cambridge Analytica. A long shot, but worth a try. At least the act of signing the petition felt good.

Thursday: Attended a Q+A session hosted by Ely for Europe with MEP Alex Mayer. Met more pro-Europe supporters, mostly from Labour. Left the event thinking that maybe it’s not a matter of hard Brexit or soft Brexit. It might be a symbolic Brexit that does the trick. In March 2019, British MEPs leave Brussels (and lose their jobs) and the Union Jack is lowered. With the new passports, these gestures might be enough for the Brexiters. Other issues to do with trade, borders, funded research and so on could remain in limbo for years as people in the EU and Britain work around them, effectively remaining linked.

Friday: Learned that 15 cross-party MPs stood up in Parliament to debate how Brexit will impact our NHS – none of them was MP Lucy Frazer. No evidence that she was even there.  Engaged in stealth activism by delivering pro-Europe flyers from the Lib-Dems and the European Movement to unsuspecting letterboxes. Very satisfying and less angering than working market stalls.

Saturday (in France, a week is 8 days): Attended Exit Brexit march in Ipswich. Excellent turnout with pro-Europe groups from across East Anglia. On the train returning to Ely, while reading The New European, I looked up a few times at the flat landscapes, the farms, the villages and wondered what the future holds.

Ely for Europe

Our little group – only little because Ely is little – was formed following the Referendum vote on 23 June 2016. I agreed sometime last year to become the group’s co-chair, thinking that when elections came up I would take a casual step backward and watch as others clamoured for the position. That didn’t happen. I’m still co-chair. But in truth, I don’t mind as we have evolved into a group that’s actually getting things done.

In the early months of our existence, we spent much of our time together grumbling about how the Leave campaign won the vote and consoling each other as if we had been victims of a train crash. Our activities then had to do with keeping each other informed, writing to our MP and attending the protest marches around the triggering of Article 50.

Soon after, we were wrapped up in local elections. This made it difficult for our cross-party group to meet and discuss issues without members gritting their teeth at each other, the odd gibe slipping out. Overlapping with that, in terms of campaigns, was the general election. That too made meetings difficult, but as it was more or less an election about Brexit, we were able to come together on that and deal with the many tasks of being an official organisation – we have a constitution and a presence on Facebook, Twitter and in the local events magazine, along with links to national anti-Brexit organisations.

Now that a lot of our admin tasks are out of the way and we’re into our second year, we continue to attend rallies against Brexit, write to our MP and hand out flyers and leaflets at market stalls. More importantly, we acknowledge that there are different points of view – those that want to stop Brexit before it officially happens and those who are resigned to it happening, but want to limit its damage. While those aims might sound negative or reactionary, the positive sides are still there and are in our name – we want to keep our ties to the rest of Europe, share in its cultures, ideas and languages, and to welcome its citizens, who, like us, are citizens of the world.

Still Fighting

It’s easy to give up on politics and politicians. In a sense, that’s what has already happened. Around this time last year, many people in Britain, fed up with austerity measures and unemployment, decided not to engage in politics. They didn’t listen to cogent arguments or evidence. Instead they joined a movement of emotions and voted to leave the EU. Likewise, in America people, fed up with grid-locked legislation and the paralysis of their personal finances, also decided not to engage in politics. They either joined a similar movement of emotions or they didn’t vote at all. The result, as we all know, was Trump. I don’t mean to oversimplify these events – we all know that racism and sexism play their parts as well.

As a consequence of these electoral debacles, many people have been energised into political action. Online protests, petitions, marches, rallies and media-generated debates have erupted on a scale not experienced in my lifetime. But now the wind seems to be changing. Following the recent UK General Election, where a hard-Brexit government lost its majority, there is talk from politicians and in the media of a much toned-down Brexit, possibly keeping the UK in the single market and/or the customs union (among other things).

I went to a Pro-EU rally this past weekend, marking the one-year anniversary of the vote to leave the EU. It pains me to report that this rally was poorly attended.  Maybe some 300 people were there.  I wonder if this slight change in the air, this post-election awareness, has made people complacent. Do they believe that it will all work out for the best? That a hard Brexit or the economic downturn from any type of Brexit will never happen?  If they aren’t complacent in their thoughts, perhaps people were suffering from a bit of protest-march fatigue or were simply enjoying the beautiful weather that sunny Saturday afternoon.Cambridge 2nd march 1.jpg

As for me, I’m still in the fight. For those out there who don’t know me, on a personal level I don’t have much of a fighting spirit. I’ll argue to a point, but as soon as I realise that I’m overpowered or that my opposition is mentally/psychologically ill, I back off. I realise that there is no point wasting energy or keeping myself in a victim position. Of course, it’s easy to feel overpowered by political movements and governments. But then I remind myself that I’m empowered as a taxpayer and a voter and that participating in protests is a step out of the victim position. Wasting energy? I don’t think so. But I have to admit that it can be tiring. The opposition knows this too. I think it’s important that they (the Brexit and Trump supporters) do not wear us down.

 

Grey Wednesday

Some people are calling today ‘Black Wednesday’ as it’s the day Britain officially notifies Brussels of its intent to leave the EU. I was one of those people. But then, at an Ely for Europe meeting last week, when I suggested marking the day by wearing black, I was met with opposition. Nearly everyone else at our long pub table wanted to be positive about this. For them it was the start of the battle, a sense that at last things are happening. A valid point, but I still don’t see it as a cause for celebration. Nor am I convinced that there aren’t black days and months ahead.
After considering the matter, I’m settling for a grey Wednesday. I’m not saying that I feel neuLondon March 2017.jpgtral about this – somewhere between joyful white and mournful black. I’m using grey in the sense of unclear and murky. The extent to which we can retain useful ties to the EU are unknown and untested. Likewise, Britain’s relationship to the rest of the world, especially in the age of Trump and Putin, are beyond speculation. Most important of all, grey represents the storm cloud over Britain, a country left divided and angry over this referendum.

Democracy at its best/worst

The editors of the Daily Telegraph ended the year with a commentary about Brexit – no surprise there. The UK’s vote to leave the EU was the big story for Britain in 2016. While it’s also no surprise that the Telegraph editors believe that this is a good thing, they did manage to surprise and irritate me with their closing remarks: “In 2016, we saw British democracy functioning at its best. It must be protected for future generations to enjoy.”

Really? Was that democracy at its best? In 2016, the British people saw what a mess democracy can be. Many asked, ‘If we have democratically-elected members of parliament, why do we have to have a referendum in the first place?’ The answer to this for many has been simply ‘democracy.’ Others of us with a working memory will point out how the referendum decision came about when PM David Cameron was trying to appease the hard right of his party and not lose votes to UKIP – in other words, it was a politically-motivated abuse of democracy.

Putting that aside, let’s treat the referendum vote as an exercise in democracy. This exercise didn’t show ‘democracy functioning’ as much as it showed a dysfunctional democracy. Part of this dysfunction could be seen in the belief in lies and misinformation that democracy does not protect us from. Nor does democracy guarantee that people won’t vote from positions of racism or xenophobia. The referendum campaigns exploited this, along with the freedom of speech that democracy supports. Filling the air with vitriol, this exercise in democracy brought out the worst in many people, leaving families and whole communities divided. It also led to the murder of MP Jo Cox, an act that has come to epitomise the extreme views of the hate-fuelled debates.uk-eu-flag

I don’t understand how any thinking person, whether they voted to leave or remain in the EU, could possibly claim that this was democracy at its best.

Equally irksome is the Telegraph comment about democracy needing to be ‘protected.’ I think we all know that this is a reference to those who want to overturn Brexit or have a soft Brexit. These people have been accused of being ‘undemocratic’ by some of our politicians and by many in the gutter press. Wanting to correct the error that is Brexit, or wanting to have a partial departure from the EU is hardly undemocratic. On this latter point, given the simplistic in/out nature of the referendum, where issues such as EEA membership or soft Brexits were never an option, continuing the debate is a necessity.

For those of you who regularly follow my blog or my Twitter account, you’re probably wondering why someone who retweets from The New European, The Guardian and The New Yorker would even bother with a right-winged paper like The Daily Telegraph. Two reasons: one, their Saturday paper has an excellent puzzle section – two codewords, three crosswords and various number puzzles for my better half; reason two, I think it’s healthy to consider the views of others that are different from my own, especially if the writing is intelligent. Needless to say, the Telegraph editors have failed this time to demonstrate that intelligence. Instead, they have chosen to appeal to the same emotive fervour which replaced reason during the referendum campaign. So, my closing remarks come from the US journalist Bill Moyers, who once said, ‘The quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply twined.’

Facticide

I would have published this sooner if there hadn’t been for so many journalists beating me to the goalposts. I write this knowing I risk being just another voice waxing on angrily about the prevalence of lies that have produced the vote in Britain to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Since most intelligent people are familiar with these lies, I won’t even start by listing the more outrageous or popular ones.

I’ll start with language. The word post-truth has gained currency in recent weeks. While it encapsulates the idea that we are beyond truths or are willing to ignore truths, I think it is far too gentle. Post-truth rings too much like postmodernism, poststructuralism or post-realism. I prefer facticide. This word more aptly suggests a killing of truths.

Of course, truth is a slippery concept. When we think of truths, we think of facts, those things that can be evidenced or scientifically tested. We all know how evidence and testing can be interpreted in different ways. And some truths can change over time. For instance, the BBC quiz programme QI, known for its thorough and accurate research, once acknowledged that many of its ‘correct answers’ of the not too distant past were no longer true or correct because new information and scientific research changed the so-called facts.

And then there’s factoids, untrue or unreliable ideas that have been reported trumpbsand repeated so often, they are taken as fact. The word itself, apparently first coined by writer Norman Mailer, takes its ‘oid’ suffix form the Greek word for appearance or form. This definition has been expanded and according to a few online dictionaries, a factoid is also a small or trivial fact. In this newer definition lies another danger – factoids are no longer half-baked truths, they’re just mini-truths.

These are some of the subtle ways that truths can be tampered with. In recent months, the world has witnessed the more blatant attacks on facts, expertise and truths. But what has been more worrying are the falsehoods that are standing in their place. I know this is nothing new. Back in the fifth century BCE, Sophocles said, “What people believe prevails over truth.” It the time between then and our present day, many philosophers, artists and writers have made similar comments. But I’m more aware and fearful of this tendency now. The believed falsehoods of the Brexit and Trump campaigns, and their ilk in other parts of the world, are full of isolationism, nationalism and hate. I cannot see what good could possibly come from this.

Identity in the age of Brexit

‘Where are you from?’ That is a question I get asked too often in the UK. If it’s from a complete stranger, I might say, ‘Mars.’ If it is someone who has already shown hostility towards me either because of my accent or because I’m wearing a pro-EU t-shirt, I say. ‘I’m from a country where it is considered impolite to ask people where they’re from.’

The problem with admitting where I’m from is that people assume I identify myself with my country of birth and what they think people from that country are like. This triggers a slew of assumptions about how I was raised, my political views, my faith, my class – all based on stereotypes – and most of them negative and miles off the mark. Making such assumptions are about turning individuals into members of a group and even with the most flattering of outcomes, individuality gets lost.

So, where am I from? I was born and raised in Chicago. But what identity do I ascribe to myself? Identity is a rather fluid concept and we all have multiple identities depending on what we’re doing and what context we’re talking about. Ethnically, I’m Italian-American. Legally, I’m American-British. Though if I were to pursue the paper trail, I can get an Italian passport and become legally Italian-American-British. I’ve spent most of my adult life in Britain and gaining my UK citizenship was a conscious act, as opposed to the Italian-American accident of my birth. I identify myself as more British than American as a result. This is not necessarily a good thing. Since Brexit, the Stupid American stereotype has been kicked aside by the Stupid Briton stereotype.

Seriously, since the EU Referendum, there’s been a lot of talk about identity and whether British people see themselves as European. As a British person, I personally do. But I’ll never forget when I first arrived in Britain in 1984. My fellow students, the British-born ones, referred to the rest of Europe, i.e. not Britain, as either ‘the continent’ or as ‘Europe’. I found this baffling. At school I was taught that the UK is part of the European Continent. At first I just thought that this was a linguistic tick, an abbreviated way of saying ‘continental Europe’ – the countries that were not on our little island. But it seems deeper than that as the debates around the referendum have illustrated. It appears that many British people see themselves as not European. Some say this is due to the geography of the British Isles being separate from the mainland of continental Europe. Do people in Greece and Malta refer to the rest of Europe as ‘Europe’ and question whether or not they are European? British separation from the rest of Europe is not just geographical, but deeply entrenched in imperial history and twentieth century politics.

The EU Referendum has also brought up the issue of immigration. I complicate matters more by identifying to myself as an ‘immigrant.’ I wish I had a five-pound note for every time someone has displayed shock at this. Perhaps Americans (which is how I’m perceived) are not allowed to be immigrants because they are from a country known for its accepting of immigrants and people outside the US seem to struggle to understand that anyone would want to emigrate away from it. Millions of Americans live permanently overseas. Many artists, writers, musicians prefer the lifestyles abroad, especially in Europe. Other Americans living abroad include teachers, scholars, aid workers and business people who fall in love with a foreign place and/or a foreign person. I have many reasons for emigrating from the US, including all of the above mentioned. To these I add escape from my dysfunctional family and national, humane healthcare.

There is the other, more unsavoury, possibility that people who have problems accepting that Americans can be immigrants in the UK reserve the ‘immigrant’ label for the ‘other’ – the non-white person or the person for whom English is not a first language. While not everyone who voted to leave the EU is a racist, it is clear to anyone living in Britain these days that the Brexit result has empowered the racists and xenophobes in this country.

I cannot change where I’m from, nor can I do much to change people’s negative stereotypes. Before the EU Referendum, I was more likely to identify myself as a writer, amateur golfer, woman, activist, half of a husband-wife team and a linguist before I would identify myself as Italian-American-British. Now, in the muddle of ethnicity and identity brought on by Brexit, I’m shirking further away still from any sense of ethnic identity.

Marching for Europe

Saturday I attended my first protest march in over twenty years. In a few words, it was in support of staying in the single market and remaining an inclusive society. In Cambridge some 400 people made up the trail of marchers. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s early days yet. This was one of those ‘gathering of the troops’ march and rally. Now that parliament has reconvened, I suspect future marches will be more focused on one issue or another concerning how we leave the EU – if that really happens. Speculations abound.

I came away from this activity thinking about a few things. First, there was the cross-party spirit of the event. The speakers at the rally included not only the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats, no surprises there, but also politicians from Labour and the Conservatives. The idea of leaving Europe effects so many people in so many ways. Working across parties is an aspect of being in the grown-up world, away from the club-house mentally of the zealot, of the closed-minded.

The march also gave me more face-to-face encounters with people who support Brexit. One man barked at us, ‘It’s over – go home!’ Is it over? Our government doesn’t seem to think so. Since the Brexit camp left us with no plan and a campaign based on twisted facts and some downright lies, how the UK actually leaves the EU is still up for grabs. Another person, an elderly woman, pointed her fingers at a few of us and said, ‘I’m from the North and we’re poor up there!’ This is just another example of the protest voting that happened on 23rd June. Yes, the divide in wealth between the North and South of England is something to be unhappy about – but why is that the fault of the European Union? What about our own governments over the last three decades? Before I had a chance to question this woman, she, like the uppity man, was gone. That to me sums up much of the Brexit campaign – single utterances or catch phrases without discussion, without debate.

These hecklers were few. As we walked with our banners, signs and EU flags through the windy streets of central Cambridge, we were greeted mostly by applause and thumbs-up gestures. When we stopped to wait for street lights or for some of our number to catch up, we were the subject of mobile phone photographs – dozens of them. There is something immensely comforting about feeling that your views are generally shared. Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

After a few casual discussions with my fellow marchers, I returned to Ely with a sense of dismay as well. There seemed to be strong agreement that the Liberal Democrats were the only party in total support of remaining in the EU and their speaker at the rally, Julian Huppert, was the best received and most inspiring. Yet – and here comes the disappointing part – some of my fellow marchers raised the point that the Lib Dems have the right message, but cannot speak to ‘ordinary people.’ One person said to me ‘They need to tone it down – keep it simple.’ I would argue that the simplicity of the referendum debate is what made it more about emotions and less adherent to facts and gave us the disasterous outcome we are now living under. It might take a generation, but perhaps we should flip this argument and raise the education and understanding of ‘ordinary people.’