Verónica Pamoukaghlián is in England following the Brexit vote and has an opportunity to observe and discuss with locals the impact of England exiting the European Union (EU).
A few days after the Brexit vote, I was sitting on a couch in an East End [of London] apartment and watching the manager of the national team quitting on TV after England’s all-star team lost against an assembly of obscure Icelandic players during the UEFA championship.
The atmosphere in my friend’s living room was sheer disbelief. The audience sitting in front of the massive TV image, which was being projected onto a wall, included three Brits who work in the film industry and two Uruguayans, my sister and I.
After the game, we washed down some tasty Thai takeout with a good Rioja wine, courtesy of the EU, and the nightly news came on. I never watch TV news in Uruguay, because they are usually made of 50% “the economy stinks” and 50% ghastly crime reports. While I was pleased that the ITV news contained no images of the numerous decomposing bodies which according to a friend from Camden usually turn up in London’s canals, what we saw was nonetheless disturbing.
The sequence was as follows: 1) A polish kid driven to tears by a card left in his home’s mailbox on the day after the Brexit vote in which neighbors asked, “When are you going home?” and a graffiti at the entrance of a Polish community center that read, “No more Polish vermin.” 2) A diagram showing how many MPs had resigned because the leader of the Labour Party was, himself, unwilling to resign; the list had over 40 names at that point. 3) Images of the Prime Minister abandoning his post. 4) Graphs showing the plummeting of the pound after the Brexit vote. 5) A rerun of the team manager’s resignation speech during the post-game press conference. 6) An account of the anniversary of the battle of La Somme, one of the deadliest of the First World War, complete with images of graveyards spreading as far as the eye could see.
The disbelief around my friend’s living room soon morphed into grim humor, “All that’s left now is for the queen to die … maybe aliens will come to run things now.” Without a manager for the national soccer team, having lost to a team no one had ever heard of for the first time since the 1950s, without a Prime Minister, with a weakened currency and uncertainty about the Brexit situation, without a strong leader for Labour and with the leader of the Tories having quit his post as head of state, the only person left to “run” England appeared to be the queen. If something happened to Elizabeth II, Britain would be officially headless.
The next day, as my friend Max couldn’t shake off the depression of Brexit, the uptick of racism, and the national team’s humiliation, we set out on our drive to Kent, a place known as the garden of England, where Max was renovating a lovely cottage in the vicinity of Folkestone, a posh Victorian era beach resort. “In a way, it’s better that England lost that game. The last thing we need is to put the Brexiters in a celebratory mood. This is a time when nobody should be celebrating,” Max told me.
When the Brexit result came out, Max’s friend, Tim, who posts on Facebook once in a blue moon, updated his status, “Just unblocked all the hair from the shower. Couldn’t get any more disgusted today anyway,” his post read. The sentiment was echoed by many of my local friends.
As Max, my sister, and I rode quietly in Max’s vintage, and not exactly spacious, sports car, he proceeded to explain Brexit to me from the inside. He said that the vote had nothing to do with left and right or Labour vs. Tories. “It was more a dispute between the people, like me, who have benefitted from globalization and open borders, and those who have suffered from it,” Max explained, “England is full of industrial towns that died because businesses are now producing in places where costs are more competitive, like India or China. Those English towns were built around the factories, they became ghost towns. Many of the people there are living on the dole; they have no expectations of things picking up. They are angry, and Brexit provided an outlet for their anger.”
Max saw a glimpse of hope in a conversation that had been made public between John Kerry and the outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron in which Kerry said that nobody really knows how to execute the Brexit and it will probably never be implemented. In Max’s view, the campaigns for and against the Brexit had both been a disaster. As the argument against the immigrants triumphed and the speeches were all about saying Yes/No to immigrants, nobody really discussed what leaving the EU might entail.
“Without London, England would be a very poor country,” Max told me. In the former industrial towns he mentioned, the numbers spoke loudly, Brexit had easily gotten 60-70% of the votes, and even more. As we sat down for lunch in Folkestone, a friend of Max’s who is involved in the local arts scene told us that the atmosphere after the vote had been weird, because now people knew that 70% among them had supported the Brexit, implying that there was no way to separate the “immigrants go home” slogan from the idea of the average Brexit supporter. I sensed that the divide in the communities might not earn a lot of front pages in the news, but it might make for some of the most profound consequences of the referendum.
Max, who makes a living in entertainment, made it clear to me that the Brexit could not put a stop to globalization, and that the industrial towns would not resuscitate as a result of the vote. In my few days in London, I saw an impressive minority of people who were ethnically Western European or British. When it comes to taxi drivers and restaurant servers, everyone I encountered was either from the continental EU, from India or from the Middle East. I hardly crossed a single “typical British blonde” on my subway rides. When I mentioned this to one of my hosts, they replied, “this is an integrated multi-ethnic society,” and I agreed. I realized that my idea of London, before ever setting foot in it, was made up of equal parts English heritage, fabulous immigrant writers from the Middle East, Indian curry, and women in hijabs. My stay in the East End had confirmed those preconceptions.
But if the society is as integrated as it seemed to me, where did the wave of hate crimes that immediately followed the Brexit vote come from? In the East End itself, which is home to many intellectuals and generally open-minded people, several individuals who looked “foreign” were harassed on the streets and during their usually uneventful subway rides. According to a sociologist interviewed by a British newspaper, the referendum had somehow legitimized a kind of hatred that had hitherto been confined to “the closet.” The reasoning would be that if the political class is taking the idea of “kicking the immigrants out” for the benefit of the “English people” (a concept hard to define in such a fundamentally multi-ethnic society) seriously, then it’s alright to call Poles vermin and to ask Spaniards, “When are you going home?”
As the angry Brexiters imagined a future with more employed “English people” thanks to the immigrants being deported in a tone often reminiscent of Nazi history, our visit to Max’s Kent cottage shed some light on the problem of “immigrants taking the English people’s jobs,” as a Brexiter might put it.
The crew that is renovating the house hails from Bulgaria, a country that has been a member of the EU since 2007. We arrived at the site to find no one was working as they were supposed to be. A tour of the workers` living quarters revealed a surprising cleanliness for an all-male dorm and a large number of empty Bulgarian spirits’ bottles. When the owner of the construction company finally showed up, it turned out that he was coming straight from the airport accompanied by a painter he had especially flown in from Bulgaria, “because he was the best for the job.”
I asked Max, “So, the Brexiters want the immigrants out, but you cannot find a good painter in London or Kent?” Max told me that before there were immigrants to do those jobs, it was almost impossible to find workers. It was then clear to me that the Brexit campaign had been a sham, which had fed on the anger of those left out by the new globalized world, but with nowhere to go from there.
After our lunch in Folkestone, we stepped into the Grand Hotel on the town’s lovely waterfront. The boardwalk was lined with woolen poppies, put there in remembrance of the soldiers who had died in the Great War. The hotel itself reminded me a lot of Hotel Argentino in Uruguay, which Max had also visited. Both buildings were a testimony to a different era, and the fact that they were still standing and attracting meager numbers of retired visitors somehow emphasized the irrecoverable nature of their past glory.
A smell of mothballs mixed with ancient upholstery greeted us as soon as we crossed The Grand’s threshold. As we walked around the empty ballrooms and majestic halls that had once been overcrowded by wealthy and aristocratic Victorians, I couldn’t help but think of the past grandeur the Brexit voters wanted to recover. Just like the friendly bellboys in their impeccable Grand uniforms longing for something to do, and the scant seniors who stayed at the hotel in the hopes of revisiting the magnificence of youth, Brexiters` dreams of “making England great again” would most likely be shattered.