home Europe Destructive and divisive: a response to the British Brexit referendum

Destructive and divisive: a response to the British Brexit referendum

Yesterday, the UK voted to leave the European Union.

Much of the analysis and commentary I saw the night before the vote was tentatively predicting a win for ‘remain’, and the betting shops were favouring a positive European outcome, too. But I didn’t dare to hope. After all, predictions for last year’s General Election were wildly inaccurate, leading us into a false sense of security, hoping for better things.

On the day of the election, I saw a strong push for people to get out and vote, and I hoped this would have a positive effect on the results: to be clear, I voted to remain in the EU. I had not been so decisive about which box I was going to put my cross in for years.

Obligatory polling station photo #voteremain

A post shared by Philippa Willitts (@philippawrites) on

My social media feeds were an encouraging place for any Remain supporter to be. I was aware that I was in a happy echo chamber, surrounded by people with similar politics to myself, but a glance at a local newspaper’s call for opinions reminded me that the Remain camp might not be in the majority.

Meanwhile, fascinating Twitter metrics showed that tweets about the Remain campaign had overtaken those about the Leave campaign by two to one. This only really reflects is who is tweeting the loudest, but still… it had to be a good sign, right?

It wasn’t a good sign.

Referendum results night

The BBC commentary that opened when ballot boxes closed had to spend several hours speculating before the first of the 382 count results were due. In the parts that I saw, an all-white and predominantly male collection of journalists and politicians gathered to discuss the ifs and the buts of the referendum.

I woke in the early hours of the morning and turned on the TV – the first million or so votes were in, and Leave was ahead with 497,630 votes to Remain’s 494,603. Leave was leading 51% to 49%, but very few towns and cities had reported back yet. An hour later, Remain was leading by 31,762. When 8.5 million votes had been counted, the difference between the Remain and Leave camps was a mere 20,000.

As I woke and slept and woke and slept through the night, considering the relative significance of each new set of results, I realised that all predictions were off the table.

We just needed the final results. Regardless of how Hartlepool voted compared to Clackmannanshire, everything was speculation until we knew the totals.

Finally, at 4.40am, the BBC declared that the Remain campaign could not possibly win with the remainder of the vote. We are out of Europe.

Guilt by association

I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed when I think of our lovely European neighbours, who we have kicked in the teeth. And I feel ashamed when I think of how pleased Donald Trump will be with himself when he finds out our views apparently coincided with his. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, too. The relative discomfort of the outcome for the Prime Minister is little consolation, which is unusual in itself.

Consequences of leaving

The value of the pound has already dropped to its lowest rate since the 1980s, and risks to the economy are high. With all road maps to trade relationships with the EU now torn up, small and large businesses (and, consequently, employment levels) are at risk of flatlining and going under.

But one of the main problems with a Leave vote is that we have no idea what it really means. The majority of economists (with the exception of ‘Economists for Brexit’, funnily enough) agreed it would have a negative effect on the economy, and Brexit campaigners have built their entire campaign on the idea of reducing the number of people moving into the UK from abroad. But, beyond that, what do we really know?

We know that membership of the European Union has been especially beneficial for people and groups who are not otherwise especially advantaged in this country. Whether looking at infrastructure and cultural investment in the north of the country (against the national government’s constant favouring of the south) or the rights of oppressed people, everyone from women to disabled people to workers to LGBT communities have benefited from EU membership.

A further consequence of this vote is the impact the nature of the destructive, divisive campaigns will have, in the longer term. Black and minority ethnic community members have reported anecdotally that they have experienced higher levels of aggression and hate, reflecting the tone of the racist elements of the Leave campaigning. Did that awful Breaking Point poster act as a reason to vote Leave? What does that say about the world?

BBC Newsnight analysis suggested that the Leave campaign had not planned to focus so much on migration but, on discovering that it touched a nerve with a portion of the public, exploited it for the duration of the campaign. Jo Cox’s slaying occurred in this context.

The other focus of the Leave campaign was questionable ‘facts’ that have been debunked by a wide range of fact checkers and economists, though they clung to them regardless. For the record, the EU did not cost us £350 million a week, and we get back most of (or more than, depending on who you’re talking to) what we invest.

Will a consequence, therefore, be that – as promised by Leave – the NHS will receive that £350 million a week as a direct investment? I won’t hold my breath.

Reflections on Brexit

The worst feeling is not that we lost, it’s that we lost to such a dirty ‘out’ campaign. The world looks a little different when I wonder which of my neighbours were willing to vote against our economic future and the rights of minority groups in favour of minimising the number of migrants who come here from elsewhere. The same migrants who staff much of the NHS, start their own businesses and pay taxes, and enrich British society. A campaign run on lies and misinformation is not a comfortable side to lose to.

Every vote counted in this referendum. Unlike General and Local Elections, where constituents in safe seats can feel like their cross on the ballot paper is a bit redundant, every yes and every no cast yesterday added up to the create the result we were dealt.

Yet, despite a more positive campaign than the Leavers, and a more hopeful overall message, the Remain campaigners could not win a majority of the votes that were cast. The campaign was inadequate and found itself unable to cut through the spin from the other side.

What happens next? Watch this space… as it is, nobody knows. I just know I don’t want to be stuck on a small island with nobody to help us to hold this Conservative government to account.


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.

One thought on “Destructive and divisive: a response to the British Brexit referendum

  1. “The world looks a little different when I wonder which of my neighbours were willing to vote against our economic future and the rights of minority groups”

    I felt much the same way when California voted in Proposition 8 in 2008. It was also a 52% to 48% “win”. Many people woke up the next day and said “Wait, I thought I was voting for something else” and “I didn;t think my vote would count”.

    I eyed the church in our neighborhood with distaste, knowing they had had “Yes on 8” signs on their property. I wondered which of our neighbors were so small minded and thoughtless.

    In our case, the loss was just the beginning. People organized and they fought back. Many things changed in the next 8 years. We’ve actually moved ahead (and overturned Prop 8 in the bargain).

    I hope some good will come out of this referendum for you. I hope it doesn’t take 8 (or more) years.

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