Monday, July 4, 2016

This week I was going to blog about another fun day out.  I sat down in the requisite coffee-shop-with-free-wifi and opened up my notes and then I realised I couldn’t.  Because on June 23rd the world broke, and it’s been impossible to ignore, and I feel like I have to get some things out.

Unbelievable.  Unthinkable.  Impossible.  And, these days, inescapable.

You’d have to be living under a rock on Venus to be unaware of the EU referendum vote result here in the UK, but I’ll say it anyway.  In a vote that many think David Cameron never should have called (surely now including Cameron himself), 52% of those who participated decided that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union.  There were a lot of issues involved.  The Remain side focussed on the economic consequences of a vote to exit; Leavers dwelt heavily on immigration.  I admit I didn’t examine the issues in detail.  For me, and, I think, for a lot of people, this was a time to vote your conscience.  There were no party lines, as evidenced by the open warfare in the Conservative Party, and the continuing upheaval plaguing Labour.

(Wait, actually, I lie. Some people voted along party lines. Apologies to all those GSWPL readers who support UKIP.  (Hands up out there!  Hello? Helloooooo???)  For Astute but Non-UK-based GSWPL readers: UKIP is a right-wing, populist, Euro-sceptic party whose leader, Nigel Farage, is kind of like our very own Donald Trump. Except that he and 21 of his fellows are Members of the European Parliament.  Yep.  A strongly anti-EU party has the largest number of MEPs of any party in the UK.  You could not make this stuff up.)

Because the polls closed so late on referendum day (10:00pm) everyone said there wouldn’t be a result until morning, but I woke up a few times in the night and rolled over to check the news when I did.  When I went to bed the general feeling was that Remain would win but when I woke at about 2:30am, the BBC was reporting an unexpected shift towards Leave.  I rolled over and went back to sleep.  Then at 5am I roused again and saw the unthinkable had happened.  The BBC had declared the Leave vote had won.  I’m not sure how I got back to sleep after that; maybe it was the ostrich effect.  When I finally woke up completely it was to a three-letter text from my friend Gerald in Amsterdam: “OMG…”  And it was clear I hadn’t dreamed it.  My response: “What the fuck?!?”  and then: “It’s like waking up with the worst hangover ever, and then realising someone gave you a racist tattoo while you were drunk the night before.”  I started getting emails from friends back on Canada saying things like:
“You can still come home."
"Well, um, congratulations on Britain's new found state of being.  As John Oliver said 'Britain would be batshit crazy to leave the EU'. I guess no one saw his show."
And I kind of just lay in bed, feeling sort of paralysed.  And ripped off.  Part of the reason I got my UK citizenship in the first place was precisely because of the European Union.  Because it meant that I had the option of living, working, or even retiring, in any EU state, not just the UK.  In a very real sense, my UK passport was a golden ticket. (I originally wrote that sentence as "IS a golden ticket" and then had to go back and change the verb to the past tense.  Damnit!)  Without that passport, I wouldn’t have been hired to work on the London 2012 Ceremonies or the European Games in Baku, which led to gigs in Cairo and Abu Dhabi. And I know withdrawal from the European Union doesn’t mean that the UK will no longer be part of Europe.  That’s just a geographic fact.  (Which reminds me of the first Quebec referendum in Canada, held in 1980, when I was in elementary school.  When we were discussing the topic in school a classmate asked, “But if Quebec separates from Canada, where will they go?”, as if the whole land mass might just separate from the continent and drift off towards Bordeaux.)  But I can’t help but feel that the country has pulled up the drawbridge.  It feels like a smaller, more parochial, sadder and decidedly unfriendlier place than it was.

The other thing I did when I woke up that Friday morning was check the exchange rate on the pound.  Back when I was a normal person with a job and a house in Canada I had the usual pension funds and retirement savings and was well on my way to a comfortable if dull dotage supported by the Canada Pension Plan (ha!), my own savings and the power of compound interest.  Then I took a large chunk out of my prime earning years by quitting that job and selling that house and spending a year traveling, closely followed by leaving the country completely to restart my career and reestablish myself in a much bigger and tougher labour market.  And while I have no regrets at all about this decision (unless it’s that I should have done it five years sooner) it does mean that until recently I wasn’t really doing anything about retirement planning other than casually googling recipes involving cat food and suggesting to my much more grown-up friend Karen that she might keep a space for me in her garden shed.

Last year I finally got my act together and started properly investing and have since been slowly transferring money back to a portfolio in Canada.  But, being the cautious sort that I am, I still had a chunk of money here in the UK that, while earmarked as “retirement savings”, was a bit of a safety net.  On referendum day, as the pundits were saying the vote was too close to call, I wondered if I should seize the moment and send that pot of money back to Canada.  The pound at that time was hovering near 1.90 CDN, not as good as it’s been, but still very respectable.  However, the general mood was that Brexit would never happen, and I figured when the vote went for Remain, there could very well be a slight bump that would work in my favour, so I held off.  When I woke up on Friday morning the pound had plummeted against the Canadian dollar, and I’d lost about $1700.  And while it levelled off a bit in the days after the vote, it’s actually taken another dive recently.

Screenshot 2016-07-02 14.58.52
When the media says the currency fell off a cliff, this is what it looks like.  And it’s not just the pound, of course; the euro is suffering too.  (Sorry, euro…)  Yeah, sure, it will recover some of what it’s lost.  Eventually.  But soon?  No, I don’t think so.   Because everyone says the market hates uncertainty, and that’s all we’ve got right now.  
Huge, yawning, scary uncertainty.

I have a close friend who voted Leave.  I remember being shocked when he told me; it just seemed so weird and insupportable. Cosseted as I’ve been in the London bubble (where the vote was 60% for Remain), reading The Guardian, and hanging out with a lefty arty crowd, it was easy to think that most everyone felt like I did.  Confirmation bias, I guess.  We talked about it a little bit, me and my friend, and mostly I think for him it came down to a question of national sovereignty.  He didn’t like that the UK was subject to EU law and regulation, and he wasn't interested being part of the EU's "ever-closer union".  I can see that point.  Being in the EU is like being in a marriage (albeit a sort of Mormon-ish marriage with 27 spouses…).  You accept certain restrictions in exchange for certain benefits.  Help support your wife’s Uncle Stavros because he’s fallen on hard times, but also enjoy using the in-laws’ vacation house on the French Riviera.  Hire a hard-working Polish woman to clean your house every week, but acknowledge she deserves the same health care and social support that your English-born neighbour needs.  Enjoy the free movement of goods and capital but understand that it comes along with the free movement of services and people.  Unfortunately, while I trust that my friend simply has a different opinion about the cost vs. benefits of being in the EU, I fear that many who voted to leave may not have based their opinion on such firm ground.

This was certainly the case for another acquaintance who voted for Leave.  I was shocked to hear his anger and disillusionment with what he described as lies told by the Leave campaign to bolster support. (For instance, the now-infamous claim, splashed on the side of the Leave campaign bus, that £350 million per week would saved and re-distributed if the UK left the EU).  I know the Remain side were also not innocent.  And it's easy to think that anyone who believes all the claims politicians peddle when on the hustings deserves what they get.  But my friends anger was palpable and as he claimed that he'd "never vote again" I couldn't help but wonder how many other people in the country were simply giving up on the entire system after this ugly and divisive vote.

I said earlier that this feels like an unfriendlier place now, and I really mean it.  There have been reports of a sharp increase in incidents of racist attacks and rhetoric since the vote (reported incidents up 57%).  Most people now say that the main issue that swayed Leave voters was immigration.  I’m an immigrant to this country myself, but of course I’m not the kind of immigrant people are reacting to.  People are reacting to non-English speaking, brown-skinned, non-Christian or otherwise Different immigrants.  People they see as taking away jobs, flooding the health care system, drawing social benefits and basically overburdening the country.  People that make their country feel like it's not their country anymore.  The parallels with Donald Trump’s supporters are inescapable and, based on this referendum result, kind of frightening.

The referendum vote divided sharply along a few key demographic lines.  The older you are, the more likely you were to vote Leave - 21% of under 26s voted Leave whereas 69% of over 65s wanted out.  Most pundits attribute this in part to a sort of nostalgia among older voters to recapture an England that simply no longer exists. (And likely never will, regardless of the EU). More tellingly, those in prosperous areas of the country like London were strongly for Remain; perennially poorer areas like the North-East went for Leave.  Level of education was also a strong indicator - 64% of university graduates voted to remain compared to 25% of those with no formal post-secondary qualifications.  And, corollary to that, those in professional or management jobs were 58% in favour of remain compared with 27% in unskilled jobs.  I could quote stats all day long (these ones came from this article) but they’re all saying the same thing, and in my view it’s the same thing that’s fuelling Trump’s rise in America.  People with the economic means or education or professional contacts or temperament or, well, who are we kidding? - people with money or power - benefit from the kind of globalisation that the EU represents much more than people without.  What we’re seeing is, as one Guardian columnist termed it, “a howl of rage against exclusion, alienation and remote authority”.  

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, and I fear this blog has been little more than a semi-coherent ramble.  There’s been an online petition calling for a second referendum, but I'm not really sure it’s right.  Never mind that a referendum is a remarkably blunt instrument for a complicated issue.  Never mind that David Cameron should really be considering getting a tattoo that says “Ask a stupid question…”.  Never mind reports of small but statistically significant numbers of Leave voters saying they wouldn’t have voted that way if they thought Leave would actually win. (Aside: ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME???).  Never mind all of that. Because flawed though it may be, a referendum is still about as pure as democracy gets. There’s not much left to do but buckle up and see what happens.

For now, I leave the last words to someone I suspect few on the island would accuse of being anything less than the truest of Englishmen, Sir Winston Churchill:

On the one hand:
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
And on the other:
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried."

At least some of us have rediscovered their sense of humour.


Anonymous said...

Not a ramble Pam. A heartfelt monogram on a dire situation not only for Britain but for all of us.

Anonymous said...

Monograph, duh.

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