‘Who hates Brexit?’, I asked the question tentatively, knowing I was opening up a can of worms. I was still unsure, you see. I knew I was being lied to and I was not so naïve as to think that I could separate the liars from the honest men and women. So far as I could see, both sides of the spectrum were willing to promise the world to achieve the result they were hoping for. Perhaps I could get closer to the truth conversing with people I knew.
So, I had invited some people around. Some were friends, some could never be.
‘I do’, came a mumbling from somewhere on my left. The speaker was an Italian. I’m not proud of what I did next.
‘What was that?’, I asked him, having heard perfectly well.
‘I hate Brexit’, he said it louder this time though I was sure he knew what was coming. ‘You Brits have made a terrible mistake.
‘Yes. Yes, of course you hate Brexit’, I lengthened the ‘you’ just enough to let him, and the others, know that I had made the joke they were all expecting.
‘Leave him alone’, said proudly, with a German accent and from the opposite end of the table to the Italian. I wasn’t sure whether she was getting in on the joke. As a few isolated chuckles broke out across either side of the table I realised that even if she was genuinely coming to the poor man’s aid she was causing more damage than good.
‘Come now. Enough of that. Poor show, my fault I know, still poor show’, I’d had my fun and it was time to move on. I had things to learn. ‘Why do we hate Brexit?’
‘Because of the Pole…’, started a man sitting, and I doubt this was a conscious attempt at irony, immediately to my left. With the tattoo of a rose’s thorny stem accenting a bicep hanging from a short-sleeve, button-down shirt, I’m surprised he got as far through the sentence as he did.
‘You racist pig’, came one call, shrill and piercing, even if it did summarise most of our thoughts.
‘They’ve been nicking our jobs for the past twenty years. And, AND, now they’re doing their best to offload all the Muslims too’, he’d powered through with his sentence and even shouted once to offset the mounting grumblings coming from the rest of the room.
‘Enough of that. You really go too far, sir’, I said. His comments would have been unsavoury in any setting but they were lent an extra edge at a dinner party I had instigated with an invite list that included some friends of mine who were followers of the Muslim faith. I glanced their way. Many of these friends were men and women from Africa and they seemed nonplussed by the comments made by the tattooed gentleman. They’d heard it all before, I surmised. Perhaps one bitter man’s comments were the least of their worries in a world governed by those who were sceptical of their faith. ‘How would you know?’, I asked myself, which reminded me to get back to the task at hand. I was still ignorant of the various reasons why we had or did not have a distaste for Britain’s exit from the EU.
‘Let’s steer clear of the question of immigration’, came from a man to my right wearing a pink-flecked shirt of deep blue. He’d seen my discomfort and had chosen to move on. Clever man. ‘Let us consider the matter of greatest importance’, he was an analyst, I believe, for some large banking firm in London, ‘Brexit is going to ruin the British economy’. He took a deep breath and we all got comfier in our seats. ‘Firstly, let us consider the increasingly likely scenario wherein we find ourselves with ‘no deal’ at the end of our negotiations with Brussels. The Government themselves predict an 8% reduction in economic growth, and they’re likely being optimistic mind you, if we don’t have a deal in place when Britain eventually exits the European Union,’ he said and he did not look like he was close to stopping talking. ‘Predictions are funny things aren’t they’, I remember thinking, ‘we like to apply graphs and statistics to what might happen when we have no real idea of what that which might happen will be. It’s like climate change, why are we putting numbers to things we just cannot see…’, I had realised the man with the blue and pink shirt was still talking. I’d probably missed a sizeable chunk.
‘…and that’s not even considering the immediate effects, your short-term. There will be costs to fixing our economy to new customs arrangements’, he paused for breath clearly still intent on using his moment at the mouthpiece.
‘That may all prove to be true’, I said. And I believed him, who was I to doubt what he was talking about. He was clearly an intelligent man and this was his area of expertise.
‘But don’t you think we’re rather too tied to this notion of basing a country’s success on their GDP?’, I had no idea what I was saying but it was something my uncle used to say and I was tired of listening to talk about customs tariffs.
‘Well your gross domestic product is only one …’, he was almost given the time to get going.
‘A good government is a government that protects our planet from the evils of industry’, this comment made from a young girl who’s untidily braided hair was clearly a badge of pride. ‘The planet is less than half a degree’s rise away from irreparable and inconceivable environmental devastation. Unless something can be done, and quick, we’ll soon witness the age of Aquarius’, I didn’t quite understand that last point but I had read something about the temperature rise and global catastrophe was far better dinner-time conversation than gross domestic product.
‘And how does the environment tie in with Brexit?’, I asked her.
Her forehead scrunched up under a head of dreadlocking hair, ‘It’s hard to say.’
‘Well, we just don’t know. The UK has, historically, been committed to a more ambitious climate change policy than many members of the EU. In the EU, Britain’s been fighting a losing battle to convince other members to go green. Do they stay and fight or do we leave and set an example? Leaving might fast-track Britain down the path toward a greener country. Will we lose the cooperation of the rest of Europe as part of the deal? I don’t know.’
‘Of course, you’re thinking like an idealist’, the banker was not happy with waiting in the wings and had found a chance to make an input, ‘you have not even considered the economic effects even though they’re crucial for your special planet’ he said. I remember thinking less of the young man after this comment, it was all of our planet after all.
He continued, ‘If we leave the EU we’ll have to negotiate trade deals with the rest of the world and that means the US will likely become our most important trade partner. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you who the president of the United States is’, he said sneeringly. I got the impression he didn’t approve of the braided hair and flowery dress. ‘Trading with America will undoubtedly bring about a relaxation of the eco-driven trading standards the EU has in place’. He’d got a bit excited with that last statement, which did seem to make perfect sense, and his face had reddened with the exertion.
‘I..’, I stammered.
‘I had thought about that actually’, the young lady retorted before I could get in a word to diffuse the mounting tension. ‘I simply feel that having control over our own agenda might give Britain a better chance to shape our own destiny’, she continued. ‘That sounded a little like she agrees with Brexit’, I’d thought, and she definitely hadn’t made that clear beforehand. Well, I supposed, she was never going to agree with the sneeringly arrogant man in his expensive shirt, maybe she simply did not want to share the same side of the argument as he.
‘As may well be the case with the CAP, for example. You do know what the CAP is don’t you?’, the question was quite clearly directed at the man in the shirt. The rest of us were fast-becoming spectators in the two-fighter slug-fest.
‘The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy? Yes, of course’, he landed a punch.
‘Yes, well, as you full-well know the CAP is supposed to cater to all of Europe’s Agricultural needs. And it is a constant thorn in the side of the environmentally conscious. Changes to policy are always the subject of Brussels’ bureaucratic process. The competing agendas and priorities of the EU’s member states have hindered changes to the policy that might have made for a greener approach’, she finished by taking a deep breath, the têt-à-têt was quite clearly taking it out of her.
‘That’s enough you two’, I said, global catastrophe had started to bore me. ‘What about you, sir? Yes, you at the end of the table? What are your thoughts on the vote to leave?’
‘A voteed tae no be a part o’ this mess’, he said with a melodic, up-n-down drawl. He was from a place called Dundee, in eastern Scotland, and I had hoped that he would have something to say about a government’s right to agency in their own governance.
‘I take it you’re talking about the Scottish independence referendum?’, I followed up while wondering for how long British dinner parties would be defined by the referenda of the early 21st century.
‘Its time we Scots were given the power to choose our own direction. It’s no our government and we shouldnae have tae live with their mistakes’, he did seem to have worked his way round to discussing Brexit if only in a round-about manner of ways.
‘So, Brexit is a mistake then?’, I asked pryingly, trying to get him to open up.
He shrugged. He’d said his piece on the government in Westminster and perhaps that was all he had the energy for.
The conversation looked to be set for a bit of a lull. It seemed as if everyone had been tired out by the verbal battle between the dreadlocked young lady and the shirt-wearing young man. I took the time to do something of a recap and let the conversation ebb and flow between other topics. Brexit was going to be bad for the economy, it seemed, and good for the racists. It was going to be neither good nor bad, or perhaps both bad and good, for those who were environmentally concerned and depending on how you saw things it was either exactly like the Scottish independence referendum or a symptom of its failure to secure a schism. I still wasn’t sure where to stand. Maybe I’d been asking the wrong people, I had invited people from outside of Europe after all. My friends from Africa had sat all together in between the lady from Germany and the man in his pink-flecked shirt. They had hardly said a word thus far and, having realised I had lapsed in my responsibilities as a host, I invited them into the conversation. ‘We’re clearly quiet split here in Europe. Africa must have many and varied things to say about Britain’s exit from the EU, care to share any thoughts?’, I asked, casting my eyes their way.
The gentleman nearest me looked down the line of the ladies and gentlemen who had hailed from the same disparate continent as he to see whether any sought to answer my question. None did so he took it upon himself to do so.
‘I presume you invited us here for our perspective?’, the question was rhetorical, ‘as such I shall give you my stance as it pertains to my situation. I do not intend to live in the UK, the weather not being to my liking, I live in Kenya and will continue to do so.’
I thought this was all very interesting though I did wonder how it might relate to Brexit.
‘My interests are Kenyan interests. And Kenyan interests might be better served by a Britain that is not a member of the European Union,’ he said in a very statesman-like manner.
‘How so?’, I was intrigued.
‘Theresa May paid a visit to my country this past August, this might not surprise you. Heads of State are expected to make journeys to visit their counterparts in other nation states. This is not surprising?’ he asked.
‘No’, I found myself saying to similar murmurings from around the room. It didn’t surprise me. I have never been a Prime Minister but I expect she does quite a lot of travelling to meetings with other Prime Ministers and the like.
‘What may surprise you is that this was the first time a British Prime Minister had journeyed to Kenya since the prime ministerial tenure of one Margaret Thatcher, some 30 years ago.’
That did surprise me.
‘Our heads of state, yours and mine, discussed a great many things. The rise of terrorism in East-Africa was one, corruption (a particular problem of ours) another, but trade was a main feature’, his diplomatic way of speaking kept the room hanging in suspense as he built toward another refrain.
‘Only when Britain is down does she look to Africa for a partnership, now as she did in 1988. If it takes a beaten Britain for my country to organise trade deals with a European nation on an equal footing then so be it. That is the unfortunate way of the world’, he had said his piece and he crossed his arms to mark an end to his speech.
I wanted him to go on in his paternal manner of speaking but he had said his piece and the rest of us were left to process it. I swung my head from one side of the room to the other, gauging the reactions of my dinner guests. My eyes landed on the man with the thorny tattoo which I presumed, if one were to trace the stem up and under the sleeve, ended in a flowering rose head. He was quite clearly wrestling with something. I did not give him the chance to explain what.
‘Well then’, I said, ‘this has been more than interesting.’
‘And?’, said the lady from Germany.
I looked at her without answering.
‘Where does this leave you?’, asked the analyst in the blue shirt.
‘I’m still unsure’, my friends started muttering and I heard at least one groan, ‘I suppose you could consider my position ambivalent.’
‘How can you say that? After everything you’ve heard?’, from the analyst again.
‘Yes, how can you?’, the young lady with the dreadlocks was finally in agreement with her one-time rival.
I chose not to answer them right away, I needed time to think. ‘Can’t a person be ambivalent on Brexit?, I asked as I looked down the table.
‘NO!’, someone choked out. The Italian had his eyebrows raised and his eyes were roaming up and down the table asking anyone who looked their way ‘Is this man mad?’.
Ambivalence, it seems, was beyond reproach. The raised eyebrows, in the moment they rested on me, told me all I needed to know about the Brexit middle-ground. It did not exist, it could not be allowed to. I realised then that we were a country gearing up for a fight, not with Europe but with our neighbours. We simply did not want to get along, though we spoke as if that was all we wanted. My guests were all sure that they were either one or the other, a Brexiteer or not. They had their reasons, they were, for the most part, intelligent people. Did those reasons really leave no room for a comprehensive consideration of the other side? My friends, many of whom shared much more in common than the young man and young lady who had fought a battle of words that evening, had made their stance because of one element or another that they understood, and damned that which they had chosen not to. Brexit was not the battleground it was the armoury. We wanted to spit, heckle and argue with one another and immigration and the economy were our wooden shafts and steel points. We could not, and did not want to, hear our friends’ thoughts for the variety and individuality they possessed. We wanted to find out whose side they fought for so that we could fight against or alongside them.
I decided, then and there, that I did hate Brexit. It was, and for some time, will continue to be, terrible for Britain. And so, I said so, ‘OK. OK, I hate Brexit.’
Some cheered. The others groaned. Not one asked how I arrived at my conclusion; they knew where I stood and that’s all they really wanted.
Written by Cameron Grant