What Waking Up In A Post-EU UK Really Felt Like

by JR Thorpe

What did it really feel like to wake up in a post-EU exit United Kingdom this morning? Frankly, very surreal. London, Oxford, and Cambridge, where most of my friends are based, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU; so as the results of the vote became clear, my social media feeds were like watching the aftermath of a natural disaster. There was anger, grief, "putting on a brave face," scorched-earth silence, misery, and blank disillusionment. We felt complicit in a country that no longer recognized or understood us. Friends who are political reporters, up all night covering the count, talked about feeling terrified as they watched the country go over a brink from which it could not return.

It's also been frightening. The markets have crashed, wiping billions off the U.K. economy; some of the most reprehensibly extreme right-wing political parties across Europe are applauding the decision; the Prime Minister has abruptly resigned; and we're now in a bizarre limbo. EU membership isn't just symbolic: it has huge ramifications for U.K. trade (imports will now be more expensive), rises in taxes, crashes in pensions and wages, legislation regarding the rights of workers, and immigration levels... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. The EU's legal rulings gave the British population equal pay, food labeling laws, maternity leave, paid holidays, and many other benefits. Realistically, the process of extricating ourselves will take years, but we seem to have entered a much less stable reality, one where xenophobic rhetoric somehow won the day, despite the objections of well-known cultural figures from JK Rowling to Stephen Hawking.

Why does this matter, and how does it feel? In an abstract sense, I'm ashamed of Britain: It let its own xenophobia and fear push it out of a hugely beneficial community, leaving it poorer and sadder. But here are the specifics.

The campaign to vote for the Brexit utilized a weird combination of hearty, unrealistic, candy-striped nostalgia and vicious, callous paranoia. The author A.A. Gill, in an amazing editorial in The Times, explained that "the dream of Brexit isn’t that we might be able to make a brighter, new, energetic tomorrow, it’s a desire to shuffle back to a regret-curdled inward-looking yesterday." The Leave campaign harked back to the "good old days" of Britain, before the rise of China or, indeed, even the United States: the days of Winston Churchill, the possibility of economic self-sufficiency, and rosy-cheeked children on country lanes. And it did that while simultaneously telling voters that the EU represented fear, misery, and deprivation. The Leave campaign claimed that the EU took millions of pounds away from the United Kingdom that could have been used for "British things" like the National Health Service (NHS), our government-funded health care system, and in return filled the country with terrifying immigrants who "take jobs" and "scrounge on benefits."

There is no truth in either of these claims. In fact, one of the most despicable creatures in U.K. politics, the far-right leader of the Independence Party, Nigel Farage, went on U.K. morning television a few hours after the vote and admitted that the NHS millions claims were a "mistake". But in one of the most spectacular admissions of the entire campaign, the pro-Leave politician Michael Gove said that people had "enough of experts." As I saw it, the facts had no real role in this debate; it was all about emotion, and "hostility towards foreigners" is one of the most powerful political emotions there is. (Yes, Trump, I'm looking at you.)

It's not surprising to me that the people who voted Leave were, overwhelmingly, older. The Brexit vote represents a country giving into its deepest, crudest fears of the future and darkest misconceptions about its past. And it's done it by scapegoating an institution based on the idea of togetherness, of getting things done as a community and sharing the benefits intelligently. I think that, for many Leave voters, the very real economic costs of leaving the EU (rising oil prices, for one) will come as a rude shock: Pulling out of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) wasn't on their minds as much as "getting their country back" and telling foreign people they weren't welcome.

It's devastating for the entire academic establishment, too. My husband is an academic, as are many of my friends. The free movement of ideas, people, and resources is one of the fundamental backbones of a good academic structure: Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and the other enormously brilliant U.K. universities are as good as they are because they can get the best talent from anywhere in the EU. Many of the disciplines also depend on EU funding to do projects, get grants, attract great minds, and fund magnificent new ideas. The Brexit is a huge blow to intellectual Britain, and that's not a small problem.

In case you think this is a highfalutin, ivory tower issue, let me explain why it's not: Universities, colleges, and academic institutions are not just places where undergrads get drunk and academics mark papers (endless, endless papers). They're also often the places that run the labs that employ the people who are discovering the sh*t that will save us all. Oxford's a world leader in precision cancer medicine, developing cutting-edge treatments that can target individual cancer cells. Researchers at Cambridge just identified when Parkinson's becomes toxic to brain cells. A study in 2015 found that 38 percent of all Nobel Prize laureates in history who'd studied outside their home country had done it at a U.K. university. And the London School of Economics is the trusted institution predicting a recession due to Brexit's success.

It's not all about medicine or science, either; This is also a crushing loss to humanities researchers, whose do-gooding in the world is more nebulous but also seriously palpable. Some of the world's greatest living novelists, musicians and poets, from Hilary Mantel to Kei Miller, were educated and teach at U.K. universities. The European intellectual world, and therefore the "real" world — which benefits so much from what academics do — will now be substantially poorer.

And I'm upset on the behalf of EU citizens and British people who want to make their lives somewhere else. I'm Australian and my spouse is British; Australia isn't a member of the EU (despite its best efforts at Eurovision), and so we don't enjoy the freedom of movement that EU citizens can manage between countries, switching jobs, homes, and lives easily. Instead, the grind to stay with my husband in the United Kingdom has been a desperate, expensive, and terrifying one involving labyrinthine visa laws, thousands of pounds, and the constant looming fear of deportation. I've been in limbo for six months without a passport or ID because the U.K. Home Office accidentally flooded our 1.2 kg application and needed to assess it from scratch; I've missed my grandfather's funeral in Australia in the process. And the visa, when it comes, will only be for 36 months. This is what it's like to be a non-EU foreigner in the United Kingdom now, and soon it will be the reality for EU citizens, too. This is not what I want for them.

The benefits of EU citizenship are social as well as political, cultural, and economic. (As if those three weren't enough.) They give people the ability to live, move, and marry without restriction, fear, or constant uncertainty. To live in a country that actively doesn't want you, even though you are not the "type of foreigner" they want to keep out (I'm white, highly educated, and well-off) is a hell I would recommend for no one. British people currently working in EU countries (1.2 million of them, some of whom are my friends) face an uncertain future, and EU citizens living in the U.K. have to look at their neighbors and wonder who among them wants to utterly destabilize their lives.

Companies and universities, even the City of London, are now making statements that their EU citizens and workers are valued and that they'll fight to protect them. But it may be too late. Where we go from here is anybody's guess. But the U.K. has stepped into a darker place, and everything they do moving forward will be covered in its shadow.