Leave to Remain

Why I cried about Brexit.

eu stars tear

I cried about the referendum. Explaining why is hard.

It’s not that I was committed to the EU as such. I admire some of the values associated with the project of European integration: cosmopolitanism and community beyond boundaries. But these things alone don’t explain why I’ve been so moved.

Was it the drama of the referendum campaign?

No – in general, the campaign felt long, drawn-out, repetitive; the rhetoric of both sides reduced to terms that seemed almost meaningless: “the Economy versus Immigration.” I looked forward to it being over.

In 2014, I’d gone door-to-door in my neighbourhood in South London, urging people to vote for representatives to the European Parliament. “What happens in Brussels is important!” I’d said. This time around I did no such thing. Like many in the Remain camp, I was complacent.

So the result was a shock, and it has prompted some soul searching.

Elephants in the room

One of the  lessons is how powerfully social class continues to affect our lives and worldviews. The geographical and demographic patterning of the votes is widely acknowledged: London and Scotland – and the younger, more-educated and better-off – voting Remain; much of the rest of the UK – and the older, the less-educated and the poor – voting Leave.

What’s less widely acknowledged is how these patterns structure our daily interactions: “Across the UK, most people who voted Leave knew virtually no one who was voting Remain and vice versa.” [1]

There’s a kind of segregation at work here. Town and country, young and old, upper and lower-classes – all assort themselves into largely separate worlds of communication and interaction.

And then there’s the other elephant in the room – ethnicity.

Breaking point

When our son was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, my wife and I moved from her home country of Ethiopia to England so that he could receive life-saving treatment.

Together, we negotiated a thicket of UK Border Agency paperwork to secure her permission to stay. (The formal designation on her residence permit reads “Leave to Remain” – a phrase that now seems richly ironic.)

The idea of the foreigner as a threat to our collective security – an abiding theme of the Leave campaign – feels like an affront to families of mixed heritage like mine, families that are increasingly common in the UK, especially in our major cities.

breaking point

Nigel Farage and the poster he sponsored.  There are parallels with Nazi propaganda.


Reading the newspaper this weekend, I was moved by a letter written by a voter who used a postal ballot to vote Leave, but on Thursday night, as the results came in, had a change of heart, and in desperation called the Electoral Commission to ask if his vote could be withdrawn. (It could not.)

“It feels rotten now that it’s done,” he wrote.

The by-line: Habib Abdur-Rahman, from London. [2]

Habib, whom I assume to be a second-generation immigrant from Asia or Africa, felt British enough to waver on whether staying in or leaving the EU was in his best interests.

That’s as it should be – I’d like people like him to feel fully at home in this society, and subject to the same kinds of ambivalence as the rest of us. Because my wife and son don’t fit the standard stereotype of Britishness, I feel this yearning keenly. This is where the abstract political values like cosmopolitanism intersect with the personal, the intimate.

Perhaps that’s why I cried.

But there’s also something powerful I feel that relates to the place of this event in history. Some commentators are calling the referendum the most significant event for Britain since the fall of the Berlin wall, or even the second world war: “a choice to turn [our] back on the great effort to heal Europe’s historical divisions.” [3]

Those divisions run deep. Placed in the context of the brutality and violence that have marked our common history, this event appears all the sadder.

Turbulence ahead

In the final days before last week’s vote, I told myself I didn’t care which way it went. I tried to detach from it.

Then, the night before voting day, a huge storm swept through London, and as I lay in bed, the rolling thunderclaps went right through my body.

Now our body politic has been convulsed, split in two.

Yesterday, at the Quaker meeting I attend, I asked Friends to pray for everyone who stands to be affected by the referendum, but especially for those who’d voted Leave – to recognise that, whatever else they were expressing, it was a cry of protest, and a call for help.

In a real sense, the Leave vote was a rebellion against the status quo: not only against the remote-control decision-making associated with Brussels, but also against a political system in Britain that continues to prioritise the interests of the wealthy and secure over those whose lives are more precarious. It’s this sense of disempowerment and insecurity, I believe, that Farage and his ilk are successfully tapping into with their talk about the threat posed by immigrants.

Unless the shockwaves generated by the referendum precipitate a much longer-lasting, wider engagement with our collective life; unless reforms to our relationship with Europe are accompanied by much more thoroughgoing changes to our system of representation at home, we’ll continue to suffer the same problems as before – or worse.


In the end, the best explanation I can give is that my tears reflect a complex mixture of emotions.

Foremost among them are anger at those who led us to this.

And sadness at the opportunity we seem to have squandered: to work together with our brothers and sisters in Europe to improve a flawed system, rather than tearing it – and our communities – apart.



[1] “Younger generation vents fury at older voters.”  FT Weekend, 25/26 June 2016, print edition, p. 8 (my italics)

[2] “I tried to withdraw my postal vote to leave.” Letter to the editor, FT Weekend, 25/26 June 2016, print edition, p. 16

[3] Martin Wolf. “The decision to leave Europe will be costly.” FT Weekend, 25/26 June 2016, print edition, p. 14


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3 Responses to Leave to Remain

  1. carol evans says:

    Dear Jed,
    You should not assume that the Leave votes were “a cry of despair and a call for help.” It is quite insulting really to suggest this. I voted Leave because the EU is a corrupt gravy train, which is unaccountable: other countries do not stick to the rules, whilst we tend to (see the decline of our fishing industry while the Spanish plunder the seas); I did not vote to join in 1973 – but it was a trade agreement on the voting paper – not the vast intrusion into our lives which the EU has become; Europe is only one of seven continents and is in decline – the emerging markets are not in Europe – they are in Asia, South America and Africa – I believe we should reforge our links with the Commonwealth; I do not fear the future – we are a strong nation and will cope. Churchill said that we Great Britain is faced with a choice of Europe or the open seas, we should choose the open seas – I am with Churchill.

    All good wishes, Carol

  2. jedstevenson says:

    Dear Carol,
    Thank you for responding. I’m sorry if you found what I wrote insulting. Note that the words I used were “a cry of *protest* and a call for help” — “a cry of despair” does have quite a different sense. I’d be interested to know in what ways you feel the EU intrudes into our lives. I’m not well informed about the fishing disputes, but my impression was that regulation of fisheries was one area where bodies such as the EU have an important role to play — especially since most of the world’s major fisheries are in steep decline due to overfishing.

    Something I didn’t go into, but which does influence my thinking about the EU, is that its environmental laws, while far from perfect, are in many ways superior to our domestic ones (or those of the US, the other country I’ve lived in) and that by leaving the EU we risk having to fight the battles that led to their adoption all over again. Under Cameron all meaningful commitment to environmental responsibility has been abandoned, replaced with a doctrine of economic growth at all costs. I disagree strongly with this, and I lament the fact that the Remain campaign was framed so narrowly in terms of ‘the Economy’. By the same token, the idea of reorienting towards Asia and elsewhere simply because that’s where the growth is, isn’t something I feel excited about.

    For me, one of the great positives of this referendum result is that it should prompt conversations like this. What kinds of goals do we want to prioritize (as a set of communities, or as a nation) and how do we go about reaching them?

    Best wishes,

  3. jp ginestier says:

    Very well said, Jed! Exactly what I feel too, as an ex British resident, always so happy that I actually have a French passport that gave me the right to settle in Britain if I wanted to. I did, back in 1973, after Cameroon, and just after the birth of Eric – who has basically seen the UK within the EU his entire life. (Must admit, I always noted a British reticence, if not an ignorance, of the fact that Britain was in the EU. Sadly, I always thought). JP

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