Letter to America, From a Brexit Survivor
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is about nations divided.
By James Watkins
Regardless of how or whether you voted, it’s clear that disagreement transcended politics in 2016, causing rifts between families and friends. Personal invective has been hurled — not only by supposedly statesmanlike candidates but also by their supporters. Before Tuesday, activists on both sides recounted the vandalizing of houses, death threats and vitriolic online abuse. But now, whether you celebrated or commiserated on Tuesday night, these divides must be healed.
As a Brit, I know how it feels. An electoral shock in my own country on June 24 exposed similar social rifts. The comparisons between Brexit and Trumpism have been around for months, but they don’t just boil down to a populist penchant for change, an electoral appeal to white working-class voters or a desire by globalization’s have-nots to seize back control. It’s not just about anti-establishment voters who took the world by surprise; it’s also about the nature and consequences of the political processes that sharply divided each country. No matter which side won, half of each nation would have been left elated, the other half appalled. While a Trump-led America will be different from post-Brexit Britain, the U.K. can offer some insight into the months ahead.
It wasn’t that “good” had lost and “evil” had won; it was simply that both sides allowed the debate to deteriorate into these extremist terms.
During the June referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union, I watched the news incessantly, hunched over my laptop with my head in my hands. The results slowly turned from worryingly close to devastatingly real, leaving me in the “appalled” camp. As a proud Brit who has lived in America for four years, I felt like my country was turning its back on me. The U.K. that voted to leave was not the country I knew and loved — I simply didn’t recognize the popular vote that rose up against the status quo, and I was left disappointed by my fellow citizens.
The emotions were new to me, but they’ve since been described countless times in Facebook posts by British friends and, more recently, by American ones. If the other side had lost in either case, it would have been a different set of friends articulating the very same emotions. It wasn’t that “good” had lost and “evil” had won; it was simply that both sides allowed the debate to deteriorate into these extremist terms.
In the weeks after Brexit, reports of hate crimes spiked, as did allegations of verbal abuse against the elderly and the working class for their support of the “leave” campaign. Since then, the dust has settled, and these statistics have returned to near-normal levels. People have begun to accept the result and move on. My relationships with those friends and family members who were on a different side of the debate have resumed — even if talking politics remains a no-no. None of the friends who spoke about applying for foreign citizenship or leaving the country have actually done so, and labels of “regrexit” (regretting the vote to leave) and “remoaners” (“remain” voters who complain about the result) have become part of an increasingly lighthearted popular discourse.
Deep social divisions remain, of course, and recent months have managed to only replace the thin veneer of calm that the vote had torn to pieces. The new prime minister’s promise to “unite our country” hasn’t eased hearts and minds. Britain’s success in the Summer Olympics did manage to provide a much-needed, nonpolitical distraction, helping the country pull together in a patriotic, if short-lived, fashion.
So, America, it will be a difficult road. But that would’ve been equally true if Hillary Clinton had won. Your cousins across the pond haven’t figured out yet how to stitch together a fractured society. But they can certainly assure you, in true British fashion, that the only solution is to keep calm and carry on, while perhaps waiting for a cheerful and merciful distraction.