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Taking an extended (liquid) lunch break at the McGlynn pub in north London, Charity worker Matt Stevens and his colleague Jamie Murphy tried to relax in the warm June weather and absorb the news.
“I should be happy on a lovely day like this,” said Murphy. “But I’m not. I’m in despair.”
Another drinker, leafing sadly through a copy of the Evening Standard newspaper (that supported Brexit) at the bar would not give his name, but described the shock of leaving the EU as “like a bereavement in the family”.
Some 70% of voters in the British capital voted to remain in the EU in Thursday’s vote.
They had followed the debate closely. They had been relieved that in the last week the opinion polls had leaned towards “Remain”, and that the bookies confidently predicted a “Brexit” would (probably) never happen.
The result came as an extreme shock. The UK had “just shown the finger to anyone who makes any sense, to anyone in authority, to the experts and economists” who almost universally warned against splitting from the EU, Stevens said.
Immigration a non-issue
Stevens believes the British public has been conned into supporting a split from the EU that has served solely to further the ambitions of Boris Johnson, former London mayor and head of the Vote Leave campaign, to replace Prime Minister David Cameron, who on Friday morning announced he would resign.
“They were told it was immigrants who were flooding the country, using public services and taking their jobs,” he told FRANCE 24. “But it is the Conservative government’s austerity which is to blame, and without the EU it is only going to get worse.”
“The EU has actually protected us from the worst that the Tories [Conservatives] have been able to throw at us,” he added. “Now we’re at the mercy of a pro-business party that is suspicious of workers.”
For Stevens, immigration is a “non-issue” that was the focus of an overtly xenophobic campaign by the United Kingdom Independence Party that was played up by Johnson’s Vote leave.
“People are angry because of government cuts and the Tories’ disconnection with working people. This country’s problems are self-inflicted. They have nothing to do with the EU.”
Worse, Stevens believes that now Vote Leave has won, there is no plan for what to do now that the country has decided to divorce itself from the EU.
“They won’t put any human rights and workers’ protection laws that are anything as effective as the EU legislation they say has undermined our sovereignty,” he said. “Instead, we can look forward to Scotland [which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU] breaking away from us, leaving us as an offshore floating oddity on the fringes of Europe.”
Older voters overwhelmingly voted for Brexit, while younger voters voted against it in almost inverse proportions. The Leave campaign, Stevens said, had managed to fracture an already deeply stratified nation by “class, geography and now age – I now no longer have any idea of what my country is, who we are as a people”.
Stevens feared that Thursday’s referendum was the starting bell in a coming cultural war: “I feel like I shouldn’t voice my opinions in case there is someone nearby who disagrees. There will be trouble, there will be fights, but I’m not going to keep my mouth shut.”
As if on cue, a man walked past the pub’s terrace singing “Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves” before shouting “we’ve taken our country back!”
“Back from who?” shouted Stevens.
“Back from the Germans, innit,” the man replied angrily.
‘There’s something seriously wrong’
His colleague Jamie Murphy, downing a second pint of cider, said he “despaired” at the result and saw “nothing but negatives on the horizon”.
“There is going to be social strife,” he said. “It feels like everything I’ve known and identified with is going to break up. Us from the EU, Scotland from the UK.”
“When you wake up, like I did this morning, and see that Europe’s far-right leaders are happy that Britain voted to leave, you know there is something seriously wrong. I feel like we are sleepwalking back to the dark side of Europe.”
Murphy related a story of a teacher friend who has the son of a migrant in his class. The teacher overheard other pupils asking the boy: “Why are you still here? My dad told me you lot were all being kicked out.”
EU should be ‘broken apart’
Sitting at a nearby table Ben Maloney, a former Labour Party secretary working as a press officer at a nearby NGO, said that he had supported Brexit, blaming the EU for forcing the same austerity programmes employed by the UK government on countries like Greece “almost at gunpoint”.
“The leave campaign have taken complete advantage of the most vulnerable people in society and sold them the lie that stopping immigration would solve all their problems,” he said.
Maloney cited Sunderland, a working class city in the north of England that was one of the first voting districts to declare a result (massively in favour of leaving the EU), as a prime example.
“Sunderland has been left to rot,” he said. “The leave campaign hoodwinked a desperate population in a bid to boost their careers and protect the policies of austerity.”
But behind this there is a significant bloc on the left that wants to see the EU “and its neo-liberal agenda” broken apart and rebuilt from scratch. Quitting the EU, Maloney believes, is just the first stage.