People like to talk about generation-defining events as though they were one moment, one instant when everything changed. Today in Britain we had that moment when it was announced our country had voted to leave the European Union. We heard the words that would change our nation’s future, Europe’s future, maybe even the world’s future forever. We’ll remember where we were when we heard those words; but it wasn’t just one moment—that would be far too simple.
Some background: The European Union (EU) is the biggest peace project Europe's ever seen. After World War 2, it was a symbol of unity and moving forward together. Not every country in Europe is part of the EU and you have to apply to get in, but once you do there are some rules, a few of which include:
- Some shared laws and human rights
- Special business deals to encourage the EU to trade with each other (it’s amazing for business)
- Free movement of people. Basically, if you're an EU citizen, you can go where you want and work wherever.
Remember, not every country in the EU is wealthy; some are poor—Poland, Romania, even Greece, Spain, and Italy—so some of their citizens choose to move to the wealthier UK.
In the UK, we have a political party called UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) who are essentially massive racists who believe that all the country's ills are because of immigrants. It just so happens that the particular immigrants they hate at the moment are white Eastern Europeans, but they hate brown people, too—even if they pretend they don't. The leader of UKIP is this real nasty piece of work called Nigel Farage. For Game of Thrones fans, he is the Ramsay Bolton of modern times. He is a rich banker (whose youth was spent singing Hitler Youth songs) who pretends to speak for the common man. He's Donald Trump with an English accent, maybe even worse. He's an inflammatory a-hole who once said that the National Health Service (NHS) was financially suffering because Africans are coming over to cure their HIV. He also hates gay people and women.
We used to have a left-leaning government, but due to a divided left (over the Iraq War, money, and education fees), two outlier parties grew. These parties are the UKIP, which persuaded people that all bad things were a result of migrants coming here in "swarms"(that's the kind of language they use), and the Scottish National Party (SNP) which essentially said, "Hey England, you suck and are right wing, we don't want to be attached to you…oh, and p.s. we haven't forgiven you for all our people you killed, like, 400 years ago'
These parties' expansion mostly happened back in 2010. Fast forward to the UK's next election in 2015, and our two main parties—Labour and Conservatives—have lost huge swathes of support to the SNP and UKIP, though neither party is big enough to become government. The Conservatives made a promise to UKIP supporters: "Vote for us and we promise we'll give you a referendum on whether to leave the EU." The Conservatives were elected last year, and have been cutting public spending to within an inch of its life. Even our doctors went on strike—the people who pledged to save lives at all costs walked out of our hospitals.
So that's what happened yesterday: We voted on whether we should remain part of the EU. Hardly any of us wanted this vote, but the Conservatives forced it on us—did I mention only 37 percent of the country voted for the Conservative party in the first place?
The Leave campaign won. They got 52 percent to the Remain campaign's 48 percent.
If the result wasn’t bad enough, the campaign has been gruelling. Racism has been given a platform that cannot be taken back. Reducing non-British people to a £-sign and a distasteful tutting sound, well, it takes time to heal from that. And the Islamophobia! It is on some next level apocalyptic shit. The Leave campaign kept saying that if we stayed in the EU, the union would let immigrants from Turkey into the UK and then imagine how many Muslims would be in the country! They said over and over that we "need to take our country back". And these toxic beliefs live beyond words. Eight days ago, female politician Jo Cox (who was committed to the Remain campaign) was murdered on the street by far-right extremists. (UK newspapers didn't call the incident a terrorist attack, perhaps because the assailant wasn't a person of color. Did I mention that most of our papers are pro-Leave and owned by Rupert Murdoch, who once said he hated the EU because he couldn't tell it what to do?)
We are a country that is divided, and the divisions are made on distinct lines. Young people—who are already broke and running out of opportunities—want to stay in the EU. We've grown up comfortable with people from other nations, and we want the chance to work in other industries. Seventy-five percent of people under 30 voted to remain in the EU. Broadly speaking, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with college educations also want to remain in the EU. So do people who earn more than the average national salary. Scotland wants to stay in, and so does Northern Ireland.
The SNP has announced plans for a separation; it may very well leave the UK to remain part of the EU. Northern Ireland hasn't announced similar plans, but it's not even been 20 years since peace was declared in Ireland. This result could re-ignite tensions and open wounds that hadn't finished healing.
The EU is not perfect by a longshot. They've done some crappy things and can sometimes be too pro-business. But the EU symbolizes camaraderie and a vision of peace, cooperation, and openness. Now, it's over—our dream is sacrificed on the altar of fear. We are a nation about to tear ourselves to shreds and we're taking Europe with us.
A while back, France's then-president Nicolas Sarkozy said in a speech that Europe could learn something from Britain; we were the melting pot of Europe. We were the kids with cool music and racial unity. We set an example. Now that we've voted to leave, far-right factions across Europe are already rallying up. Separatist movements across Europe are gathering their energy.
Although we might not be in the Union if the EU collapses, we will still see our own collapse on UK soil. It’s the age divide that perhaps hurts the most. People 60+ years old came out in full force to vote for Leave, even though they won’t be around much longer to deal with the consequences—and even though they were the ones who voted us into the EU in the first place.
Imagine waking up one day and learning that all your plans—all of them—are screwed. You don’t know what will happen to your job, you don’t know where all your friends from other parts of the world will be in two years, and all your savings have decreased in value because the GBP has crashed. And imagine knowing that it was your own grandparents or parents who did that to you.
“They’ve stolen our future,” is the headline from the youth here today.
I walk around London knowing I am not welcome anywhere else in this country, especially not as a woman of color. Even the streets here feel different now. I've seen younger people on buses ask older people, "Who did you vote for? I'm not standing so you can sit if you voted Leave."
Tonight, there will be protests up and down the country, like there have been for years now. We will link arms and scream and shout, but the resounding feeling is that part of the UK died, and it can never be brought back.