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Fences: A Brexit Diary

Nigel Farage canvassing for ‘Leave’ votes during the Brexit campaign, London, May 2016. He resigned as leader of the UK Independence Party on July 4, shortly after the referendum.
Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
Nigel Farage canvassing for ‘Leave’ votes during the Brexit campaign, London, May 2016. He resigned as leader of the UK Independence Party on July 4, shortly after the referendum.

Back in the old neighborhood in North West London after a long absence, I went past the local primary school and noticed a change. Many of my oldest friends were once students here, and recently—when a family illness returned us to England for a year—I enrolled my daughter. It’s a very pretty redbrick Victorian building, and was for a long time in “special measures,” a judgment of the school inspection authority called Ofsted, and the lowest grade a state school can receive. Many parents, upon reading such a judgment, will naturally panic and place their children elsewhere; others, seeing with their own eyes what Ofsted—because it runs primarily on data—cannot humanly see, will doubt the wisdom of Ofsted and stay put. Still others may not read well in English, or are not online in their homes, or have never heard of Ofsted, much less ever considered obsessively checking its website.

In my case I had the advantage of local history: for years my brother taught here, in an after-school club for migrant children, and I knew perfectly well how good the school is, has always been, and how welcoming to its diverse population, many of whom are recently arrived in the country. Now, a year later, Ofsted has judged it officially “Good,” and if I know the neighborhood, this will mean that more middle-class, usually white, parents will take what they consider to be a risk, move into the environs of the school, and send their kids here.

If this process moves anything like it does in New York, the white middle-class population will increase, keeping pace with the general gentrification of the neighborhood, and the boundaries of the “catchment area” for the school will shrink, until it becomes, over a number of years, almost entirely homogeneous, with dashes of diversity, at which point the regulatory body will award its highest rating at last. But none of this has happened in the old neighborhood yet and perhaps will never happen—given its lengthy and proud history of every conceivable form of diversity—and this was anyway not the change I noticed when I passed by.

At the time my particular brand of liberal paranoia was focused elsewhere: I noticed the fence. For this Victorian school, which, for a hundred years, has found cast-iron railings sufficient to mark its periphery, had now added what looked like tall bamboo slats between the bars, as well as six feet of plant life climbing these slats, blocking the view of the playground from the street and therefore of the children as they played. I went home and sent an intemperate e-mail to a couple of parent governors:

I walked past the school for the first time since I came home (yesterday) and noticed the wooden veil—for lack of a better word—that has gone up around the school. It made me so sad. I’ve lived in this area 40 years. I saw a wall go up outside the Jewish school ten years ago and then a few years ago at the Muslim school. But I never thought I’d see one up outside __________. I’m very curious as to how it came about, who asked for it, how it was decided, and whether the parents are happy with it, and what—officially—is its purpose? “Security”? “Privacy”? Or something else?

An intemperate e-mail, filled with liberal paranoia. By contrast the reply I received was sane and polite. “Privacy and pollution” were the given reasons, pollution in particular being “a huge thing at the moment” that the school had been asked to address by the local council. Plus the playground has a lot of concrete, the vegetation softened the look of the area, and in truth it hadn’t occurred to the parent governors that the new arrangement might look in any way defensive or strange to passersby. I reread my e-mail and felt ashamed to have sent it. What state of mind had led me to interpret a simple cosmetic change so negatively?

I’m used to change: around here change is the rule. The old grammar school up the hill became one of the largest Muslim schools in Europe; the old synagogue became a mosque; the old church is now a private apartment building. Waves of immigration and gentrification pass through these streets like buses. But I suppose this local school, in my mind, was a kind of symbol. And if we’ve found one thing to be true in Britain recently it’s that we, the British, can find ourselves behaving strangely when we allow material realities to turn into symbols.

I valued this little school especially, symbolically, as a mixed institution in which the children of the relatively rich and the poor, the children of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Protestants, Catholics, atheists, Marxists, and the kind of people who are religious about Pilates, are all educated together in the same rooms, play together in the same playground, speak about their faiths—or lack of them—to each other, while I walk by and often look in, and thus receive a vital symbolic reassurance that the world of my own childhood has not yet completely disappeared. These days the Jewish school looks like Fort Knox. The Muslim school is not far behind it. Was our little local school also to become a place behind a fence, separated, private, paranoid, preoccupied with security, its face turned from the wider community?

Two days later the British voted for Brexit. I was in Northern Ireland, staying with my in-laws, two kindly, moderately conservative Northern Irish Protestants with whom I found myself, for the first time in our history, on the same side of a political issue. The shock I’d felt at the school gates I now felt in front of their enormous telly, as together we watched England fence itself off from the rest of Europe, with hardly a thought about what this meant for its Scottish and Irish cousins in the north and the west.

Much has been written since about the shockingly irresponsible behavior of both David Cameron and Boris Johnson, but I don’t think I would have been so entirely focused upon Boris and Dave if I had woken up in my own bed, in London. No, then my first thoughts would have been essentially hermeneutic. What does this vote mean? What was it really about? Immigration? Inequality? Historic xenophobia? Sovereignty? EU bureaucracy? Anti-neoliberal revolution? Class war?

But in Northern Ireland it was clear that one thing it certainly wasn’t about, not even slightly, was Northern Ireland, and this focused the mind on what an extraordinary act of solipsism has allowed this long-brutalized little country to become the collateral damage of an internal rift within the Conservative Party. And Scotland! It’s hard to credit. That two supposedly well-educated men, who have presumably read their British history, could with such utter recklessness throw into hazard a hard-won union of three hundred years’ standing—in order to satisfy their own professional ambitions—appeared that morning a larger crime, to me, than the severing of the decades-long European pact that actually prompted it all.

“Conservative” is not the right term for either of them anymore: that word has at least an implication of care and the preservation of legacy. “Arsonist” feels like the more accurate term. Michael Gove and Nigel Farage meanwhile are the true right-wing ideologues, with clear agendas toward which they have been working for many years. The first had his sights on the Trojan horse of “sovereignty,” from inside of which empty symbol an unfettered deregulated financial sector was supposed to leap. The second, who resigned on July 4, seemed to be in the grip of a genuine racial obsession, combined with a determination to fence off Britain from the European mainstream not only on the question of freedom of movement but on a range of issues from climate change to gun control to repatriation of immigrants.1

A referendum magnifies the worst aspects of an already imperfect system—democracy—channeling a dazzlingly wide variety of issues through a very narrow gate. It has the appearance of intensification—Ultimate democracy! Thumbs up or thumbs down!—but in practice delivers a dangerously misleading reduction. Even many who voted Leave ended up feeling that their vote did not accurately express their feelings. They had a wide variety of motives for their vote, and much of the Remain camp was similarly splintered.

Some of the reasoning was almost comically removed from the binary question posed. A friend whose mother still lives in the neighborhood describes a conversation over the garden fence, between her mother and a fellow North London leftist, who explained to my friend’s mother that she herself had voted Leave in order “to get rid of that bloody health secretary!” Ah, like so many people across this great nation I also long to be free of the almost perfectly named Jeremy Hunt, but a referendum turns out to be a very ineffective hammer for a thousand crooked nails.

The first instinct of many Remain voters on the left was that this was only about immigration. When the numbers came in and the class and age breakdown became known, a working-class populist revolution came more clearly into view, although of the kind that always perplexes middle-class liberals who tend to be both politically naive and sentimental about the working classes. Throughout the day I phoned home and e-mailed and tried to process, along with much of London—or at least the London I know—our enormous sense of shock. “What have they done?” we said to each other, sometimes meaning the leaders, who we felt must have known what they were doing, and sometimes meaning the people, who, we implied, didn’t.

Now I’m tempted to think it was the other way around. Doing something, anything, was in some inchoate way the aim: the notable feature of neoliberalism is that it feels like you can do nothing to change it, but this vote offered up the rare prize of causing a chaotic rupture in a system that more usually steamrolls all in its path. But even this most optimistic leftist interpretation—that this was a violent, more or less considered reaction to austerity and the neoliberal economic meltdown that preceded it—cannot deny the casual racism that seems to have been unleashed alongside it, both by the campaign and by the vote itself.

To the many anecdotal accounts I will add two reported by my Jamaican-born mother. A week before the vote a skinhead ran up to her in Willesden and shouted “Über Alles Deutschland!” in her face, like a memory of the late 1970s. The day after the vote, a lady shopping for linens and towels on the Kilburn High Road stood near my mother and the half-dozen other people originally from other places and announced to no one in particular: “Well, you’ll all have to go home now!”

What have you done, Boris? What have you done, Dave? Yet within this tale of our solipsistic leaders, thoughtlessly lighting a fuse, there is contained a less pleasing story of our own Londoncentric solipsism, which seems to me equally real, and has formed a different kind of veil, perhaps just as hard to see through as the blinding personal ambition of a man like Boris. The profound shock I felt at the result—and which so many other Londoners seem to have experienced—suggests at the very least that we must have been living behind a kind of veil, unable to see our own country for what it has become.

The night before I left for Northern Ireland, I had dinner with old friends, North London intellectuals, in fact exactly the kind of people the Labour MP Andy Burnham made symbolic reference to when he claimed that the Labour Party had lost ground to UKIP because it was “too much Hampstead and not enough Hull,” although of course, in reality, we were all long ago priced out of Hampstead by the bankers and the Russian oligarchs. We were considering Brexit. Probably every dinner table in North London was doing the same. But it turned out we couldn’t have been considering it very well because not one of us, not for a moment, believed it could possibly happen. It was so obviously wrong, and we were so obviously right—how could it?

After settling this question, we all moved on to bemoaning the strange tendency of the younger lefty generation to censor or silence speech or opinions they consider in some way wrong: no-platforming, safe spaces, and the rest of it. We were all right about that, too. But then, from the corner, on a sofa, the cleverest among us, who was at that moment feeding a new baby, waited till we’d all stopped bloviating and added: “Well, they got that habit from us. We always wanted to be seen to be right. To be on the right side of an issue. More so even than doing anything. Being right was always the most important thing.”

In the days following the result I thought about this insight a lot. I kept reading pieces by proud Londoners speaking proudly of their multicultural, outward-looking city, so different from these narrow xenophobic places up north. It sounded right, and I wanted it to be true, but the evidence of my own eyes offered a counternarrative. For the people who truly live a multicultural life in this city are those whose children are educated in mixed environments, or who live in genuinely mixed environments, in public housing or in a handful of historically mixed neighborhoods, and there are no longer as many of those as we like to believe.

For many people in London right now the supposedly multicultural and cross-class aspects of their lives are actually represented by their staff—nannies, cleaners—by the people who pour their coffees and drive their cabs, or else the handful of ubiquitous Nigerian princes you meet in the private schools. The painful truth is that fences are being raised everywhere in London. Around school districts, around neighborhoods, around lives. One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in British society that has been thirty years in the making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and between white and brown and black are real and need to be confronted by all of us, not only those who voted Leave.

Amid all the hysterical characterization of those Leavers in the immediate aftermath—not least my own—I paused and thought of a young woman I had noticed in the playground the year my daughter spent in that school in special measures. She was a mother, like the rest of us, but at least fifteen years younger. After walking behind her up the hill to my house a few times I figured out she lived in the same housing project in which I myself grew up. The reason I noticed her at all was because my daughter happened to be deeply enamored of her son. A playdate was the natural next step.

But I never took that next step and neither did she. I didn’t know how to penetrate what I felt was the fear and loathing she seemed to have for me, not because I was black—I saw her speaking happily with the other black mothers—but because I was middle class. She had seen me open the shiny black door to the house opposite her housing project, just as I had seen her enter the project’s stairwell each day. I remembered these fraught episodes from childhood, when things were the other way around. Could I ask the girl in the big fine house on the park into our cramped council flat? And later, when we moved up to a perfectly nice flat on the right side of Willesden, could I then visit my friend in a rough one on the wrong side of Kilburn?

The answer was, usually, yes. Not without tension, not without occasional mortifying moments of social comedy or glimpses of domestic situations bordering on tragedy—but still it was yes. Back then, we were all still willing to take the “risk,” if risk is the right word to describe entering into the lives of others, not merely in symbol but in reality. But in this new England it felt, to me at least, impossible. To her, too, I think. The gap between us has become too large.

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn; drawing by John Springs

The tall, narrow Victorian house I bought fifteen years ago, though it is exactly the same kind of house my middle-class friends owned when I was growing up, is now worth an obscene amount of money, and I worried that she might think I had actually paid that obscene amount of money to own it. The distance between her flat and my house—though it is, in reality, only two hundred yards—is, in symbol, further than it has ever been. Our prospective playdate lay somewhere over this chasm, and never happened, as I never dared ask for it.

Extreme inequality fractures communities, and after a while the cracks gape so wide the whole edifice comes tumbling down. In this process everybody has been losing for some time, but perhaps no one quite as much as the white working classes who really have nothing, not even the perceived moral elevation that comes with acknowledged trauma or recognized victimhood. The left is thoroughly ashamed of them. The right sees them only as a useful tool for its own personal ambitions. This inconvenient working-class revolution we are now witnessing has been accused of stupidity—I cursed it myself the day it happened—but the longer you look at it, you realize that in another sense it has the touch of genius, for it intuited the weaknesses of its enemies and effectively exploited them. The middle-class left so delights in being right! And so much of the disenfranchised working class has chosen to be flagrantly, shamelessly wrong.

We have a history of ridiculing the poor, in Britain, for “shafting themselves,” for “voting against their interests.” But no less has the neoliberal middle and upper-middle class shafted itself, living in its gilded London prisons. If you think that’s an exaggeration, go up to Notting Hill and watch the private security vehicles, paid for by private residents, slowly patrolling up and down the streets, in front of all those £20 million residences, nervous perhaps of the council house residents still clinging on, the other side of the Portobello Road. Or go up to the Savoy and have a gander at the vintage cocktail list on which the cheapest drink on offer goes for £100 (the most pricey is something called the Sazerac—which claims to be the most expensive cocktail in the world—coming in at £5,000). Strange times.

Of course that cocktail list is only another stupid symbol, but it is of its time and place. There has been a kind of money madness in London for some time and for the rest of us looking on it’s hard to find in such symbols any sign of a beautiful, harmonious, or even happy life (what kind of happy person needs to be seen ordering a £5,000 cocktail?), though at least when you are this rich you can comfortably fool yourself that you are happy, utilizing what the old North London Marxists used to call your “false consciousness.” That crusty standby won’t work anymore for describing the economically and socially disenfranchised of this nation: they are struggling, deeply unhappy, and they know it.

I do believe that, putting aside the true ideological believers on the right, and the high-minded leftists who object to the EU as a tool of global capitalism, the majority of those who voted Leave did so out of anger and hurt and disappointment, helped along by years of calculated political and press manipulation of certain low feelings and base instincts. As painful as it is to write it, when Google records large numbers of Britons Googling “What is the EU?” in the hours after the vote, it becomes very difficult to deny that a significant proportion of our people were shamefully negligent in their democratic duty on June 23.

However people vote, we have to listen to them, but ignorance at the ballot box shouldn’t be celebrated or disingenuously defended. And beyond ignorance, it is simply wrong to take a serious action without seriously considering its consequences for others, in this case, for entire sovereign nations to the north and west of you, never mind the rest of Europe. But I don’t find the people who voted Leave to be in any way exceptional in having low motives.

While we loudly and rightly condemn the misguided racial attitudes that led to millions asking “them” to leave “us,” to get out of our jobs and public housing and hospitals and schools and country, we might also take a look at the last thirty years and ask ourselves what kind of attitudes have allowed a different class of people to discreetly maneuver, behind the scenes, to ensure that “them” and “us” never actually meet anywhere but in symbol. Wealthy London, whether red or blue, has always been able to pick and choose the nature of its multicultural and cross-class relations, to lecture the rest of the country on its narrow-mindedness while simultaneously fencing off its own discreet advantages. We may walk past “them” very often in the street and get into their cabs and eat their food in their ethnic restaurants, but the truth is that more often than not they are not in our schools, or in our social circles, and they very rarely enter our houses—unless they’ve come to work on our endlessly remodeled kitchens.

Elsewhere in Britain people really do live cheek-by-jowl with the recently migrated, and experience the undercutting of their wages by newcomers. They really do have to fight for resources under an austerity government that makes it all too easy to blame your unavailable hospital bed on the migrant family next door, or on an oblique bureaucracy across the Channel, which the nitwit demagogues on the TV keep telling you is the reason there’s not enough money in the NHS. In this atmosphere of hypocrisy and outright deceit, should the working-class poor have shown themselves to be the “better man” when all around them is corruption and venality? When everyone’s building a fence, isn’t it a true fool who lives out in the open?

Right now the news cycle is moving so fast that it feels the wheels might come off, and there is much talk of a second referendum, which would of course reinforce the fundamental suspicions of many of the disenfranchised that it is only we, the well-to-do Remainers with the right views, whose decisions truly count. No: here is our bed, and it appears that we must lie in it. But to say we have all played our part is not to obscure those who have played the central role of conductor at this shameful last night at the proms. Cameron and Johnson have already fallen and/or been pushed onto their swords, and Gove has followed, but fatally ineffectual Jeremy Corbyn—despite dozens of knives in the back—refuses to budge. If it is indeed true that he was not just ineffective in the Remain campaign but engaged in “deliberate sabotage” of it—as has been claimed by Phil Wilson, an MP and the parliamentary chair of “Labour in for Britain”—then Corbyn has profoundly betrayed the youth vote that so recently swept him into power.2 He must go.

When we put a school in special measures in England some of the more optimistic middle-class mums—in which group I include myself—will murmur over morning coffee: “Well, special measures is a good thing really, because now they’ll have to do something about it.” Britain is now in special measures—the crisis that was always there has been revealed—and rather than pull another veil over the mess we might as well start trying to build from where we are. The first item on the agenda being replacing the “head”—as any failing school knows—and then preparing what’s left of the left for a fight. The rights and protections provided for the British people, however imperfectly, by Europe, must not now be replaced by this nonsensical Faragian vision of British sovereignty, in which a maimed Saint George, with two of his limbs lopped off, picks up his sword and hobbles off to battle the EU dragon to renegotiate, from a far weaker position, all the terms we spent these last decades putting in place.

As I began this essay Farage was spotted triumphant in a pair of Union Jack shoes, at a private garden party, with Rupert Murdoch and Alexander Lebedev, whose son owns the Evening Standard and The Independent, and Liam Fox—then running for Conservative leader—discussing public matters behind closed doors. By the time I was finishing it, Farage had resigned, saying “I want my life back.” In Britain Nigels come and go, but Ruperts are forever. My life and the lives of my fellow Britons are at all times at least partially governed by a permanent, unelected billionaire class, who own the newspapers and much of the TV, and through which absurd figures like Farage are easily puffed up, thus swinging elections and shaping policy. Another very useful lesson: the postwar British compact between government and people is not guaranteed, and it can be collectively unraveled, or trampled over by a few malign actors. Therefore the civilizing liberal arguments that established a universal health care system, state education, and public housing out of the ruins of war now need a party willing to make those arguments afresh in a new age of global capitalism, though whether that party will still even bear the name “Labour” remains to be seen.

The recently migrated have come to this country precisely because of this patrimony—for the housing, the education, and the health care—and some have come merely to exploit it, no doubt. But the great majority have come to participate: they enroll their kids in our state schools, they pay their British taxes, they try to make their way. It is certainly not a crime or a sin to seek a better life abroad, or to flee from countries riven by wars, many of which we ourselves had a hand in. Whether we still know, in Britain, what a better life is, what its necessary conditions are and how to achieve them, is what’s now in doubt.

A few days after the vote I came to France, to teach my NYU students in their Paris summer program, something that I suppose will not be so easy to do very soon. Straight off the train, I headed to dinner and sat down in a restaurant opposite one of my colleagues, the Bosnian-born writer Aleksandar Hemon, ordered a drink, and pronounced Brexit, melodramatically, “a total disaster.” Novelists are prone to melodrama. Hemon sighed, smiled sadly, and said: “No: just ‘a disaster.’ War is the total disaster.” Living through Yugoslavia’s bloody sovereignty implosion gives a man a sense of proportion. A European war on that scale is something Britain has avoided intimately experiencing for more than half a century now, and in defense against which the EU was in part formed. Whether we go any further down the road marked “disaster” is up to us.

  1. 1

    Farage believes that the arctic sea ice cap is growing back and that reports of its disappearance are deliberate overstatement, forged in conspiracy by Green activists in cahoots, naturally, with “EU federalists.” He thinks that the strict gun laws put in place after the massacre at Dunblane should be repealed, and he feels that the “basic principle” of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech—in which he said the proposed immigration and antidiscrimination legislation would lead to violence—was correct. 

  2. 2

    Jonathan Freedland, “The Young Put Jeremy Corbyn In, But He Betrayed Them Over Brexit,” The Guardian, June 27, 2016.