The unexpected happened, and sterling fell off a cliff. It seemed that the majority did not quite believe that Brexit would really brexit. Many people thought the vote might be close, but the shrewd money was on the dear old British public reverting to their usual default mode which is one of phlegmatic, pragmatic steadiness. (I once wrote an entire essay on this premise, using it as an explanation for the reason that Britain had no nineteenth century revolution as Europe went into the raging, radical spasms of 1830 and 1845. Britain quietly passed the Second Reform Act and the Repeal of the Corn Laws and went on with her business.) But the Ordinary Decent Britons did not choose pragmatism. Half of them voted for steadiness, and half of them voted for revolution, and the revolutionary half won.
The markets started crashing so hard that some of them had to be suspended. The pound fell deeper and faster than it has since 1972. It made Black Wednesday look like the Teddy Bear’s Picnic. The leaders of the Brexit movement who spoke to the media were oddly unBritish about the whole thing, at least they did not speak in the restrained, sporting, self-deprecating way that I think of as Britishness at its best. They celebrated and whooped, whilst the economy faltered and stumbled and fell. When asked about that, they said, airily: ‘Oh, you have to expect a bit of economic volatility.’ Someone had sent out that word. I heard it three times. One of them stated, rather crossly, when asked about the plummeting pound: ‘This is Project Fear again.’
I felt confused. This was not Project Fear, it was Project Reality. The very thing the experts had warned about was coming true, before my stretched eyes. I did not understand those Brexit leaders. I did not understand what they were celebrating so blithely. I did not understand their tone. If I were in their shoes, I would be sober, and humble, and firm of purpose, and slightly chastened. I would temper my day of jubilee with a serious acceptance of the consequences, of the turmoil unfolding all around.
I would not be saying, as Nigel Farage said, that this was ‘a victory for real people, for decent people.’ The blatant implication was that I, who felt defeated, obviously did not count as a real person or a decent person. Everybody I talked to, in the same state of shock and desolation, could not be, in the Farage book, real or decent. What were we? Unreal and indecent? The country, riven, needed reassurance, the promise of unity, and it got Us and Them.
I could not sit still as the Today Programme unfolded. I went out into the sunshine, marching the dogs off their feet, desperately dialling the numbers of old friends. I spoke first to a man I have adored since we were eighteen. He runs a business; he is one of those company bosses that the Brexit leadership said needed a wake-up call. His share price had tumbled thirty percent. ‘I’m worried about the pension funds,’ he said. He was not concerned for himself, but for those pensions. That was one of my original frets. I had the real people in my head, despite what Mr Farage had to say about it. I was worried about Mrs Everywoman, who had saved all her life, and her pension, which was now fading before her eyes..
I spoke to another old friend, who is a freelance photographer. ‘I don’t know what to do or where to go,’ he said. ‘There is no one who speaks for me. I’m damn well going into politics. I’m going to start a new party. It’s time for the SDP 2.0, for the progressive voice.’
I called one of the best of the best beloveds, who started up a business from scratch that makes television programmes. He has worked his arse off for twenty years, to make it a success. ‘I don’t understand anything,’ he said. ‘It does not feel real.’
My dear friend the World Traveller, who once rode the silk route on Mongolian ponies and camels from God knows where, and is not afraid of much, drove up to my door, a blank look on her face. ‘I find this very frightening,’ she said. ‘I want to live in a country that is open and welcoming and diverse.’ We talked of the extraordinary, dedicated Polish woman who was one of my mother’s carers during her final illness, who worked two jobs, who came back in after a long day, gave her children their tea, and then went out for a night shift. ‘How can I look her in the face, after all this?’ my friend said.
In a daze, I drove up to the charity where I volunteer. I saw a gentleman who was once in the King’s Troop. ‘I know one person who will be pleased,’ he said, grimly. ‘Mr Putin will be rubbing his hands together in glee.’ I was introduced to a visiting brigadier, very upright, radiating intelligence. ‘I really don’t know what happens next,’ he said. If the brigadier does not know, I wondered, dolefully, then who does?
I suddenly realised, as I got home, that I had spoken to a perfect cross-section of society, from old to young, from metropolitan to rural, from the boss of a blue chip company to an Oxford graduate to a man who was brought up in a children’s home to a veteran who fought for his country. I spoke to a mother, an ex-policewoman, a Royal Marine, a retired book dealer, a man in the arts. All had the same shell-shocked, dazed response. I thought of that little charity, which is making a difference, which is just finding its feet and ready to expand its work. How will we raise the funds we need now?
My adored stepfather, who is still reeling from the loss of my mother, stared bleakly into his now uncertain old age. ‘I did not want my final years to be like this,’ he said, very quietly. ‘I no longer know what they hold for me.’
How, I thought, will anyone work out what happens next?
Yet, this is the demos. The people have spoken. Their decision is heartfelt, and must be honoured and valued.
But it does not feel quite as simple as that. Seventeen million people got what they wanted. Sixteen million are left voiceless and powerless and bewildered. They watch the world markets falling, as billions of pounds and dollars and yen are wiped off the global economy. They sit in shock as big companies already announce that they are moving jobs from London to Dublin and Frankfurt. They try to comprehend that Britain has gone from the fifth richest nation to the sixth, in one night. They, real people that they are, worry for the future their children must face.
Democracy is the thing I believe in passionately, yet here in Scotland, whose people voted to Remain to the tune of 62%, the result feels oddly jarring, not very democratic at all. (It feels, to my irrational mind, as if the rest of the country has said: you don't count. Of course it is not as simple as that, but that is what it feels like.) The will of the people is what all this is about, but the Britons under twenty-five, 72% of whom wanted to stay in, have their will ignored. And they are the ones who will have to live longest with this result. ‘What about the young people?’ says one of the old friends, on a dying fall.
This is not like a general election. In a normal election, if you back the wrong horse, or hate the result, you get another go in a few years. You suck up your disappointment and butch up for the next fight. This is for good and all. There is no going back, no second chance. I have seen people on Twitter saying that it is a brave new dawn, and that those of us who don’t like it should be quiet and stop whining. But surely if this is about the voters, about democracy, about real people with real human hearts, the sixteen million should be honoured just as the seventeen million are. Their feelings should be allowed to exist. Their freedom of expression should be respected. They should be heard.
I am not pointing fingers or calling people names. I am not even saying that the Brexiteers are wrong. I don’t know that they are wrong, any more than they know that they are right. Perhaps those sunlit uplands of which Boris Johnson spoke will one day make themselves seen. But the reality of this moment is uncertainty, instability, a chaos that did not exist yesterday, and did not have to exist today. I simply feel bereft, sorrowful and as if the ground that I stand on is no longer solid.
Because nobody, nobody, knows what happens next.