The Brexit diaries: Patrick Freyne’s travels in 2016 Britain
The week the United Kingdom voted for Brexit in June 2016, our reporter travelled from Wales to London, talking to voters. Here are his ‘Brexit diaries’ articles in full
Chelsea Pensioners arrive to cast their votes in the EU referendum in London in June. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The week the United Kingdom voted for Brexit in June 2016, Patrick Freyne drove around the UK, from Wales and the more Eurosceptical midlands down into the Remain-heartland of London, talking to people on the streets about the referendum, then writing daily reports for this paper. Here are all of those reports in order.
DAY 1: WREXHAM
Sometimes a man can have too much freedom, the bearded, leather-clad biker is saying. “We’ve driven our bikes through Europe and sometimes I wish it was harder,” says the man, whose name is Vernon Long. “You can just drive through.”
“It makes you think the security isn’t very good,” says his friend, Neil Ballard. “There are a lot of threats coming in all the time, isn’t there? Isis and all that.”
Ballard and Long are the first Eurosceptics I meet on a week-long tour of a possibly Brexiting Britain. I meet them on the ferry. Their friends aren’t voting (“Both sides tell lies,” says Paul Robinson), but Ballard and Long are committed to a Leave vote.
“I’ve had a bit of time because I was made redundant,” says Ballard, formerly a Nottinghamshire factory manager. “I’ve spent a bit of time looking at YouTube. I’ve learned all about it . . . We’re not in control of our own borders.”
Nearby, Richard and John are returning from a fishing trip in Cavan. John is voting Leave because he is worried about immigration.
Richard strongly disagrees. “We wouldn’t have railways and canals if not for Irish immigration,” he says. “We wouldn’t have a functioning NHS without foreign workers.”
He sighs. “The problem is, it’s very easy to be passionate about Brexit – you just tell people what they want to hear. But it’s very hard to sell a boring European ideal.”
On leaving the ferry, I drive from Holyhead to Wrexham, the largest town in north Wales. There, on Hope Street, John Gilbert has a stall for the Vote Leave campaign.
“Earlier, a man came over screaming at us, ‘Are you happy now you’ve killed a young mother?’” he says sadly. The murder of Jo Cox has added a new layer of darkness to the campaign. “It’s such a tragedy. I can’t see how it’s not going to have an effect.”
Gilbert is here with a Ukip Welsh Assembly member, Michelle Brown, who says Brexit will be “a boost of confidence” for British values. Those are? She lists the not uniquely British “freedom of speech, democracy, self-determination and the rule of law”.
Brown and her colleagues stress the importance of national sovereignty and control of immigration. They disbelieve official immigration figures. She and I have a difference of opinion about Ukip’s recent “Breaking Point” poster of Syrian refugees.
At a nearby market, I meet more advocates of Leave than Remain. Many had no strong feelings on the matter until last year. Many are informed by an antipathy to immigration and, occasionally, straightforward racism. (One woman, chillingly, seems to think it’s a vote on deporting people.) Some have no plans to vote. (“What’s a referendum?”asks one.)
Cynicism about politics is rife. The Leave campaign subscribes to such cynicism – Brown says she is worried that the referendum results will be fixed by the nefarious forces for Remain.
David Jones, who operates a stall at the market, says he’s voting Leave due to worries about immigration, though he doesn’t believe the economic forecasts from either side: “No one knows what’s going to happen one way or another.”
An older woman, Thelma Philips seems to equate a vote for Brexit with a vote against the Tories. “The way they’re spending our money, the way they’re treating our doctors,” she says. “And we’ve lost our fishing rights. We’ve lost our steel. We’ve lost our coal.”
But will the steel and coal industries come back if Britain leaves? “Why not? There’s plenty of coal here, and we’ve the best steelmakers in the world.”
Brexit is marketed as a panacea for all ills. “I can’t get a job,” says a young woman, Hayley, by way of explaining why she will vote Leave.
Will that be different if Britain leaves the EU? “Yes,” she says confidently.
Younger people seem more likely to vote Remain, though not enthusiastically. “We’re being asked to make a decision we know nothing about,” says Jamie Hamlington. “I don’t see the point of Europe, but I’m going to vote ‘stay’ simply because it’s a backward move to leave. Leave is a real British Bulldog, Boris Johnson riding a lion sort of thing.
“There are legitimate reasons to leave, but the Leave campaign has been hijacked by racist bigots.”
Farther up the street I meet Melanie Smith, who works for a housing agency. “Immigration doesn’t bother me,” she says. “I think we’re safer being part of something bigger.”
Smith seems frustrated. “On social media, most of what I see is from people who want to leave. If you disagree they call you ‘traitor’. There’s a lot of talk about ‘taking back our country’. Take it back from where? It’s here. I’ve just seen it. It’s outside the window.”
DAY 2: STRATFORD-ON-AVON
In the garden of the house in which Shakespeare was born, a costumed actor recites a speech from Henry V. “Some people asked for Henry V ‘with the big Brexit at the end’,” explains Becky Pratt, from the group Shakespeare Aloud. “They were Brexiters. We were a little bit ‘uh?’”
Pratt and her colleagues are for Remain. As actors, being members of the EU makes it easier to travel for work, “and I think we should be listening to the experts who talk about the danger to the economy if we leave . . . People are panicking about immigration and much of it is racist”.
Fellow actor David Hubball references a speech from the Book of Sir Thomas More, believed to have been written by Shakespeare. “It basically says, ‘How would you like it if you went to another country and were treated like that?”
Many of the people I talk to in Stratford-on-Avon aren’t sure how they will vote. They say they are confused. A little over half are veering towards Leave. Immigration is almost always the reason.
Scourge of immigration
The first person I meet is a cafe owner who eagerly warns about the scourge of immigration as her eastern European waiter makes my coffee. At a nearby table a retired engineer, Ted Stevens, says he has already voted “out” with a postal vote. National sovereignty is his main concern, but immigration bothers him too. “I’ve always lived with different nationalities,” he says. “We had Poles coming here after the war and, flipping heck, who am I talking to, the Irish . . . But we shouldn’t have an open door.”
Amy Rose isn’t sure how she will vote. Her partner is adamantly pro-Brexit, particularly since Boris Johnson visited his workplace a while back. She’s unsure. “Forty per cent of the workmen there are Polish or Romanian,” she says. “I feel bad for them. It must feel awful listening to us as we’re discussing all this.”
Her friends Darren Dean, who works for a hotel, and Martin Griffin, who works for a coach company, aren’t registered to vote. Dean says, “I couldn’t care either way. I don’t believe one side or the other.”
They don’t seem to feel particularly strongly about immigration. “You can’t tell immigrants from tourists in Stratford anyway,” says Rose.
Across from Shakespeare’s house there’s a Christmas shop filled with decorations, cards and figurines. Steve Bartlett, who works there, has a very particular take on what over-regulation means. Did you know, for example, that the transportation of snow-globes has been difficult post 9/11, because they contain liquid?
“This town has changed for the worse in the last 40 years,” he says. He is going to vote Leave. “I think we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” he says. “I’d prefer to be damned and standing alone.”
Rory Keegan, at the Shakespeare Bookshop, is the only person I meet who describes himself as “European”. “We’ve a duty to contribute and to stand together with our neighbours,” he says. “Our leading Shakespeare scholar, Sir Stanley Wells, he says Shakespeare would definitely be for ‘Remain’ . . . Shakespeare’s view of the world was a European view. He was influenced by culture right across Europe. He was not isolationist.”
LATER THAT DAY IN KENILWORTH
In nearby Kenilworth, a Tory-leaning town of 22,000 people, they are celebrating the 750th anniversary of a siege at Kenilworth Castle. Vince Cable is there trying to convince shoppers not to have a siege mentality about Europe. He describes the referendum as “an internal conflict in the Tory party” that was “thrust upon us”.
“Our European identity has always been rather semi-detached and that has been part of the problem,” he says. The Remain campaign has built an almost “apologetic” campaign based on business arguments “so when faced with an emotional argument from the other side it’s quite difficult . . . It’s a bit of a lesson to us . . . We need to build a bigger commitment to the European project.”
Nearby, former MEP Liz Lynne does a little dance as a Romanian man plays on an accordion. She’s more hopeful than before. Previously Remain canvassers were getting a lot of abuse. “It was quite frightening . . . On Sunday a change was palpable.”
No one today is abusive, but some are argumentative. A young canvasser called Harry Hewer listens to a man angry about “Muslims and the London mayor”.
The accordion player Aurel Toader packs up. He’s off to his cleaning job. He’s wearing his uniform – black slacks and a black polo-shirt – beneath his anorak. “I think we’re better together,” he says. “I work hard. I pay tax. I am European. You are European.”
The problem is that many British people do not feel European, even those voting Remain. Oliver Knight, a dapper estate agent, wistfully evokes “the idea of raising the drawbridge and being on our own, masters of our own destiny . . . If we could leave without damaging ourselves, I’d be all for it”.
Around the corner three taxi drivers are having a tea break. What do they expect to happen? “Well, he’ll be gone come Friday,” says Paul Harris, pointing to Albanian driver Sai Murati. Harris is joking. Sort of. He is fearful of immigration. “I hope we come out of /[EUROPE] for my grandchildren’s sake,” he says. “How will schools cope? How will hospitals cope?”
Murati seems slightly irked. “I pay my taxes. I’m a British citizen. Some people come and take benefits . . . I never got benefits.”
Harris continues. “My grandson is in Coventry at a school where they speak 31 languages. What chance does he have?”
“He’ll speak 31 languages,” says Murati. “You can just about speak one.”
“I hope he teaches me to say ‘f**k off’ in Albanian,” says Harris.
Murati tells him to f**k off in Albanian. They laugh.
Is Murati planning to vote? He shakes his head. “I’ll let these f**kers sort it out for themselves.”
DAY 3: READING
“The ‘neverendum’ is what I call it,” says retired Reading man David George, and after just three days immersed in Britain’s EU referendum, I’m inclined to agree.
“I’m Reading born and bred”, George says, “strong in the arm and weak in the head.” He explains why he thinks people in this southeast town will, on the whole, vote to Remain: They are comfortable with multiculturalism. “The local paper first produced a separate Polish edition back in the 1970s.”
He says the Brexit side are “in cloud cuckoo land”. “They keep making these statements, but nobody knows what’s going to happen if we leave. I’m not a passionate EU advocate, but I think we can do more inside than outside, and the bile that the Leave side have engendered is beyond compare . . . but I have no idea what people think any more.” He laughs. “I’ve stopped listening.”
I’ve been driving around the UK since Monday. There are few posters. I’ve only ever met canvassers by appointment, and the campaign literature I have encountered the most are leaflets produced by a Eurosceptic pub chain, Wetherspoons.
Many of the people I’ve met did not have particularly strong views on this issue a year ago. Young people are more inclined to vote Remain. Older people are more inclined to want to leave. People variously characterise the EU as a glorified chamber of commerce, a necessary utopian project and a nefarious federalist empire.
Sometimes people from both sides describe it as though it’s a combination of all three.
Most Remainers are concerned with the economy; most Leavers talk about “unfettered” immigration and are cynical about economics. Many Remainers recount the business argument without enthusiasm.
For every Leaver who depicts post-Brexit Britain as a Panglossian triumph, there’s another who makes it sound like a fatalistic last stand. Reading is the first place I’ve been where I meet more Remain voters than Leave voters.
“What do I believe?” asks Bruno, a self-employed Portuguese window-cleaner sitting in a cafe with his mother and uncle. He sighs. He can’t vote, he says, but he thinks he would vote Remain, “though it’s hard to know what’s what”.
Bruno’s fiancee is English and she’s voting Leave. Even though he is Portuguese? He laughs. “Well, I’m not going to get kicked out now,” he says.
But why is she voting Leave? “She thinks it will help the country financially and she’s worried about the Turks coming in.”
She’s no racist, he stresses. “She’s a carer and lots of her friends from work are African.”
Stefan Kowal, who I meet on nearby Broad Street, dislikes what he sees as the EU’s antidemocratic overreach, but he dislikes the rhetoric of the Leave campaign more. “I’m the son of a Ukrainian refugee. I hate the way they’ve conflated migrants and refugees. Some of the things they’re saying about immigrants are just awful.”
Laighton Yeo, a former civil servant, also dislikes how immigration issues have been “grossly exaggerated”. He asks me if I’ve heard of the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought skilled immigrants from the West Indies in the 1940s.
Yeo’s father worked alongside one of them. “The history of our country is a history of immigration. I’m proud of that.”
At the Irish Centre, there is a daily lunch for older Irish people in the community. It’s overseen by Anne Morris, a trustee of the Hibernian Trust. She’s a retired Westmeath woman who came here at the age of 18. Her brother came a little before and told her about the “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish” signs.
Most of the people I meet at the centre are voting Leave. They do not see parallels between their migration to the UK and migration today, but Morris is a Remainer. She’s sympathetic to immigrants – “Sure I’m an immigrant, amn’t I?” – and her granddaughters convinced her that leaving the EU would be bad for jobs.
She likes the debates. “Maybe that’s why I’ve lost my voice.”
Out on the street, I talk to some younger people. A homeless man named Lee Staunton says he’s voting Leave because he thinks foreign labour makes it more difficult to get work. “It’s not their fault, though,” he adds. “In their place, we’d do the same thing.”
Liam McTiernan says most young people want to Remain. “We don’t want all this restructuring going on as we leave university and are trying to settle into our careers . . . I know no young people voting out.”
His friend Calum Fullbrook is frustrated by his older relatives. “They think leaving will have an effect on immigration, but I’ve tried explaining that any trade deals we do will involve freedom of movement. Immigration is not going to stop . . . I’ve written essays on it.”
Joseph Guard has a different view. He is with his Irish-born mother Nora, who probably won’t vote, and his dog Saoirse. Guard is a loquacious man.
Bouncers on the door
“When you have a party,” he says, “you want your friends to come and have a good time. But you need bouncers on the door to make sure it’s a harmonious party. You don’t want strangers coming in and drinking all your grog. If they do come, you want them to bring their own grog.”
He believes Britain needs to be able to make autonomous decisions. He likens Britain’s relationship to Europe as an abusive one it has to “walk away from”.
“Always with the analogies,” says his mother.
I observe that the Irish are more pro-European than the British. “No offence,” Guard says, “I have Irish heritage, but Ireland has a reputation of being slightly dependent.”
“Careful,” says his mother.
Guard exhibits a confident brand of British exceptionalism that I’ve come across a lot this week. “Look,” he says, “the Remain side say that we’re ‘stronger together’, but that’s missing the point. Gazelles are stronger together. Zebras are stronger together. Britain’s not a gazelle. Britain’s a lion. Lions don’t need to keep together. Lions can go it alone.”
DAY 4: REFERENDUM DAY, KILBURN, LONDON
In Kilburn, the changing face of UK immigration is visible on the streets. You can see people there from all over the world, but if you listen you can hear Irish accents, remnants of an earlier wave.
Some of the people I meet there haven’t thought much about the referendum. Portuguese deli owner José Matos won’t vote. “I don’t read the papers,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like it affects me.”
Matos came to London at the age of nine, so he feels like, “This my country . . . This is a country that lets you do something better in life.”
Do the negative attitudes about immigration expressed during the campaign bother him? “People have a right to think what they think,” says Matos. “If people think it’s overcrowded and they decide to leave the EU, I accept that.”
He thinks for a moment. “Maybe I’d think differently if I had to fill out more paperwork or apply for visas,” he says, “but I’ve been here a long time. They wouldn’t do that to me.”
Referendum canvassers stand at every Tube station. A lot of commuters wear “In” badges and Kilburn Tube station is no different, but the badges are thinner on the ground out on the street. All in all, there are few signs a historic referendum is under way.
Bryn Kewley, who works for a climate change think tank, is at the station advocating for a Remain vote. Many of the people who pass ask for stickers, or give him an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “I don’t mean to stereotype but if people look a bit angry they’re a ‘leaver’,” he says. “I feel bad saying that.”
Grant Smit, a project manager from Johannesburg, says, “I couldn’t give a f**k about the referendum,” but he has actually voted. He voted Remain (“for stability”) but feels that “in the short term . . . not much will change either way”.
His colleague Tim Tucker, a contracts manager with a dry-lining company, is torn. On the one hand, his wife works for a finance company, “so if we leave, her work could come to nothing”. On the other hand, he is worried there would be more immigration.
“Without immigration you’d have no workers,” says Smit.
“True,” says Tucker, and they spend a moment trying to think of English electricians and plumbers they worked with. There aren’t many. Tucker agrees that he couldn’t do his work without eastern Europeans, “but I’m worried about the Turks [entering the EU]”.
“Ah, that’s all whipped up,” says Smit.
Sitting silently next to them is their Romanian colleague Bogdan Barbu. He can vote here, but didn’t. “It’s a British problem,” he says. “They probably should sort it out themselves.”
The polling station around the corner is relatively quiet. Ade Akinyede, a young software developer, is trying to vote while on a break from work. “I’m voting for the future,” he says. “Voting to leave really is jumping into the unknown.”
Nearby, Kerry man John O’Sullivan is having an argument about the referendum with a Limerick man. “In,” says the Limerick man. “Out,” says O’Sullivan.
It’s good natured. “In and out, and the two of us living in the same building,” says O’Sullivan. “Would you Adam and Eve it, as the cockneys say.”
O’Sullivan’s reason for voting Leave is a familiar one. “You go up the road there now and you don’t see one English, Irish, Welsh or Scottish face working,” he says. O’Sullivan says that he would even be working himself if not for immigration.
But is he not also an immigrant? “I was born in 1945 so I have the dual passport,” he says.
Kilburn High Road is as multicultural a street as you’ll get in London, but the Earl of Derby Pub is largely full of older white men. “This area used to be predominantly Irish,” says Joe Madigan (72), a retired businessman from Limerick. “Now we’re a dying breed.”
Madigan, like almost every Irish person I meet in Kilburn, is a Leave voter. He isn’t against immigration, he says – his son married a woman from the Philippines – but he feels that immigration should be “more controlled”.
Recently, he says, he waited four hours to see the doctor because the system cannot cope with so many immigrants. However, he praises the “foreign doctor” who saw him at the end of a 13-hour-shift. His story could be used by both sides in the campaign, I tell him. He laughs.
Nearby, an English man named Gary Beggs is deep in conversation: “Any change to Europe will come from inside,” says Beggs, who works in the music industry. “A lot of people voting ‘out’ are living in the past. They’re thinking of when we had an empire.”
He sighs. He dislikes the Leave side’s demonisation of migrants and the Remain side’s “negativity”. “A lot of people will be pleased it’s over,” he says.
One of the men Beggs is talking to came from Ballina in the 1980s to work in construction. He doesn’t want to reveal his name. “It’s on too many wanted posters,” he says.
A man from Mayo, who wanted to stay nameless, tells me that Irish immigrants had “helped to build this country,” but now he feels priced out of the business. “In the pub one night Irish men are giving out about foreigners and the next day they’re filling a van with them – two for the price of one.”
Is he not a “foreigner” too? “The British invaded Ireland,” he says. “We had a right to come here.”
Near Kilburn Market the demographic is more diverse. An Algerian-born man named Yazid Bourt tells me that he is not going to vote (“I don’t have time for that”) but that Britain would be better outside the EU. He runs a menswear stall and believes Europe is bad for business. “People can get things cheaper from Europe,” he says.
Two young Italian men seem incredulous that the UK would ever leave the EU. “So many companies here have relationships with European companies,” says Alessio Gagliardi, whose T-shirt declares “I’m Sorry Ladies, I’m in the Night’s Watch.”
Metteo Impelliccieri notes the number of Europeans he has seen “even today on this street. Do they really want all of them to go home?”
A black British woman named Leigh walks by with a little boy on a skateboard. “Our country has more to gain from being in the EU,” she says. She is a believer in internationalism and diversity. She works in marketing, she says, so is obsessed with demographics and why people do things.
“This morning I read a Facebook post by a relative who’s been unwell, all about the immigrant doctor who saved his life. He said ‘I wouldn’t be here now if not for that doctor’. There’s a lot of fear and scaremongering . . . This area was all Irish immigrants when I was younger, if there’d been a referendum on that what would have happened?”
Nearby an Iranian woman is talking to a Pakistani man as he works at a clothing stall. The man is wheeling out rails of clothes. He doesn’t wish to talk about the referendum but he has views on EU immigration. “They’ve left an open door for them,” he insists. “But some of us can’t even bring our families over.”
His wife and children are in Pakistan and he has been trying to get permission for them to come live here. “I’ve been waiting a very long time,” he says. “I’m waiting nine months for just a court date.” He sounds weary. “I’m a British citizen. I work. This morning I had physio and I still come to work.”
The Iranian woman is listening sympathetically. Her name is Farah. She doesn’t want to give her full name “because I have some problems in Iran”. She’s been talking to her friend about meditation. She asks me if I would like a moment of “self-realisation”? I have no idea what this means, but say “yes”. She instructs me to put my hand on my heart and then passes her hands over my head. She tells me that the mind is “a mire of illusion”.
She isn’t sure about the referendum. Her son is for leaving because he is worried about British autonomy. Her sister is for staying because she is worried about the economy. “Later I will listen to the vibrations,” says Farah. “God will help decide.”
DAY 5: RESULTS DAY, CHINGFORD, LONDON
In a butcher’s in Chingford at 6.55 in the morning, butcher Andrew Shaw is embracing retired school teacher Mike Burke.
“We did it,” he’s saying. “We bloody did it.”
They are passionate Leave supporters.
“We’re all in a bit of a dither here this morning,” explains Shaw when I introduce myself. “All excited.”
“Are we going to be on an IRA hit-list?” chuckles his colleague Bill Machie as I scribble their names down in a notebook.
Why are they so happy? “We’re all proud to be British again,” says Shaw. “We’re tired of being pushed around.”
Burke was a local campaigner for Leave. He thinks the referendum was important because “we’ve been allowed to come out and say what we really feel about European immigration”.
They start to talk about what they perceive as the pressure on services caused by this.
We’re not xenophobic,” says Burke. “My dad came over from Ireland.”
“And my great grandparents were Portuguese,” says Machie.
Outside at the nearby bus stop some Romanian women are waiting for a bus to take them to the dress factory where they work. They seem dejected. “I want to stay in,” says Anna Maria Dinu.
“This is bad for us, for England, for Europe, ” says her friend Andreea Iom.
“I live here,” says Dinu. “I’m resident here. So what happens next? I don’t know. I want a repeat.”
“Is that possible?”
In a nearby café a young Belfast waiter named Ed Dunlop is says “I thought it would be a cert that we’d stay in.” Most of the people he knows in London were Remain voters, but when he reflects on it, there were signs. “I’ve had people come in who say to me ‘it’s nice to be served by a British person for a change’. . . it’s a bit heavy.”
Why did he vote Remain? “I know the EU isn’t perfect but I’ve never known living in this country without being in the EU. I’d worry about losing access to the single market, and work regulations – employee rights.”
He’s also worried about the effects back home. “We’ve really made progress in the North of Ireland but now we’ll probably have to close the Border. That’s a backward step.”
At the train station an NHS manager in a suit, who prefers not to be named, says “I think it’s a good thing. I think the unrestricted immigration of cheap labour from Eastern Europe has been bad for British workers. Companies don’t train up workers any more, they just import workers who are already trained. Now Britain can have as many immigrants as it chooses, but we choose.”
What about the predicted negative effects on the economy? “They’ve announced that the pound has fallen, but that will be good for British exports,” he says confidently.
Zara Davis, who works for a big construction company, is disappointed with the results. “To start off I was going to vote Leave,” she says. “But when I looked into it I could see all the ways it would benefit me to stay. Leaving could have a very negative effect on my industry.”
Roll with the punches
What now? “We’re a democracy,” she says. “It is what it is, you roll with the punches.”
Not everyone is excited or dejected. “I wanted out,” says Kaye, who’s waiting for the bus with her daughter Kayleigh. “But I just wanted a change really.”
A 74-year-old woman named Marian is walking her three loud dogs. “Shut up you!” she says sporadically to them as we talk. She voted Leave, “but I’m just confused really,” she says. “It was a last minute decision. I really haven’t a clue if it’s good or bad. Will it make it our little island again? I just don’t know.”
Chris Palmer is also walking a dog. He hasn’t heard about the referendum and when I tell him his face falls a little. “That surprises me,” he says. “It worries me.”
He thinks it’s partly based on a misunderstanding. “Immigration worries a lot of people even though they don’t understand all the good things they bring to this country. And they mix up immigrants and refugees.”
He also doesn’t feel that everyone was really voting on the European Union. “I think they were using it as a vote against austerity, the government and hard times. It was a protest vote.”
What does he think the outcome of it all will be? “It makes the future uncertain. And the divisions that have arisen from this debate are going to take long time to go away.”
I also break the news to a man named Winston Peters. “It’s stupidness,” he says shaking his head. “I think it’s David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s big scam. And Nigel Farage: he can’t even get elected, and he gets to trigger a referendum? It shouldn’t have come down to a cheap vote like that.”
He sighs. “The UK has never been on its own. It’s always been in Europe. Why leave your friends? We’re always going to be better with people.”
LATER THAT DAY IN CANARY WHARF
In Canary Wharf the sun is shining and financial sector workers are drinking beer in the sunshine around Reuters Plaza. Most of them seem to be Remain voters and most of them have been told by their companies not to talk to the press (hence the use of first names).
Lee, Hendrick and Darren work in a bank and have been dealing with the consequences of the Leave vote on the currency exchange markets since early this morning. “And when we say morning, we mean morning in Hong Kong,” says Darren.
Hendrick says markets can be skittish at times like this but that they eventually calm down.
“The pound crashed this morning, but it’s been recovering,” he says.
Are people buying dollars or euros?
“A lot of people are buying gold,” says Lee.
“There’s a lot of trading,” says Hendrick. “It’s an opportunity to make loads of money. Or to lose a lot of money.”
Is it a good time to make money? “It’s not ideal,” says Hendrick.
Is leaving the EU a mistake? “What is it you said the other day?” Lee asks another colleague who doesn’t even give a first name.
“That people should only be able to vote depending on whether they got five A to C grades in their CCSEs,” says the man.
“Maybe we should have done that,” says Hendrick.
“I wouldn’t have been able to vote so,” says Darren.
At another table, I meet Jason and Dan who work for an engineering company that work predominantly with financial services companies. “I’m pretty pissed off,” says Jason.
For months now the companies they work for have been delaying projects as they awaited the outcome of the referendum and he thinks that some will consider moving now that Britain has voted Leave. “Would you do up your house if you were going to move in the next year?” asks Dan.
Andrew Nothstine, an American management consultant, didn’t have a vote yesterday, but he stayed up until five this morning watching the coverage and then got 40 texts from American friends and family watching the outcome on the news.
Growth of far-right
“I went to bed thinking it was a Remain vote,” says his friend Jonathan Gunga, who works with the same company. “I’m gutted to be honest with you.”
Has it affected their business? “There’s a danger we’ll drop back into a recession,” says Gunga “But to be honest with you, my immediate fear is more that this legitimises people like Nigel Farage who is a bigot . . . I’m worried this will lead to a growth of the far-right . . . But the fact is, no one knows what this means yet.”
I find one Leave supporter. “I think it’s fantastic,” says Jim, a bond analyst, cradling a post-work beer. “We’re finally free of the bureaucratic mess that is the EU . . . and we also have the best weather for ages.”
He understands why many others have voted Leave. “They feel like they’ve been left behind and have no say,” he says, but he says that this is not quite his position. He likes Europe. He has a house in Greece, he likes to ski in Switzerland and his wife works in Luxembourg. He even appreciates the common market. He just happens to believe in a smaller non-federal Europe.
Ultimately, however, he doesn’t believe that leaving is the apocalyptic scenario others do, because he thinks there’s an even more apocalyptic scenario coming down the road – the complete collapse of the euro zone. “We’re no longer on the hook for that when it eventually disintegrates,” he says.
At another table Paul, a trader, is arguing about the referendum with Chris, a structurer who works for the same company. It’s an internecine argument between Remain voters. “It’s more a glass half-full, glass half-empty thing,” says Paul.
“I wouldn’t have planned this, but I see benefits. I believe it could be a catalyst for reform of European institutions and I think we could end up where we should have been when Cameron finished his negations with Europe.”
“I believe we just pressed the nuclear button,” says Chris. “If we lose the ability to trade across Europe, we’ve lost the City.”
But they haven’t lost that today, right? “No,” says Chris. “But it’s unclear how this will work. Businesses don’t like uncertainty, so the longer there’s uncertainty the more they’re likely to go somewhere else. There’s talk of some companies moving to other places.”
Like Ireland? “Yes, like Ireland. Some companies are already looking elsewhere.”
“Some of those rumours have been discredited,” says Paul, although then he says he’s been looking into getting an Irish passport.
Here in the city, the referendum is largely talked about in terms of political institutions and business. Elsewhere, I observe, it’s largely talked about in terms of immigration. “But London wouldn’t work without immigration,” says Chris who is married to an Indian woman. “And without immigration there’d be no one in the NHS, no one building our houses, no-one working in Pret-a-Manger.”
“Look,” says Paul. “Europe is broken and this could be a catalyst to save Europe. Most of the world feel like they’re living in a world of elitism they’re not part of.”
“So says the banker,” says Chris and he laughs. “They’ll be pleased to see the 1 per cent supports them.”
DAY 6: PROTEST AT PARLIAMENT SQUARE
At 11.30am on Saturday, protesters gather on Parliament Square on front of the UK Houses of Parliament under a banner declaring “F**k Brexit.”
The organiser of the “F**k Brexit Rally”, Billie Porter (24), is a television presenter and journalist and she has never done anything like this before. “I never felt qualified to,” she says. “Maybe that’s the problem. My generation thought the older people had things under control.”
Porter was at a wedding on the evening of the referendum and she and her friends watched the count on their phones, getting more and more dejected.
The rally was conceived “in anger” on the drive back to London. “The referendum should never have happened,” she says. “I think lots of people were asked to make a decision they weren’t equipped to make.”
By midday there are a couple of hundred people facing parliament holding signs that say things like “Love not Gove” and “Lied to by Boris with the Good Hair.”
Rachel Parker, a teacher, is wearing a home-made T-shirt that says “RIP UK. Killed 23.06.16.” She is livid. “I can’t believe that, standing in front of this statue of Churchill, that we’ve decided to break up the EU and the UK. What a narrow-minded little England mindset . . . I feel like my European rights have been stolen. I’ve never felt so detached from the British people.”
Her brother, Steve Parker, is worried about xenophobia and the economy but also about his own family. “My ex-wife is French and we have three children,” he says. “She never applied for British citizenship. I don’t know what will happen with her. Will she be worried about her rights here? Will she choose to stay here?”
Dan, a young systems developer, has “always shied away from politics” but the referendum politicised him. He thinks most people didn’t know what they were for voting for. In fact, he nearly voted “Leave” himself, “as a protest vote against the Tories. I’m very glad I didn’t, because then I’d be a hypocrite for being here today.”
Does he know others who voted Leave in protest? “A fair few,” he says.
Rory Costello, a student, is holding a sign that says “We want diversity. We want equality. We want our country back.” On his back he has another sign that says: “Murdoch wins again.”
“I didn’t agree with this from the start,” he says. “A referendum like this just gives people like Farage a stage to come onto.”
And the outcome? “Years of uncertainty. There will be financial consequences for years to come. And there will be a lot of anger . . . Farage has already said the £350 million he said was going to Europe wouldn’t go to the NHS [as the campaign had claimed]. They’ve also said immigration won’t fall. The Leave voters are going to realise that they’ve been lied to.”
At this point a crowd of protesters, press photographers and curious tourists gather around Billie Porter and she invites people to take her loud hailer and say what they feel.
People get up one-by-one and talk from the heart about inclusivity, xenophobia, their respect for immigrants, the fact they are themselves immigrants, how the referendum affects younger people, the fact they don’t recognise their own country. It feels cathartic, though it’s hard to hear everyone.
Everyone is applauded, except for two long-haired men holding cans of beer who are booed. Why were they booed? “I said I voted ‘out’ to give a bloody nose to MI5,” one of them, Tom Palmer, explains. “Then I gave it all that about how the EU is a fascist super state.”
As it’s difficult to hear, I wander around and talk to people. Devon woman Miranda Broadhead was planning to walk the moors today, “but I felt so downhearted I needed to do something and so I came in here”. She looks around sadly. “I thought there’d be more people.”
An ex-navy man named Andy Eakens thinks people have totally misunderstood the immigration issue. He says the demographics of Europe mean that there will soon be too few young people. He thinks “we should have a tourist office in north Africa explaining to people how to get here”.
He also thinks that the world’s environmental issues require the kind of “benevolent autocracy” that only a united Europe can provide. Now he’s worried about racism and the effects of Brexit on his business. “If it affects me that much I’ll move to Dublin,” he says.
A pink-haired psychology student named CJ Rock says she thinks her generation were “too complacent” about the referendum. She and her friends never really thought the country would choose to leave. “I feel like the world took a dark turn overnight.”
She, like most of the people here, has signed an online petition asking for a second referendum. “I don’t know if that will happen,” she says. “The Leave side will say it’s undemocratic but people were scared into voting leave. They were lied to.”