My father had been a schoolteacher, and he always said that windy days brought trouble in the classroom. Wind rattled the windows, for sure, but it rattled the children more. And that June in 2016 had been a windy one. It felt like the rough winds, blowing down the North Sea and hitting the east coast, and crashing in across the Atlantic, never stopped. Perhaps that wind rattled people, or perhaps it was an omen; it certainly brought nobody any good.
In the final weeks leading up to the vote on whether Britain was to stay European or not, the weather was the last thing people really worried about, but it was of course a constant low-level grumble. It was wrong; where was the glorious summer? The campaign to leave had become more hysterical, making wilder and wilder claims and bigger and bolder promises. Lower fuel bills, cheaper homes, free beer and an overflowing cornucopia of good, British, stuff. Things would again be stamped Made In Great Britain on their bottoms. The church clock, and honey still for tea.
The remain campaign seemed to be unable to stand up to such claims; while Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were happy to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and spout sub-Churchillian speeches, Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron were such unlikely allies they refused to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Both spent more time dealing with squabbles in their own parties than on taking the message to a wider audience.
So up until the day of the vote, it was uncertain which way the country would swing. Except on the morning, when strong winds were joined by wild rain and the country felt like it was being hit by a very British Armageddon. The electorate were already depressed by a never-ending campaign, and now the turnout was depressed. Polling Stations reported low numbers turning out; the strong wind heavy rain was putting all but the most enthusiastic voters off. Election officers also reported numerous incidents of scuffles and fights, started by angry Leave campaigners who took out their frustration on anyone with an ‘I’m In’ badge or tote bag turning out to vote. These reports reduced numbers turning out even less. The Remain campaigners were always more moderate, less fanatical, and the combination of getting wet and being attacked was enough to put many off turning out at all.
By the evening of that day, the media had realised that the Leave campaign had won but were still bound by electoral rules, so couldn’t say so clearly. But the worried faces of the middle class reporters, thinking about losing their French farmhouses, made it obvious.
That night was the first time the word leave moved from being a dry, academic, legislative choice to being an imperative.
Forty years earlier, a generation of Indian and Pakistani immigrants had arrived, worked hard, and transformed the UK’s shopping habits quietly by opening small, neighbourhood shops. In more recent years, young Polish and Eastern European immigrants had started to do the same, and Polish Shops were becoming a familiar part of the neighbourhood high street. However they weren’t yet as rooted, as familiar, and as accepted. On the evening of the referendum, the first reports came in of the slogan LEAVE being daubed across shop windows in small towns with histories of immigration causing problems. Polish shops in towns like Margate, Boston, Dover and Bognor Regis were attacked. The media quickly reported it, eager for a coded way to announce the results ahead of Polling Stations closing. In a number of inner city neighbourhoods – Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, London, Bristol – copycat slogans appeared shortly before windows were smashed. The first real winners in the referendum were emergency glaziers, called out across the country.
So the next morning, Britain woke up to the news that it was leaving the European Community. The draw bridge was being raised. Rail workers had been effectively striking across the south in the weeks leading up to the referendum; the day afterwards the south coast trainlines ground to a halt, and the Channel Tunnel had to close. Unconnected, in reality, to the referendum, it seemed to be a powerful symbol nonetheless.
And it soon seemed that the last people to leave on Eurostar might be the lucky ones. Britain was, literally and metaphorically, tearing itself apart. The vandalism of Polish shops continued, and the Police were called to numerous incidents of remainers who had Better In posters in their windows finding they had a brick thrown through them.
Meanwhile, the two political parties were in freefall, with David Cameron forced to announce an early resignation, leaving the party to fight amongst itself, with jostling between real radicals like Michael Gove, opportunists like Boris Johnson, and a bitter presumptive successor George Osborne looking increasingly like a man who’d been at the party too long, and wasn’t coping with the pills or powders he’d thought were a good idea earlier in the evening. The Labour party had never rebuilt after Jeremy Corbyn split them into a mass popularist movement on the left and a power-hungry experienced political clique on the right. And Nigel Farage, now completely powerless as his party’s European funding fell away, looking like a man who’d got what he wanted, but was only now realising he’d accidentally kicked away the scaffold he was standing on to do it. None of the mainstream parties would ever command a majority again, and the country would have to get used to coalitions and consensus politics.
A few weeks before the referendum, British Home Stores had collapsed into administration, and their stores started to close in the week after the referendum. Seeing the familiar name stripped from streets felt ominous, and no new retailers came forward to fill their large empty stores. Quietly, a number of European-owned stores announced their own closures and started to slip away. Other big names on the high street would follow, as city investment – which was the only thing holding them up as Britain had never truly left the recession of 2008 – moved overseas. Alongside the boarded-up Polish shops, looted after young Poles quickly left for home, the nation’s high streets started to go dark.
It wasn’t just young Poles that left the country. A number of young Australians could see the way things were going, and decided that Britain’s rainy streets were no longer as attractive as the sunny side of the world. And a growing number of Chinese and Japanese people, who’d come to Britain looking for a European home, left too.
They were balanced out by what started as a trickle of older, suntanned British migrants, drawn home from Spain and the South of France. The initial returnees mumbled about how Britain was better now, everything would be the way they remembered, that they had only left because Britain in Europe wasn’t the Britain of Empire Annuals, toy British soldiers beating the nasty Huns, Austin cars, and Dan Dare that they’d loved. It soon became obvious, though, that the real reason was they were being made to feel increasingly unwelcome on mainland Europe. The countries that had welcomed them as part of a shared community were now checking passports, being more vigorous at collecting local taxes, and starting to be more enthusiastic in their enforcement of local planning regulations. Swimming pools were being filled in, and roof terraces closed down. In the three years after the referendum, over five million older Britons returned home. They far outnumbered the people who left Britain, and – being older – put an immediate strain on the already stretched National Health Service. They contributed little to the struggling economy.
And they put an extra burden on the nation’s housing infrastructure. Many were used to having space to live, but their southern European homes sold for so little that they could afford only flats in the UK. As their exiting crashed the ex-pat housing market abroad, they filled homes that were needed by young people and new families here, and even more people found themselves stuck in their parent’s home. The dream of home ownership was effectively killed, and an older model, of multi-generational families living together returned. An unexpected casualty of the referendum were the UK’s care homes, as people no longer sold up to afford the high fees, but instead moved in with their aging mother or father. Hundreds of care homes closed in the years after 2016.
And while the high streets and care homes closed down, so did the factories. The other European governments, wanting to head off any such rebellion amongst their voters, were tough in their negotiations as Britain untangled itself from the EU. They had no interest in kindness, and while Britain thought Europe owed it a debt of gratitude, the European politicians were pleased to see the back of MEPs who moaned loudly but rarely turned out to debate, discuss or even vote. With Britain’s political parties split, there were no strong negotiators at the European tables, either. So the trade deals imposed on Britain were crippling, or at least would have been, had Britain had any trade. In the two years of negotiations, one after another European-owned company had quietly slipped away, leaving empty business parks and factories, and the few big American companies had started to bring everything back to the USA too, as President Trump’s isolationism made overseas trade and manufacture harder for them.
And so we got to here, the tenth anniversary of the referendum. In many ways, Britain is better. We’re a greener country, from the offshore wind farms and solar farms of Kent that bring most of our daily electricity rations to the cities filled with bicycles, with cycling at a level only our Dutch neighbours could have achieved ten years ago. At first, ditching the car was a purely economic choice, but people soon realised that cycling brought greater benefits. They were fitter, happier and lived more local lives.
Our exports are smaller, obviously, but still based around technology, all about IP, design and creativity. In many fields – music, literature, film, art, games – we still lead the world. Hardly anything physical leaves our shores, and very little is brought in; we’re a closed loop, and most of our exports leave through our nearest European neighbour, Scotland. That relationship, rocky at first after they broke up the Union, became easier and it made sense to relocate parts of the UK government to Northern cities, closer to our best European friend.
That has spread the wealth across the country a little more evenly, and accidentally released the pressure on the price of property in London and the south east. Property prices are, of course, lower than ten years ago – but they’re also more equal. They’ve risen in our manufacturing centres. The hottest spots for property today are Stoke where pottery’s made, Coventry where they build bicycles again, and around the northern government centre of Leeds. Our manufacturing is getting stronger, based around efficient use of resources, fired by technology, driven by recycling what we already have.
And all of that has led to the most surprising outcome of the referendum. We no longer have any right wing politics. The people who thought they’d won, ten years ago, exposed themselves in doing so. It became obvious that they didn’t have any solutions, and that the things that made Britain special were always on the left; our creativity and invention, our philanthropy, our public services. The things that make Britain great are still here, and probably always will be. They’re resilient, tough, deep in the grain of the nation’s identity, embedded at the genetic level. They survive.