I’m in some of the most Eurosceptic territory in Britain: a 25 minute drive from Peterborough, where the leader of the country’s most anti-European Union party set the tone for this once in a generation – or is it lifetime? – choice by suggesting immigrants have made parents too scared to let their children play outdoors.
CCTV’s Owen Fairclough is traveling in his native England and has a first hand account of the country on the Brexit vote.
I have seen two motorway billboards and one banner on a gate, all of them calling for the U.K. to vote itself out of the European Union Thursday.
It’s also the Britain that U.S. Downton Abbey obsessives imagine. Today I ran along winding country lanes, past a pub advertising a real ale festival, a crown green bowling and cricket club and scores of golden brick cottages decorated with Union Flag bunting. The only missing element in this bucolic picture was an old maid riding a bone shaker bicycle – a vision that brought former Prime Minister John Major ridicule for what now looks like a very prescient speech nearly 25 years ago on Britain’s place in Europe.
Old maids and real ale are comforting but there’s something wrong. I’ve come home to a country more divided than at any point in my lifetime. The see-sawing polls tell their own story and the killing of lawmaker Jo Cox in what appears to be an attack motivated by anti-EU sentiment is a devastating metaphor. But the fault lines were opened long before that – perhaps most visibly during Scotland’s Independence referendum. Key questions about the United Kingdom’s identity remain unresolved from that vote. Perhaps this vote is less about our place in Europe than what this country stands for in 2016.
Even pro-EU voters are difficult to enthuse. Rarely do conversations I’ve had focus on the tangible benefits of belonging to the EU, such as eliminating cell phone roaming charges. Instead pro-EU voters I’ve talked to wear a grim resignation to the economic argument that being part of an imperfect union is probably better than trying to go it alone. Both pro and anti-EU campaigns can take the blame for this negative climate. They’ve bombarded voters with bogus and largely meaningless macroeconomic statistics instead of talking about issues that resonate with voters as consumers. One undecided voter asked me: “Why are we even having this referendum?”
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron claims a vote to remain in the EU will draw a line under this and maybe help Britain heal. That is either naive or a coded warning to the Eurosceptic lawmakers in his party who forced him into calling this referendum.
But it’s unrealistic. Even if we vote to remain in the EU, there will be repercussions. Britain may not be fully trusted by European partners while Britons will carry on as before: begrudgingly putting up with the EU as something remote and ‘on the continent’ rather than something to engage with – for all its faults.
The damage may already have been done.