Brexit: An Elegy for a Lost Dream

by Julia Lee Barclay-Morton

Image via Colin Smith

Image via Colin Smith

Many dreams have been lost. Many lives will be upended. For a dream of a time that is a nostalgia, an attempt to go backwards to a fictional place that never existed except in the misty glow of a PR campaign by manipulative rich people, bent on exploiting the anger of working and poor people who have not benefited from the bright, shiny world of mobility and multiculturalism, either because of not having access or being told either implicitly or explicitly they didn't belong, and who are struggling under the weight of "austerity" — and looking for someone to blame.

Was or is the EU a perfect place? Absolutely not. Are there issues that need to be addressed with how various countries are represented? Yes. But the fact that all of Scotland voted to remain, even though they have many poor and working class people, shows that if you govern in such a way (as the SNP does in Scotland) that you represent and take care of the needs of everyone, people who are not necessarily traveling and working in other EU countries will still vote to remain within a larger community devoted to a dream and reality of mobility between nations and a kind of radical interconnectedness.

Image: BIRTHE JORGENSEN / Author's graduation CEREMONY in northhampton, UK

Image: BIRTHE JORGENSEN / Author's graduation CEREMONY in northhampton, UK

I lived in London from 2003–11. During this time I lived in two houses in Hackney with people from many countries. One of them included Portuguese, Italian, Danish, German, Bosnian, American, and English nationals. Not surprisingly Hackney voted something like 85 percent to stay in EU. The whole borough is the EU. None of us were rich. We were students, artists, factory workers, wannabe lots of things and some of us now are. We were living in a group house. I was 42, the oldest housemate, wondering how that happened, but enjoyed immensely this group of delightful human beings. I had received — somewhat miraculously — a fellowship to do a PhD at University of Northampton. Most of those fellowships were reserved for British and EU students. Now, as of today, I assume that will revert to British students. But the fact is the universities were filled with students from all over. The global consciousness and reality in London was like nothing I've ever experienced.

Most of these people I met or lived with still live in the UK, having started businesses, art careers, academic careers, or freelance lives. What will become of them now? No one thought they would ever have to leave or prove their right to stay. Equally, I have British friends who now live in other EU countries, and are settled in them. What happens to their lives? The fact is: no one knows.

All of the artists I knew — having a theater company and studying performance studies while in London most of my friends were artists — traveled all the time and were unencumbered. I envied and adored how they could travel without passports, even from country to country, no visas, no work permits. Basically, it was like we travelled throughout the US states. There were some things different but not many, and your right to be there or work there was not in question.

Their lives and livelihoods are now under threat. These artist friends are not the wealthy famous ones, but the ones who travel as musicians and performers, or with work they created, from one festival or residency to another. They make a living but just. They don't complain about that because they are doing what they love, and the EU in general has adequate social safety nets that if they fall ill or run out of money, there is a way to make ends meet. There are some homeless people in Europe, but nothing like what we see here in the US. The EU for all its faults — which we are now seeing in technicolor in places like Greece — has basically instituted a nominal idea of basic human rights that include health care and a right to be housed. Americans would be astounded to see how most people of any background can expect at least four weeks holiday, paid sick time if doctor requested for as long as the illness warrants, paid maternity and paternity leave for months or sometimes a year at a time, etc.

This makes traveling to and from countries relatively easy, and for young people who may live in a country having a downturn, the ability to travel to find employment elsewhere is critical.

All of this for British people has now been cut off, in one day, in one vote, of a simple and slim majority. Why no one thought to at least make the referendum based on a 2/3 majority is beyond me. To allow such a huge shift to occur in this way strikes me as kind of crazy, but there it is. The smugness and denial of those who benefit from the neoliberal part of the EU agenda is to blame for that. The bankers and power brokers who as per usual don't have clue one about how disaffected the majority of people are in England where — unlike Scotland — working and poor people are not being represented or their needs cared for in the way they could expect in years past.

IMAGE: JULIA LEE BARCLAY-MORTON / Orkney Islands (Scotland)

IMAGE: JULIA LEE BARCLAY-MORTON / Orkney Islands (Scotland)

And yes, there is a leftwing of the Brexit camp that believes — delusionally- that taking a Tory-controlled government out of a more left-wing EU will somehow miraculously restore labor rights in Britain, because the EU is in fact also a collection of banks etc. While the banking agenda is part of it, that is not all it is, and once again, a weird purist ideology has completely lost the plot in terms of actual people's lives. What this group should have done instead is attempt to align Labor more along the lines of the SNP — working with Corbyn who wants to do that anyway — and take their cue from Scotland. But no.

I say all of this as an American who has lived abroad and wishes I could make it possible for all of my fellow Americans to have this experience. We are an isolated country, and this isolation is what cripples us. We labor under a delusion about our "exceptionalism" — which leads us to believe that anything that happens in other countries cannot apply to us, like, say: health care (instead of insurance) as a right not a privilege, good education for all, basic human rights for all including housing, maternity and paternity leave paid, sick leave when necessary and also paid... etc. These would all be possible if we wanted them. We have been talked into their impossibility by wealthy people who count on the relative ignorance of a population that cannot travel outside the borders of the US because of having to work so hard all the time just to survive. They cannot dream of traveling to another country, unless perhaps living on border of Canada or Mexico.

This is why I am so sad about the Brexit vote, because it is the UK — a place I love dearly — saying no to the rest of the world — retreating back to its myth of its own exceptionalism — and because working class people in England have been sold a bill of goods. They will realize this soon enough, when even more of their decimated benefits are taken away and the jobs they have been told have been stolen from them don't magically reappear. Meanwhile, all of their neighbors who may have been born elsewhere will find themselves in untenable positions, and their own children will no longer have access to all the other EU countries for education or work.

This vote may also convince other countries to leave the EU and the whole great experiment may fall apart. This then leaves Europe open to all kinds of predatory practices from global corporations, US intervention, Chinese intervention, perhaps even Russian intervention (though that is less likely), not to mention the violent shitshow that Northern Ireland may descend into again if their border with Ireland is closed. Scotland will vote out of UK and re-join EU, so those borders will also be closed, for the first time perhaps ever.

England could become very small indeed, and its wonderful expansiveness and genius for generosity, common sense, and multicultural cities like no other — in London more languages are spoken than anywhere else in the world — is under threat.

I am so sad as are all of my British friends. Everyone I know who lives and works in Europe is sad. This is the death of a beautiful interconnectedness that drew people together — the kind that binds countries together and makes wars almost impossible or at the very least unlikely. I am hoping that however the UK leaves the EU is done in a way that people's lives are not as drastically disrupted as they could be, but there is no guarantee of that.

Young people voted overwhelmingly to stay and older people to leave. This says a lot. Young people like traveling and having access to the rest of the world. They have the most to lose in this new, isolationist UK. I feel the worst for them. They now have to watch their prospects narrow and wonder what it could have been like if they could have just gone abroad to work or study without restriction. Not to mention all my European friends in the UK right now who don't have a clue what is about to happen to them.

This is an unmitigated disaster for anyone who believes in pluralistic, multicultural societies and dreams of a kind of globalism that isn't just for the one percent. Make no mistake, this was not a populist revolt that will benefit those who were bamboozled into believing it would. This is perhaps the worst tragedy of all.

I don't have any inspirational way to end this. I can only say that a commentator said the remain vote lost in part because no one in the remain camp could reach out to working class people. I hope the Democrats take heed of that warning. Sanders did a better job of that with one part of the working class and Clinton with another, but the fact remains that Trump can get more votes from that quarter against Clinton and that should give us pause. Even if Clinton is the nominee, if the Democrats ignore the working class (and in this case specifically the parts of Sanders' agenda that speaks to them), as happened in the UK, we will be looking at President Trump, and there is no planet on or in which that is cool.

But mostly June 24th was a funeral for a dream. That was a reality. Until now.
 

Dr. Julia Lee Barclay-Morton is an award-winning writer and director whose work has been published and produced internationally; in 2014 she was inducted into the Indie Theater Hall of Fame. Back in NYC since 2011 (after working and studying in the UK for eight years), she has spent the past five years writing a book about her grandmothers, The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick and Jani, while Adjunct Professor of English at Fordham University. Learn more about her editing services at her site.