It was a weeknight (I forget the date), a few weeks before the 2016 EU referendum when Daniel Hannan, a Eurosceptic Conservative party MEP, came wandering into town in the hope of persuading his Exeter audience to vote ‘Leave’ on June 23rd. It was also, for better or worse, the day that I became an official ‘Remainer’.
I had arrived home from work tired, achy, and with a full evening’s worth of planning and marking ahead of me (a not uncommon feature of teaching life). I had been flirting with the idea of an early night – dinner, planning, bed (the marking could probably wait) – but a strong and sudden bout of FOMO (fear of missing out) quickly removed any such notion.
I immediately set about badgering my reluctant partner to join me. Several minutes later, and to my great surprise, my partner and I were marching through central Exeter discussing the man we were on our way to see; the man who would surely convince us to back Brexit.
As we walked, I relayed the findings of my ten-minute Google search, confidently asserting that Hannan was not only one of the UK’s leading Eurosceptics, but also one of the most articulate and considered. “If anybody can make the case for Leave” I insisted, “it’s Dan Hannan”.
“If that’s all they’ve got, then I’m out”
We arrived at the event curious, eager to learn, and crucially, open-minded. At this point I knew next to nothing about the European Union. I could not recall a time prior to the campaign where I had seen the EU in the news, nor could I think of a single instance in which it had cropped up in conversation, even briefly. I didn’t know who my MEPs were, how the EU operated, or indeed, the extent to which our membership was a positive or negative.
I was totally ignorant, but now I was intrigued.
As the talk concluded, my partner and I raced out of the venue ready to share notes. We agreed: the man had charm and charisma (as expected), the talk was polished and well-rehearsed (as expected), the tone was friendly and non-threatening (as expected). We also agreed that we were both far from sold.
I took the lead: “Hannan is about as good as they’ve got. He’s had decades to map it all out and pack it full of detail, so where is it?” Understanding nods were the green light to continue. “His talk was worryingly lacking in substance” I opined. “He turned up, said we ‘could maybe do this, or maybe do that’ and then just ranted about greatness for a while”. I took a breath. “If that’s all they’ve got… then I’m out”. I waited for the rebuttal, for the inevitable ‘yeah, but…’, but it never came. The Devil’s Advocate, like the Brexit advocate, had nothing.
A hard-right coup
A few months later, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election. His campaign was one of shock, sectarianism and scandal, reaching new low after new low as the weeks passed. Then, he won. Bang, bang… and just like that, the world had entered a new, darker era. How could the American people vote for such a narcissistic bigot? Why were some people so angry? What would all this mean for the climate? For Brexit? For the international, rules-based order?
I didn’t understand it – I still don’t – but I knew my days of sitting uneasily on the sidelines were all but over.
A few months later, I left my job as a school teacher and returned to education in the hope of better understanding the Trump-Brexit phenomenon. I quickly realised that we were witnessing a hard-right populist coup. Brexit was the vehicle; power, through disruption, was the goal.
We’d seen a disparate coalition of ideological enemies mashed together using expert-free ambiguity, jingoistic slogans and xenophobic fear-mongering. We’d seen the weaponisation of racism, the normalisation of bare-faced lying and the breaking of UK electoral law.
Most horrifying of all, we’d witnessed a Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, slaughtered in the streets for holding progressive views. Within a few weeks, alarm had supplanted curiosity and I had become a full-time campaigner, co-founding Inspire EU and Exeter Students for Europe.
In less than a year I had gone from an apathetic school teacher to a concerned citizen, to full-time campaigner. The days of sitting uneasily on the sidelines were indeed over.
The moment of truth
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” – Martin Luther King’s words motivated me, but it’s the words of Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel that drive me on today:
“Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor and never the victim; silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented”.
The populist Right have already proven that they will stop at nothing to get their hands on the levers of power. The goalposts move each day. “No-deal was always the dream”, they lie. “A fractured United Kingdom is worth it”, they crow. “Job losses and recession are no biggie”, they whisper.
There can be no hiding from the fact modern Britain is swaying precariously on the ropes. Can seismic, democratic machinations account for this? Have the tectonic plates really moved? Has Britain truly fallen out of love with modernity?
Yet, the mirage is convincing. This shadowy clique of English nativists, obsessed with the delusions of yesteryear, are doing everything in their growing power to convince us the game is up. They won the war, they insist, so now we must humbly and graciously accept defeat.
However, their belligerence betrays a deep-rooted anxiety. They know that the closer one gets to a mirage, the closer one gets to the truth; they know they would be chased out, disgraced and despised. It’s time to acknowledge that these are not ‘interesting times’, but unprecedented times, and in these times the silent majority must find their voice. In the words of Christopher Hitchens: “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence”. I am inclined to agree.
Let’s do this.