I woke up on 24 June with a sense of impending doom. It was no doubt linked to the fact that after voting the day before, I had undergone an operation and so was waking up in a hospital bed. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I was also waking up to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU.
It soon became clear that I wasn’t the only Briton who’d been badly bruised by the events of that historic day. On the airwaves and social media, angry Remainers were voicing their shock at what had just happened. More surprisingly, repentant sinners were beginning to beg for forgiveness: they’d voted Leave, not realising their votes counted, and wanted to change their minds. I now share their pain – as well as bravely bearing my own – because I wish I’d voted Leave.
My reasons for voting Remain seemed solid on 23 June. I love how London is clogged with delightful French stalls flogging cakes of brie. I love that, unlike my father, I have never been dragged under the dining table while the Germans fly overhead. Call it wistful thinking, call it naivety, but for all the EU’s faults I believed the utopian dream would eventually be matched by reality.
I watched events unfold from my hospital bed numb from the anaesthetic. Was it my imagination or were the Romanian nurses less friendly than the previous evening? David Cameron washed his hands of an electorate he’d trusted to do the right thing and who instead had spray-painted his epitaph. A Hackney cafe-owner collared by Sky News said: ‘I don’t understand it and I’m highly-educated.’ This seemed revealing. While the nation’s nervous breakdown gathered pace, I listened to politicians, celebrities and Facebook friends disparage Brexit as a victory for racism, bigotry and faux-nostalgia. The insipid response of the Leavers, apparently unnerved by what they’d achieved, didn’t help heal the ugly national mood.
As the week progressed, and demonstrators with radical piercings marched on Parliament in solidarity with EasyJet and George Osborne, I found my mood change. As one Guardian commentator after another dismissed the opinion of the poor, the old, the white, the uneducated, I began to wonder if the Leavers hadn’t been right all along. Perhaps the Remain side were out of touch with what much of Britain thought.
Despite Boris’s half-hearted protests, many who voted Leave are genuinely concerned about levels of immigration. Remainers continue to assume ‘we’ Britons are a homogenous race, ignoring the fact that not everybody feels as they do towards migrants. Since Brexit there has been an unappetising surge in racist incidents. But the characterisation of all Leave voters as racists is also unappealing.
More appalling than the predictable racist claim has been the dismissal of older voters as reactionaries, wreckers of our children’s future. As if ‘older’ people, who’ve worked, paid taxes, brought up children in far tougher times, shouldn’t have a say and that the young, many of whom couldn’t be bothered to vote, should have their non-votes registered.
As my mood changed, yet more taboo thoughts rose to the surface. If the EU has transformed working conditions for the better, why are there so many zero-hours ‘contracts’? Why do ‘left wingers’ trust businesses so reliant on cheap labour? If it’s so important for crime prevention, how do we explain Saliman Barci and Arnis Zalkalns? We are ‘informed’ that we need young blood because there’s a pensions crisis, but won’t migrants also grow old? We are told by Jeremy Corbyn that immigration has no impact on housing, and it’s all because the Tories are too mean to build 300,000 houses a year. What if he’s wrong and the EU did in fact have a negative impact on housing stock?
Then came the petitions. Remainers calling for the referendum to be ignored, or worse, re-run, revealed themselves to be the enemies of democracy. How many of them would tolerate similar calls from the Leave camp if the vote was reversed? And what happens if a re-run took place and a slender majority did vote Remain. Did they really think the Leavers would take that lying down?
By now, I also wanted to repent. I’d voted Remain, but had not realised that my vote would have counted for more if I had voted Leave. I regretted my vote because if the margin had been wider, perhaps those commentators who make a living decrying our country, our electorate, our past, would pause to reflect on what voting meant to ordinary people rarely allowed to make national decisions. For an overwhelming majority of Leave voters it wasn’t about sending messages to Brussels, or wiping the smugness off Cameron’s face; it was about deciding which choice would be best for them, their children, and for the country they love. It was democracy in action. It was beautiful. But then maybe I just wish I’d backed the winning side.