My voice is often recognised by people who don’t know me. My face, which is unmemorable, less so. But once I open my mouth it’s not uncommon at railway stations, on buses or at the supermarket till for someone to approach and ask me to confirm I’m Mr Parish, or Malcolm Parris, or whatever. I make no boast: anyone who appears from time to time on radio and television gets recognised a bit, and over many years this has been my experience too.
But something has changed in recent months, something I can’t ignore. In the past, the enquiry ‘Are you Matthew Parris?’ was made mostly out of curiosity. Occasionally (when I’ve confirmed it’s me) this might be followed up with ‘I often read you in the Times or Spectator/like your BBC Great Lives programme/agree with what you said on Newsnight’ etc., but kind remarks like these have been ventured in the spirit of needing to say something to fill an awkward pause. I’ve shaken hands, said thank you, and that has been that.
It’s different now. Those who come up to me are doing it as a kind of affirmation for both of us. One feels like an Early Christian in pagan Rome, being recognised by another in the Believers’ flock; or a member of the French Resistance spotted by a comrade-in-arms. Sometimes it’s almost confiding, conspiratorial. ‘Oh please keep it up!’ a stranger will implore. ‘Don’t give in!’, ‘we’re with you’, ‘we need voices like yours’, ‘stick to your guns’, ‘you’re not alone’, ‘there are lots of us’. I find it tremendously morale-boosting.
Why? Because between myself and the stranger there arises an immediate understanding of what it is that he or she wants me to keep up, what guns they want me to stick to, and which battle they don’t want us to concede. Nothing more needs to be said: they’re talking about Brexit. They are Remainers. The ‘it’ they want me to keep up is the fight. And there are more and more of us; voices are getting more passionate, more worried and more determined.
I have spent quite a bit of time at Buxton International Festival this month and, though I notice this year that audiences are a little less elderly than has been the case before, most who tug my sleeve about Brexit are in their fifties, sixties or seventies. These people are of moderate means, midlanders and northerners mostly, intelligent and interested in the world (or they wouldn’t be at the festival) but unassuming. They are not, absolutely not, ‘establishment’ or ‘elite’. As silly stereotypes go, they look and sound not at all like the ‘metropolitan’ Remainer but more like the ‘provincial’ Leaver: greying, respectable, conservatively dressed.
And they’re worried sick. Worried not about ‘taking back control’, keeping out an imagined horde of Turks or ‘faceless bureaucrats in Brussels’ — but about what is happening to our country, a place and a people we used to think we knew; and about what may lie ahead as we are swept, almost certainly now against the wishes of the majority, towards a no-deal Brexit.
As I write, this has just happened to me again, this time on the platform at Macclesfield station. I had just left Sir Max Hastings, who had been speaking in Buxton about his book on the Vietnam war, and was going home to southern England. A lady in perhaps her late forties walked up and put out her hand to shake mine. ‘Well done,’ she said. ‘I just wanted you to know we’re with you. Don’t stop!’
‘Oh I don’t know,’ I replied, ‘I think I’ve been driven a bit mad by all this. I’m just repeating myself, writing the same thing again and again.’ ‘Keep writing it!’ she said. ‘We need voices begging people not to do this stupid thing. You can’t say it too often. Someone has to speak for people like us. What is happening to our country? I don’t recognise it any more.’ And with that she walked away to catch her train.
Was she a Conservative? Who knows. Remainers have become a minority in the Tory party these days, not because they’ve changed their minds but because they’ve drifted away from Conservatism as a political force. When you talk to fellow Remainers now, you don’t much care about what if any political party they’ve belonged to or supported — though you know they won’t be voting Conservative again.
What you do notice is how energised we Remainers have become. I was never madly pro-EU — was rather Eurosceptic, in fact. I had serious doubts about the European Union’s long-term future (still do), just as I have about the Commonwealth’s or the United Nations’ future. But had any significant group in Britain started agitating for us to leave the UN or the Commonwealth, I’d have recognised at once the strain of thinking, the cast of mind, they represented, and some of the other attitudes likely to go with it, and my determination that we should stay in these organisations would have grown. So it is with Europe.
And I do now believe that we’re becoming a force that would survive Brexit, if or when it happens. We’re beginning to recognise each other, to bond, to feel part of something, not least because the reason for the anti-EU movement’s success has not been lost on us. They were never afraid to be boring and obsessive. They too were once a voice crying in the wilderness but by persistence, intransigence and a measure of faith they turned a minority into a slim and probably transient majority: just enough to win the 2016 referendum. So we are learning from their fortitude and their methods. And in the end we will surprise them, as they surprise us, with a dogged refusal to shut up. The movement to remain in the EU will become, if we leave, a movement to rejoin.
This was once an open, relaxed, internationalist nation, impelled by patriotism but never by dislike or resentment of Abroad. Like the woman on Macclesfield station platform, I want my country back. We’re becoming a band of brothers, and we’re not going away.