He crept up on me at a media party where I thought I was among like-minded people. I didn’t realize at first. “I’m from the foreign office,” he said. “I’m a civil servant.” So far, so Citizens of the World. It was somewhere between his praise of Boris Johnson’s resignation speech and his comment about “buses where you can’t hear a word of English”, that I realized: Here was a full-blown Brexit supporter of the most anti-immigrant kind. And he wouldn’t stop talking to me.
First, you try to be polite. It’s a party, after all. Flanked by a reformist economist, I listened to him, made a few mild comments and tried hard to put a lid on what has become an explosive subject across the country. But, really. He would not desist, so we decided, this is war…
“I’m a salt of the earth northerner,” he said. “They’re all poor and unemployed! That’s why we have to have Brexit.”
“I’m a salt of the earth northerner,” she (the reformist economist) replied. “People where I grew up are poor because they used to work in the mines and now there are no mines. There are no jobs. That’s why they’re poor – nothing to do with Brussels.”
“Brexit was a protest vote,” he insisted.
“Nobody disputes that,” I chimed in. “But the protest vote unfortunately won’t help the protesters. It will create more reasons for dissatisfaction, not fewer. It will likely make them poorer. The treatment doesn’t fit the symptom.”
“Yes! Yes!” said my new economist friend, as she literally jumped up and down in agreement. “We don’t dispute that many people are unhappy, but now, with Brexit, the real reasons of their unhappiness will be ignored, again.”
“But we have got to be able to strike trade deals around the world – not constrained by Brussels,” said Mr Brexit.
“Germany trades more with China,” I say. “Belgium sells more to India – our friend in the Commonwealth, with whom we allegedly have a hugely advantageous relationship that Brexiters maintain will blossom after Brexit….The EU doesn’t seem to have stopped both those countries trading outside the union.”
“Also,” I add, “When I wrote a story about the fashion supply chain and Brexit, a consultant pointed out that one reason the EU hadn’t yet finalized a trade deal with India was because of British demands on pharmaceuticals…”
Economist friend nods, and begins to discuss the effect Brexit could have on UK trade.
“Well,” Mr Brexit said, hurriedly, “I don’t really know about the economics of it all.” He paused. “Anyway, it’s not about economics.”
Before we could ask him why, in that case, he saw fit to talk about poverty and trade deals, he pushed on… “I get a bus sometimes and you can’t hear a word of English spoken…and….and….there are teachers who struggle to teach their classes because so many children don’t speak English,” he finished, triumphantly.
Leaving the cliché and exaggeration aside, we wondered now many of those non-English speakers were EU citizens. “Leaving the EU probably won’t change that – if it’s throwing out migrants you are after, you need to decide first which set of ‘foreigners’ you object to before deciding whether your vote will get rid of them,” we countered.
“Some of my best friends are Polish,” he soldiered on. “But we are swamped. Just think, if Trump suddenly declared that anybody could turn up in New York, it would be overflowing with immigrants. We need to take back control of our borders.”
“We do have control of our borders,” I said. “Have you ever been to Heathrow and stood in a queue while they scrutinize passports? We can check people in and out. In any case, we could have made more checks and had more restrictions – as other European countries do – we just haven’t bothered and now we are complaining. We certainly had complete control over non-EU citizens – yet there are at least as many of those coming in as there are EU citizens.”
“The EU is self-interested. They’re all on the gravy train,” he said. “When David Cameron went there to try and get some concessions, they didn’t budge on freedom of movement or anything else…” He is incredulous.
“The thing is,” I venture. “European countries see the EU as an ideological project, which is why they might well think it’s worth taking a hit here and there to preserve it. They are emotionally attached. In the UK we see it as more transactional, so we can’t understand why they don’t want to bend the rules on the four freedoms – although, by the way, there has been a lot of talk in the EU about whether they need to reform that and unfortunately because of Brexit we can’t be part of those discussions.”
He murmured something about how I could possibly think the EU was benign. “She didn’t say that,” my partner-in-arms jumped in. “She said Europeans had an emotional attachment to the EU in a way that we didn’t – it wasn’t a judgement either way.”
“And by the way,” she added. “They are right to in the sense that for a continent that has always been at war the creation of the EU led to an unprecedented period of cooperation.”
“There is another reason for that – there was a grouping that was there before the EU, and that was NATO,” he mansplained.
My friend escaped, but Mr Brexit just kept on giving. “I completely agree with Boris Johnson’s resignation speech,” he continued. “To be honest, I think we need Nigel Farage in charge of Brexit negotiations.”
Even by the standards of the conversation so far, this made me splutter. “After all, he resigned from the head of the party when he got what he wanted. He didn’t cling on. He isn’t just there for the limelight or the money.” Er…his permanent seat on the political chat show circuit; his continued threats to reluctantly re-enter politics in order to save us all; his inflated EU salary….
Finally, I made my excuses and left. Before I went, I asked him where he worked in the Foreign Office. “I’m not telling you, you’re a journalist!” he exclaimed. Everything he said was such a cliché that I began to wonder whether he was just having me on – who knows? When I told one of the party’s hosts, he was surprised. “Oh I wonder how he got in? This was supposed to be a safe space!” he joked.
But the point is, maybe we have been in a safe space for too long, avoiding argument with Brexiters – especially friends. There was no way I was going to change Mr Brexit’s mind, but a calm, informed discussion might have led to greater mutual understanding with a less zealous interlocutor. I might even have converted someone.
And, if the above is all they have to offer by way of argument, I say bring it on!