Every dinner table in North London was doing the same, probably…
The first instinct of many Remain voters on the left was that this was only about immigration. When the numbers came in and the class and age breakdown became known, a working-class populist revolution came more clearly into view, although of the kind that always perplexes middle-class liberals who tend to be both politically naive and sentimental about the working classes. Throughout the day I phoned home and e-mailed and tried to process, along with much of London—or at least the London I know—our enormous sense of shock. “What have they done?” we said to each other, sometimes meaning the leaders, who we felt must have known what they were doing, and sometimes meaning the people, who, we implied, didn’t. Now I’m tempted to think it was the other way around.
Doing something, anything, was in some inchoate way the aim: the notable feature of neoliberalism is that it feels like you can do nothing to change it, but this vote offered up the rare prize of causing a chaotic rupture in a system that more usually steamrolls all in its path. But even this most optimistic leftist interpretation—that this was a violent, more or less considered reaction to austerity and the neoliberal economic meltdown that preceded it—cannot deny the casual racism that seems to have been unleashed alongside it, both by the campaign and by the vote itself.
To the many anecdotal accounts I will add two reported by my Jamaican-born mother. A week before the vote a skinhead ran up to her in Willesden and shouted “Über Alles Deutschland!” in her face, like a memory of the late 1970s. The day after the vote, a lady shopping for linens and towels on the Kilburn High Road stood near my mother and the half-dozen other people originally from other places and announced to no one in particular: “Well, you’ll all have to go home now!” What have you done, Boris? What have you done, Dave? Yet within this tale of our solipsistic leaders, thoughtlessly lighting a fuse, there is contained a less pleasing story of our own Londoncentric solipsism, which seems to me equally real, and has formed a different kind of veil, perhaps just as hard to see through as the blinding personal ambition of a man like Boris. The profound shock I felt at the result—and which so many other Londoners seem to have experienced—suggests at the very least that we must have been living behind a kind of veil, unable to see our own country for what it has become.
The night before I left for Northern Ireland, I had dinner with old friends, North London intellectuals, in fact exactly the kind of people the Labour MP Andy Burnham made symbolic reference to when he claimed that the Labour Party had lost ground to UKIP because it was “too much Hampstead and not enough Hull,” although of course, in reality, we were all long ago priced out of Hampstead by the bankers and the Russian oligarchs. We were considering Brexit. Probably every dinner table in North London was doing the same. But it turned out we couldn’t have been considering it very well because not one of us, not for a moment, believed it could possibly happen. It was so obviously wrong, and we were so obviously right—how could it?