The Great British Brexit break-up
Husbands and wives, fathers and sons, and best friends are being pulled apart by the referendum. Judith Woods reports
Historians often claim that civil conflicts are the most difficult to resolve. Winning the war may be a challenge but winning the peace can seem downright intractable, given the bitter divisions between colleagues and neighbours, kith and kin.
So it seems with the EU referendum, a once-in-a-lifetime vote that has set generation against generation and split the country geographically. Quite possibly – although even the most ardent Remainer must surely hope not – for just such a lifetime.
“Why were old people even allowed to vote? I mean, they’ll all be dead soon,” wails my 14-year-old, echoing many millennials, who feel betrayed by their inward-looking elders.
According to the last YouGov poll before the referendum, an overwhelming 72 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds wanted to Remain. It goes without saying that social media is awash with indignation.
Unfortunately, the wave of selfrighteousness is rather undermined by the fact that only an estimated 36 per cent of that age group may have bothered to exercise their democratic right to have their voices heard.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the baby boomers, genuinely convinced they were doing what was best for Britain, regardless of the fallout.
“My grandchildren are furious, but I remember the days before we joined the Single Market and I believe we are better off out,” one retired grandmother tells me. “They will thank me. Maybe not immediately, but later, because sovereignty isn’t something that can be bought by Brussels.”
Normally she’d have been happy to give her name, but in the interests of conciliation she demurs for fear of fanning the flames of burning familial hostility. Or to put it another way: “They’d kill me if I was ‘crowing’.”
Because right now, for a large swathe of the population, the pressing issue is rebuilding bridges blown to smithereens in the small hours of Friday June 24. Facebook unfriending reached epidemic proportions as emotions ran high. There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence about Brexit-voting in-laws being outlawed.
“My brother, who lives in Perthshire, voted Remain out of selfinterest,” says one Brexit campaigner. “I voted for a principle – even if there is a recession, I’m prepared to take a short-term hit for long-term gain – but now he won’t even reply to my texts.”
It’s no secret that the result took a great many Brexiteers by surprise (arguably Boris Johnson as much as anyone – and he may be having some difficult conversations with his Remainer father).
Some are already regretting it, but receiving little sympathy. On Mumsnet, that bellwether of middle-class mores, amid the predictable ding-dong over the result, a special contempt is reserved for those quislings who express second thoughts.
“It sickens me to think some people voted on such a huge issue so carelessly that they are already changing their minds,” a friend of mine mutters darkly. “If you’ve screwed up the country for a generation and probably precipitated the break-up of the Union, then at least have the courage of your convictions. Otherwise how can you sleep at night?”
Sleep eludes many in these turbulent times, and not just Labour shadow cabinet members for whom the night of the long knives continues.
For the rest of us, peace and reconciliation among our family and friends may still be a long way off, but is a ceasefire too much to ask?
‘My friend called me a racist, Nazi xenophobe’
Jenna Sharpe, 33, is an actress from Reading I am under 35, I work in The Arts and I voted to leave the EU. This may surprise people, given the parade of “luvvies” begging us to remain – but not as much as the level of anger directed towards the 17 million people who voted Leave has shocked me.
Social media has been particularly toxic. Sometimes you don’t realise you are operating in an echo chamber of your own views. Sometimes it’s distressing to discover people you love and respect hold a different opinion. But sometimes the rhetoric has been truly ugly.
“If you voted Leave you are a
racist, Nazi xenophobe,” one “friend” told me. Needless to say, he was swiftly unfriended.
We have been prevented from having an honest discussion about welfare, immigration or our place in the world because too often it descends into just such childish name-calling. I’m afraid the reaction to the result – Leavers labelled as racist and stupid; old people told they have ruined young people’s futures – has only highlighted this, and only made me more certain that I made the right decision.
Some people only believe in freedom of speech, tolerance and understanding for those who think the same things that they do.
‘My husband’s smug face didn’t help’ Sarah Fletcher, 33, is a writer from Manchester
Hugo and I have always disagreed about politics, so I knew he was voting for Brexit while I was voting Remain. Before the count, it seemed amusing that we felt so differently. When I woke up to find the world had changed, it didn’t seem so funny.
Things are tense between Hugo and my siblings, who all voted to stay in the EU. My brother (a doctor in the NHS) has vowed never to speak to him again, and asked me to pass on a selection of choice expletives to express how he feels.
Hugo and I have had more arguments about politics in the past four days than in the 10 years we have been together. We now spend most of the day emailing each other articles about Brexit to prove the other is an idiot.
Judging by my social media accounts, I’m in a Left-wing bubble. I honestly thought most people would err on the side of caution and remain in the EU. That’s why Hugo’s victory really stung – not helped by his big smug face when he realised Brexit had won.
Although I don’t agree with him, he isn’t racist or xenophobic; he voted based on a belief Britain will do better without EU directives and control. So it’s been uncomfortable reading social media posts arguing that all Brexiteers are bigots – particularly those I know are aimed at my husband. I don’t think we’ll be hosting a dinner party for a while!
‘We’ve not spoken since Mum voted Out’ Emilee Tombs, 28, is a writer from Devon
I’m taking a risk writing this: my mum, 56, voted Out, I voted In, and since the EU referendum result was announced last Friday, we haven’t spoken a word to each other. In my teens we had a tumultuous relationship, but even though I now live in London, over the past few years we’ve become great friends. I fear that Brexit is going to change all that – and I know I’m not alone.
On Sunday’s special edition of Question Time, Theresa May told an agitated audience that an overwhelming majority of people under 25 felt that their hopes for a bright and prosperous future had been robbed by their elders. I couldn’t agree more.
But it’s not just my future I’m sad for; what baffles me about Mum’s decision is that even in our toughest times I had always held her in high regard as a liberal, intelligent and tolerant person. How could she be suckered by a campaign that I found so abhorrent? How could she dismiss my pleas to “vote In, for my brothers and me!” How do we move on?
She’s not one to hold a grudge, but herein lies the problem – I am. I love you, Mum, but why did you vote Out?
‘My son-in-law’s not happy’ Stephen Kerbel, 65, is a retiree from south-east London
Early on in the campaign, my son-in-law made his position clear – he was firmly Remain. We broached the subject once or twice, but he was adamant he wouldn’t be persuaded otherwise. When we had lunch on Saturday he simply said: “Congratulations – let’s not discuss it.” He was clearly unhappy; I told him I wouldn’t gloat.
My wife also voted to stay in the EU. I was upset because she cancelled out my vote. She apologised in a civilised way and I kept my mouth shut.
I’m delighted we’re Out. I’ve always been very European and progressive, but essentially, it came down to sovereignty. We’ve been accused of abandoning the next generation, but I was genuinely thinking of my future grandchildren. I felt I had to lead the next generation because they don’t realise they’re throwing democracy down the tubes. Because they’ve lived all this time under the EU – this is all they know.
Going forward, I think my son-inlaw and I will have to agree to continue not discussing it. Anything that goes well from now on, the Remainers will put it down to good luck; anything that goes wrong and it’ll be a case of “I told you so…”
Rival campaigners wooing shoppers in Exeter earlier this month
Sarah and Hugo Fletcher (above) were at odds, as most probably were (top) friends Samantha Cameron and Michael Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine. Stanley Johnson (below) also did not see eye to eye with his son Boris