Has Brexit put everything from the NHS to workers' rights at risk, or is it a 'pleasing' new start?

Voting Leave had been a last-minute decision for some: 'Just for a change, to see what we could do'

Adam Lusher
Friday 24 June 2016 13:49
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Voters questioned what Britain had done as the wind picked up on Westminster Bridge
Voters questioned what Britain had done as the wind picked up on Westminster Bridge

In the pale dawn sunlight, the Union flag slowly unfurled in the soft breeze over the Houses of Parliament.

On Westminster Bridge, as the early morning haze cleared, you began to discern that the spires of London’s churches still stood.

Big Ben still chimed. The river still flowed, calm as a millpond, with only a few ripples disturbing the mirror-like surface.

And just as Wordsworth had written while composing his lines upon Westminster Bridge, dull – still would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty.

But who now could be sure that this “calm so deep” could last?

Not Joseph Fox. Not Ilana Melka. Still in their Stronger In T-shirts they came, walking across the bridge from the Royal Festival Hall, from a Remain campaign party that had died long before it officially ended.

The two Bristol University students saw no point in denial.

“It was just quiet,” said Joseph, “Quiet with the realisation that things had come to an end”.

Clarification seemed needed that they were talking only about the campaign ending. Not the world.

No, said Joseph. Things would just get “stormy, in normal people’s lives, especially in Labour voters’ lives”.

Ilana had been working on the social media side. Joseph had been on the Labour In For Britain battle bus. For five weeks.

He had visited Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sunderland – Sunderland, which had voted so emphatically for Brexit.

“Labour tried,” he said, “Tried to get the message across.”

If these two 19-year-olds were the future, it had, they said, just been turned a whole lot bleaker by the UK’s decision to vote for Brexit in the EU referendum.

“This is our future on the line,” said Ilana. “It has already been quite hard for my generation, living through recession, being told there are fewer jobs. Now it’s going to be harder for us to work abroad, to travel…”

Youthful idealism dies hard, of course.

They worried not so much for themselves – at a good university, with good prospects – but for those they had tried to persuade, those with fewer opportunities.

“If you look at the people who led the Leave campaign,” said Joseph, “At Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, you’ll see workers’ rights, women’s rights, the NHS … all at risk.”

Before she walked on, towards the building so often hailed as the crowning achievement of a nation priding itself on being the mother of parliaments, Ilana had one last thought, about the Leave Campaign's “xenophobia”.

“This country has always been open-minded, forward thinking. What message has gone out to the world now?”

And yet as he took a walk after a long night of watching – and trading on – the referendum, James Knight, 20, a banking student at the Institute of Financial Services, could adopt an air of breezy insouciance.

If not quite the dawn of Independence Day, as so loudly trumpeted at 4am by Farage, it was at least a pleasing “new start”.

“Immigration was a big issue,” said this Leave voter, “But it wasn’t the main issue.”

The clincher, he insisted, was asserting the right to make laws in this country.

And if, as Brexit victory loomed, the pound had hit its lowest level against the dollar since 1985, that was mere short-term volatility.

“Traders make money off volatility,” explained Mr Knight patiently. “There will have been a lot of people coming into Canary Wharf with sleeping bags and trading off it [the referendum result]. If you know what you are doing, you can make some money.”

We did ask how much he had made by juggling euros and pounds.

“I couldn’t tell you,” he laughed, “it’s in the hundreds”.

Vera Neilson, 53, working as a technician in St Thomas’ Hospital, across the water from Parliament, hadn’t made a penny, but was still ecstatic.

“Fantastic!” she said.

“We’ll build the pound back up,” she added. Because we had nothing to fear from Brexit. We had taken back control of our own country, stopped being dictated to.

And it wasn’t as if things could get any worse than they were already, “With too many people, too much immigration.”

Although, in the cold light of day, Leave voter Darren, 45, a civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, did wonder what he, and the country, had done.

Voting Leave had been a last-minute decision, he said, “just for a change, to see what we could do, without the Brussels bureaucrats thing”.

And how, now, did he think we would do?

A wry smile, a frank admission.

“I’m really not sure. It could be a good thing. It might turn out to be a disaster.”

And so, after a short stroll along the South Bank, to Waterloo Station as it disgorged the day's first commuters.

Scowling, sharp-suited men scurried past, too preoccupied, perhaps, to notice they were trampling underfoot the already disintegrating, discarded “Vote Remain” flyers, and last night’s newspapers, with their “Remain Ahead in Final Poll” headline and photograph of a smiling David Cameron.

“Shocking,” said one particularly dapper 50-something, who had taken the early train from Twickenham.

“There will be a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “It will knock the confidence of foreign countries. They will have to think hard about investing here.”

And how would he know?

“I am the head of regulatory affairs for a Japanese bank.”

John, 49, mustered the kind of understatement you expect from a City gent with 25 years’ experience.

“I’m very disappointed,” he said.

We pressed a little.

“It feels as if we have had an emotional vote that people don’t understand the consequences of. Our economy is going to suffer. The Leave campaign has overplayed our ability to negotiate a new settlement with the EU.”

We pressed a little more.

“It could prove to be the biggest uniquely British, as opposed to world financial challenge, the City has faced in my life, certainly in my working lifetime.”

Which gave the morning stroller something to ponder as he returned along the riverbank to Westminster Bridge and the news that David Cameron had resigned.

Wordsworth had enjoyed the calm of this bridge in 1802, when British anger was already gathering about John Bull having been short-changed by another settlement with “Europe” – the Peace of Amiens. The anger would break just eight months later, when in 1803 Britain went to war to stop the expansionist European ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte.

At least war was stretching it this time, whatever the Remain propaganda – or the distorted reporting of Remain propaganda – had said.

But when we mentioned Nigel Farage’s hope that a Brexit victory would “bring down this failed [European] project”, we received a proper south London response.

“He’s a knob,” said Marcus Miller, 28, a construction worker engaged on what will be One Blackfriars, a 52-storey addition to the London skyline.

Farage would see his dream come true, said Mr Miller, from Elephant and Castle, south London, and it would be a nightmare for everyone else.

“When we leave the EU,” he said. “France and Germany won’t be able to handle the burden of carrying the European bloc. The EU will disintegrate. And I predict turmoil and disaster.”

On the river, gusts began to scud across the water. The wind had picked up.

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