Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
If you’re American, perhaps you’re wondering if Britain’s Brexit experience could help you prepare for the coming months. Here’s what it’s been like in London.
As a British person, the experience of waking up to find that Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States seemed freakishly familiar. Being shaken awake before dawn with shock news, then finding that most people I knew were awake, punch drunk, and already posting on social media—it all feels eerily reminiscent of June 24, when I also woke in the dark to find that Britain had narrowly voted for Brexit.
Many have already drawn parallels between Britain’s vote to leave the E.U. and the U.S. vote for Trump, not least because of some similarities in the metropolitan/rural divides in the two contests. It might also be true that the aftermath of Britain’s Brexit referendum could provide pointers as to how the next few months will be for Americans who did not vote for Trump.
That’s because both the Trump/Clinton and Leave/Remain divides have been presented in much of their countries’ media as a supposed standoff between metropolitan, cosmopolitan elites and hard-bitten rural and small-town residents who feel overlooked by upper-middle class affluence. It’s certainly true that the U.K.’s Remain voters predominated in London and a few other big cities, in addition to Scotland, while Hillary Clinton’s voters were mostly in cities and along the coasts.
The divide is still more complex than that in both the U.K. and the U.S. Many big-city residents in the U.K. are feeling the pinch as much as anyone else, while plenty of areas considered deep in the country in Britain are wealthy, well-connected, and close enough to London to be considered exurban by American standards.
The divide between metropolitan elites and regional discontents has nonetheless been successfully established as a fault line for debate—the public has largely bought it because, though flawed and polemic, it’s not completely divorced from reality. Pro-Brexit voices have succeeded in creating two monstrous scapegoats in the public mind that supposedly congregate around London: the rootless, wealthy cosmopolite and the shifty, job-stealing foreigner. If that funhouse mirror rhetoric doesn’t ring a bell to American readers, I suggest you try cleaning your ears.
This leaves city-dwellers of all stripes feeling pretty disconcerted. If you live in a big, historically Democratic-voting city, you may, like I did after the Brexit vote, feel completely discombobulated. It felt as if something in the air itself was wrong, even toxic. While the houses on my street were apparently the same as the ones there the day before the vote, it was as if they’d somehow been replaced by uncanny impostors. This summer, this feeling of estrangement took about a fortnight to fade away—but fade it eventually did. Slowly my visions of the world around me before and after the election gradually superimposed more neatly over each other until a single, clear picture emerged. After that drastic polarization, I still look at people now and wonder how they voted. I sometimes see people eyeing me up, trying to answer the same question for themselves. It doesn’t feel great.
That’s all small fry compared to the real bad news. If the post-election in the U.S. follows the template of the Brexit vote aftermath, you will need to steel yourself for some pretty ugly stuff. Both the Brexit and Trump campaigns were infected with racist rhetoric tinged with violence, both implied and real. In Britain, the Brexit vote aftermath saw an immediate, vicious uptick in racist attacks.
It’s not that racism suddenly appeared overnight. British minorities have frustratedly pointed out that the abuse many have received is just a more intense expression of an ongoing problem that’s been disregarded too long by the white and powerful. The problem is that, with a vote for Brexit being interpreted by many as a vote against immigration, racists felt emboldened that the majority was now on their side. Many non-white or non-British-born friends of mine reported being verbally insulted or even pushed out of subway trains.
The doubly frustrating thing about this turn of events is that the Brexit vote, like the Trump vote, was a protest against so many things: in particular growing inequality and, in Britain’s case, the effect of harsh austerity policies. In the aftermath, these concerns were paid initial lip service by the new government, but they’ve quite quickly been ignored in favor of a focus on immigration.
On a far more minor note, the poisoned atmosphere here in the U.K. has spread among people who opposed the vote to leave, including within my friend group. Looking back to before the referendum, it almost seems funny how bland political discussions between my friends were then. While most (but not all) people I know voted to remain in the E.U., discussions in the pub or on Facebook have become warier and sharper, as people debate who exactly is responsible for the vote going the way it did. In many ways, that’s no bad thing—better a debate that leads to well-rounded opinions than the proverbial echo chamber. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if Americans on both sides of the aisle find the election aftermath makes discussions even among friends increasingly embittered.
All that may sound rather bleak, but if U.S. reactions to the election reflect Britain’s post-Brexit shifts, then the institutions designed to balance government power will eventually reassert themselves. In Britain, for example, a court has just ruled that our parliament must in fact vote to approve Brexit, thanks to a case brought by the lawyer Gina Miller. This is an important move not because politicians will overturn the referendum result, but because it gives the people’s representatives a greater say in what sort of deal is brokered. And because it actually corresponds to the law. The howling reaction to this from Britain’s rightwing media, however, has made the likes of Fox News seem relatively demure.
The Daily Mail branded the judges who ruled “enemies of the people” and in a comment since deleted, damned one for being an “openly gay ex-Olympic fencer,” as if that were a source of treachery. Meanwhile the Daily Express preposterously suggested the case was as serious a crisis for the country as the Second World War. This hyperbole has actually become pretty standard post-referendum fare. Brexit supporters have been screaming traitor at anyone who cast any doubt on the handling of the Brexit process or its likelihood of success, in part because they know their international hand is indeed very weak and loathe having it pointed out. With many Trump policies on key issues pretty hazy and/or tough to deliver, don’t be surprised if this pattern repeats itself across the Atlantic.
The tide still seems to be turning on this, however. Britain’s prime minister and justice secretary have been forced to defend the independence of the judiciary, even as they prepare an appeal against their decision. The courts haven’t been cowed into submission, and a more open, frank debate about Britain’s future should ensue. Americans worried about what’s to come after yesterday’s results should take heart in this. Many of your institutions are no doubt well embedded enough in national life to function with some resilience.