Taking Control

Peter Pomerantsev

The blind man is still playing his tin whistle during rush hour at Green Park station and all the streets look the same, but the inner mental map I have of the world, the one that places me in a network of structures and institutions, has gone. The chain of associations I grew up with – me, London, England, United Kingdom, Europe – has buckled. Simple language loses meaning: What does ‘out’ actually mean? Or ‘in’? Or ‘the UK’?

On Facebook everyone made sense of the vote according to the way they see the world. Because I study propaganda, I put it all down to that. Others said: ‘It’s austerity! Inequality! The economy!’ Yet others pointed out that affluent shires voted Brexit while poor parts of Scotland voted to Remain. ‘It’s identity! Immigration!’ Someone else pointed out that places with no immigration voted Leave too. ‘It’s generational!’ Everyone began to blame their parents.

I itched for things to do. I signed four or maybe five petitions and then realised I didn’t agree with them. Someone called and told me there was a meeting to organise resistance at a flat in East London. I went along. Everyone was trying to decide what to do next.

‘This is about protecting the liberties and rights we have grown up with! We need to reframe the case for Europe as British liberties!’
‘It’s not about liberties! It’s about fairness!’
‘We’ll take a bus to the North to show them how much Europe does for them!’
‘Look at us! They won’t listen to us!’
‘We need to listen to them!’
‘We need to stop fascism!’

Everyone could agree on that last one. We broke up into ‘committees’ for communications, campaigning, political lobbying. The man next to me had flow charts on his laptop: Brexit was inevitable; the UK would break apart; Scotland would leave; England and Wales would have a rump parliament; it would be a virtual one party state dominated by Ukip-sympathising Tories.

We needed to think several steps ahead. Create a new party. Reform voting so it lets us in. Push for massive devolution for London. The UK might be gone. We might be out of the EU. But if London’s citizens had all the old freedoms to move and work in the EU, if businesses could still have their financial passport to operate in the EU from London, then London could be saved. What mattered was staying in the single market. The EU might be gone but there was still the European Economic Area. We would get the same deal as Norway.

The present was a mystery, I thought the next morning, but I would be fine because I knew the future. ‘There is smoke on the platform at Baker Street,’ the tube driver said. ‘But don’t worry, it’s nothing dangerous.’

Then someone texted me to say they’d talked to someone in the City who knew someone in Brussels who knew someone in Paris. The UK wouldn’t get a good EEA deal. There would be no financial passport. Instead we would be offered access to the single market with no concessions on immigration. Number 10 would have to insist on a curb on immigration to appease the anti-immigration Leavers. London would lose both freedom of movement and the financial passport. Paris would become the new London. We wouldn’t be Norway. I wondered if the government was getting Brussels to offer a bad deal on purpose so they could go back for a second referendum.

At Green Park the blind man was still playing his tin whistle. I bought all the papers. I hadn’t bought a newspaper for years, looking at them online instead, but I wanted to see if I could read the runes and find a pattern. I spread them out on Berkeley Square. Birds ran over them.

The Mail and the Sun were both stressing the financial dangers of Brexit and appeared to support staying in the free market, immigration be damned. The Telegraph too. All of them. In tune! Why the change? Suddenly the master plan seemed obvious. The moguls had used fear of immigration to get a Leave vote, but would now campaign for staying in the single market with no real barriers to immigration but released from EU obligations to protect workers. A libertarian plot! It all made sense. Hadn’t Boris Johnson and the editor of the Mail spent 9 June – or so I’d heard – in a closed room in Mark’s Club, with a small ladder blocking the door so no one could get in?

Stop, I thought: you’re being conspiratorial. But aren’t conspiracies sometimes true? I stood on Charles Street and peered at Mark’s Club. Maybe if I hung around I would notice who was going in and coming out, and that would tell me something more about what was going on.

I bought some sandwiches and settled in, surrounded by my newspapers. It struck me that I’d been here before. The confusion, impromptu meetings, conspiracy and superstition were what I had observed, with condescending Britishness, in revolutionary Ukraine; in Tbilisi, Southern Italy and Spain. We are leaving the EU but have become far more European – part of the messy Europe that Brexit is supposed to free us from. The Europe that EU bureaucrats think needs fixing. The Europe that wants to enter the EU in order to be fixed.


  • 30 June 2016 at 10:20am
    frmurphy98 says:
    "Suddenly the master plan seemed obvious. The moguls had used fear of immigration to get a Leave vote, but would now campaign for staying in the single market with no real barriers to immigration but released from EU obligations to protect workers".

    Yep. That this was the intention was obvious to anybody who heard Daniel Hannan talking on the BBC the morning after the vote.

    • 1 July 2016 at 1:53pm
      Gibbon says: @ frmurphy98
      Not a chance. I mean, I don't doubt for a second this was the plan. But they've been banging the immigration drum for way too long to attempt such a disingenuous shift now. Whether they like it or not, the nativist anguish was the dog and the libertarian codswallop the tail. We'll have fascists - real not the sanitised UKIP variety - banging at the door if they row back now. It would be the ultimate basis for a stab in the back myth...

      No time to be a migrant. Very depressing.

  • 30 June 2016 at 10:58am
    nickww says:
    Interesting first paragraph. I had a similar feeling when we joined the Common Market in 1975 - that the Britain I had grown up in had somehow gone, the Britain of the British Commonwealth, a Britain with a world view with affiliations with countries in every corner of the glove, not just a sideshow role on the outer western edge of a Europe it had fought wars with for a thousand years. I think Britain shamefully walked away from much of that role, and it's one I hope coul dnow be revived. I don't mean this in any patrician Imperial sense - quite the contrary, there is a lot of bad as well as some good from the old days that needs to be dealt with and perhaps made better. But the British Commonwealth to me has retained its potential as a strong opportunity in what is now such a globalized world to bring very different voices and needs to one table, without a bloated bureaucracy telling everyone what to do and how to run their countries. I think the shared culture, languages, legal system, many of the values we share with the members of the Commonwealth are a stronger part of Britain than any 'European' values of the last 40 years and I would love to see Britain move back to a world view. Nick W-W

    • 30 June 2016 at 7:12pm
      SinisaMihajlovic says: @ nickww
      Though I wasn't born at the time, I had understood that the Empire was well and truly gone by the time we entered the common market. I don't know how extensive relations were within the Commonwealth, but I get the impression it was pomp, ceremony and pageantry as much as anything else. Nostalgia aside, it makes little sense to have a union of willing former colonial territories of Britain. I don't detect much serious appetite from those countries either.

      Also, from an immigration point of view, I feel that immigration from the Commonwealth (well, you know, the non-white bit) attracted more controversy than from Europe, and would do so again. It seems bizarre to suggest leaving a union with fairly similar countries, to start one with very different, and geographically diverse, countries. As for shared language and culture, do you just mean the white bits of the Commonwealth? White bits plus Caribbean?

      Being in the EU didn't mean turning our backs on the world, and I sincerely doubt we are about to start doing so any more than we have done.

  • 1 July 2016 at 8:04am
    johnmmorrison says:
    The collapse of the British political system is starting to remind me of the last days of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. The centre loses control of events and politics at the all-Union level is displaced by politics in the republics. England starts to resemble Russia, though it has no political institutions of its own. Above all, it's the feeling of confusion and disconnection.