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.