It is a curious thing to watch something momentous occur to your home country while travelling abroad. Knowing that EU referendum mania has been engulfing the UK for months, yet having been in a foreign country all the while, one feels a strange separation from the clamour; something like watching it all unfold from behind soundproof glass. I am reminded of a Gaslight Anthem lyric: ‘‘the sky up above, these indifferent stars’’. I have found myself looking up from a coffee in a breakfast joint, or a beer in a corner bar, buzzing with words and opinions on something so important to me, opinions to impose upon someone who cares, and yet all I see is blank faces, dispassionate to my country’s plight. Indifferent stars.
I am currently travelling by vehicle in North America with three other people; my companions and myself are all staunchly pro-European Union. We are mid-twenties kids, born into a Europe of infinite possibilities. I have been travelling the world since the age 18. As a member of the EU, I have the right to unlimited travel in an entire continent, to live and work and study in any European country, to buy a plane, bus or boat ticket, and be pretty much anywhere in Europe, for as long as I choose. That has always been a source of great comfort to me. When I think of it, it brings to mind emotions of infinite possibility and adventure.
On referendum day, we were in the tiny Colorado town of Buena Vista, which sits at an elevation of 2,428m above sea level. We had spent the day on a rigorous offroad trail over Tincup Pass, a tiny mountain trail that connects the abandoned mining towns of Tincup and St. Elmo. We had pushed our 4×4 vehicles to their absolute limits, crawling over great slabs of rock and shale, grinding our way up a rocky mountain runoff riverbed cutting through the dense pine forest cladding the side of the mountain, through a flooded out lakeside track, to eventually reach the very top of the pass, only to find an avalanche, compacted tightly and frozen into place, had blocked the pass for 70 metres. We tried every way we could think of to circumvent the blockage, eventually conceding defeat. There was no way through. Tired and exhausted, we turned around and picked our way carefully back the way we had come. We had arrived in Buena Vista, East of Tincup – 40 miles of twisting mountain roads and passes, late in the day.
Checking in at a campsite, we eagerly connected to the Wifi and were immediately boosted to see the polls putting ‘remain’ firmly ahead. In fine spirits, I used a lighter to crack the top off my first Colorado IPA of the night and settled in behind my laptop screen to watch the results come in.
The weather at this elevation is unpredictable, and we spent the evening dodging storms and flurries of rain while cooking up a quick meal between our vehicles and the campsite common room. All the while our eyes glued to our screens, intermittently making jokes and half-serious threats of renouncing our British citizenship if Boris and Farage came out the victors. We watched as Nigel conceded the battle early, not once but twice, and laughed as Boris stumbled over his words and half-conceded on the tube to a passerby. Our previous confidence and light-heartedness proved premature of course, as we watched the results slam in, one after another, in favour of the Leave vote. I sat in my chair outside almost all night, watching the results come in as lightning occasionally illuminated the dark storm clouds over the peaks somewhere in the distance. I sat, watching the campsites’ buzz die, and the RV and trailer lights extinguish, every one of them ignorant to what I had just lost. I sat there numbly, until the UK awoke for work the next day, to find themselves no longer citizens of Europe. All along I think I was hoping for some miracle turnaround, which of course never came. I read through the shock commentary, watching the pundits scramble to make sense of the news, seeing Farage’s grinning face as he delivered his victory speech, laden with innuendo and arrogance. Particularly insulting was his ‘’without a single bullet being fired’’ statement, obviously having forgotten the shooting and stabbing of Labour MP and Remain campaigner Jo Cox only a week earlier. I sat; numb, watching my future, my ideals, and my country shrivel up before me.
I have always felt like a European citizen, before a British one. Whether drinking Belgian beer, interrailing around Europe, drinking Italian coffee, being treated at no cost in a Spanish hospital, striking business deals with other European firms, being able to fly or drive around Europe at will, I have always felt this continent is my home – not just a mere country. I think I speak for most of my generation, when I say a birthright has been taken from us. We are Europeans. We have been Europeans since birth. We are not the insular, nationalist, xenophobic creatures that Nigel Farage would have the world believe.
The UK is the country that first stood up and said no to fascism in Europe. We fought and died for a united Europe. And yet fascism is what has slowly crept back into our media not even a century later, under the sinister guise of patriotism. I am so disappointed in the betrayal of our values as Europeans. A misguided electorate has been duped into voting against world leaders and economist’s advice, for our exit from a united Europe. A Europe that Britons fought and died for, that birthed a universal benchmark of human rights, which has united a continent previously torn apart by 1,000 years of war. A media autocracy has taken precedent in my home country, one that serves only the rich and powerful. Scotland will likely leave us because of our hypocritical rhetoric. The Irish border will again become hard, undoing years of healing. This will no longer be a Great Britain, but an isolated, little England.
Over the next couple of days I watched helplessly as the pound crashed against the dollar, and my travel savings became 20% less than they had been on referendum day. Whenever I go to pay for something in dollars, it bitterly reminds me of how much less my money is now worth. The UK passport topped last year’s rankings as the most powerful passport in the world. I wonder how far it will drop in the next couple of years? Everything the economists said was true. The FTSE 100 crashed, $3tn was wiped off markets, and the pound took its worst dive in history to levels not seen in 30 years.
And yet, we have lost something far more valuable than the flickering numbers of finance, shares and markets. A generation has lost its identity. We were born into the European Union, everything that it promised at our fingertips, and overnight we found that the 75 per cent of young people that voted was not enough – The future we wanted, that we were born into, had been thrown under the proverbial bus – purely to settle a conservative party civil war. The vast majority of people who voted to leave the EU will be long dead whilst we, the young, must live with the folly of their decision. In the meantime, we must live with financial and economic ruin, an emboldened right-wing, and the fact that migrants (EU or no) and non-white people have been the victims of an astonishing 57 per cent increase of hate crimes and racial abuse in the streets of Britain. That is a source of great shame to me, but an obvious symptom of the degenerate and xenophobic campaign run by the Brexit camp, which has legitimised racism in modern Britain. Therein lies one of the key and most divisive points of this campaign. Veteran musician and activist Billy Bragg commented just before the referendum; ‘‘not every Leave voter is a racist, but every racist will vote Leave.” With this in mind, a key question to consider is – Without the inevitable vote from the racist perspective, would we have still had the numbers needed to vote to leave the EU? The answer to that question, I fear is no. This is something central to my acceptance of the referendum’s mandate. The idea that a tiny margin of ignorance, xenophobia, and racism meant the difference between us remaining in or leaving the most successful economic partnership in history is a hard one to swallow.
So where does this leave British members of the travel community? The answer is: In an extremely uncertain position. For travellers like myself who are in the middle of a trip, suddenly our hard-earned cash is worth far less than when we set out. For us, it could be the catalyst that means going home early, or bastardizing our trip of a lifetime to spend more time in a place where our money is worth slightly more. Looking further ahead, as a European citizen I have always seen a future me spending months and years in other European countries, possibly starting a business and settling in another country on the continent. The idea that this has been stripped from me on the back of a referendum settled within a couple of percentage points is quite a unique feeling of betrayal.
The Britain I grew up in was always a place of pragmatism and common sense. Demagogues and ideologically driven firebrands were always dismissed in favour of the facts and figures in a classically British manner. Yet here we stand. In an act of national insanity, as contagious and enthusiastic as the Salem witch trials, we have thrown away our standing and voice in the strongest single economy and union of countries the world has ever seen.
For the sake of Great Britain, for Europe, and the values of a generation, I hope that we awaken from this act of national sabotage as a country, and realize that a terrible mistake has been made, before it is too late.