by Hannah Rose
Norwich residents came together last month to show support for migrants after a Romanian shop was set fire to. On the same evening Norwich held a rally in favour of staying in the EU. The division was palpable that night. But the reality is that there are no two clear sides to the debate—there never was, even if the mainstream press had us believe it.
This was why I interviewed Eleni and Jo, both Norwich residents, both friends, both PhD students from UEA, articulate and informed. Eleni is a Greek; Jo is British. But both feel very differently about the referendum: Jo voted Leave, and while Eleni did not have a vote to cast, she feel strongly that the UK’s decision to Leave was the wrong one. I am a British woman having lived in Norwich on and off for 12 years. I voted Remain, but I couldn’t tell you why exactly. In the sunny courtyard of The Playhouse — Norwich’s favourite bohemian hang-out — we talked openly about our differences.
Jo told me she was scared of the choice she had made after June 23rd, upset by the racist tag — “enabled by Brexit,” — that Leave voters were given. But neither could Jo side with the Remain campaign: “The whole thing became a migration issue. The Remain campaign pivoted on lies; claims that were not going to happen.”
I believe we are guilty of a collective historical amnesia: the British Empire took so much, and has given barely anything back.
Migration in Britain during the campaign was seen through a European lens — the freedom of movement to work. I believe we are guilty of a collective historical amnesia: the British Empire took so much, and has given barely anything back.
“[Migration] should be about commonwealth countries—giving opportunities,” said Jo. And I agree with her in many ways. “We let [those countries] down. Migration policy should compensate for the negative effects on many former British colonies.”
I asked what her reasons for voting leave were. She said: “It was about acting local and thinking global — I don’t like centralisation of government of any sort.”
The Brexit narrative was reductive in its compounding of two central ideas – the isolated and the open. “It doesn’t make sense to have an isolated Britain; smaller countries can thrive by being part of a global community outside the EU.”
We discussed what ‘union’ means, a concept that did not play a big enough part in both campaigns, other than in light of business and commerce. Eleni shares my own fears about the fragmentation of Europe: “I’m scared of the far Right. Union, in theory, is better — a collective agreement that we’re all connected to, for our safety.”
“But the EU leaders are out of touch with our needs,” said Jo. “It was benefiting the well-off: science and research funding is fine. But what about everyone else? This was a protest vote, and maybe some people finally felt heard.”
“I was on a train to London from Norwich and I did not want to talk; people would hear my accent—I already look foreign. I was really genuinely worried and was preparing myself for something horrible.”
I asked Jo if she still stood by her choice to vote Leave: “It’s no less right than if I’d voted Remain. The whole mechanism is wrong. But I believe that the shake-up has improved things.” Jo is a Corbyn supporter, and used to the support the Green party until she felt they let her down. “[Brexit] has improved the Tory party,” she said. “Things have been shaken up, potentially for the good.”
The post-Brexit scene in Norwich has left many feeling confused and isolated, on both sides. Eleni and Jo are no exception. Eleni told me her fears of being an EU migrant in Norwich right now. “I was on a train to London from Norwich and I did not want to talk; people would hear my accent — I already look foreign. I was really genuinely worried and was preparing myself for something horrible.”
Listening to Eleni I was, for the first time, ashamed of where I live. Ashamed that a person coming here to study would be made to feel like that.
This was a protest vote, and maybe some people finally felt heard.
The referendum result has also left Jo feeling vulnerable. “I overheard a conversation in a bookshop in Norwich, spoken in all seriousness: ‘I think we are headed for a civil war’ – he was anti-Brexit – I thought, maybe he can tell I voted Leave just by looking at me.”
Eleni told me about the prevailing attitudes amongst her European friends in Norwich, “Why would you care what the British did?” they have asked her, regarding her dismay at the Leave result. This is sad to hear—that some feel that this mess is somehow deserved. “There are people in Greece who are celebrating about Brexit, they’re happy. It is all out of context.”
The local press in Norwich (including myself) has been proselytising about the city’s heartening support for EU migrants following the support rally after the Romanian shop fire. I was interested in what Eleni’s take on this was. “I have been going to protests much of my adult life,” she said, “but this one was about me.” I sensed hesitation in her voice. “Everyone said it was such good attendance, really? There was about 100-150 people. It was really disappointing. There were many people from the LGBTQ community, and other EU migrants there. It was marginalised groups coming together. These are my allies, I thought. These are the people who are on my side.” The Norwich Stays rally saw over 1,000 people gathered on the steps of city hall. So why weren’t they all there?
Some argue that the referendum has revived politics from the stale decades that preceded it; people are finally engaged again. “People are enjoying the ferment,” said Jo. But the ferment feels doom-laden, like a train veering off its tracks, hurtling, irrevocably, towards collision.
Brexit pivoted on a moot point — hypothetical realities none of us could predict with any real certainty. Everyone who voted was duped one way or another. The British media was complicit in oversimplifying the narrative, willingly polarising the arguments. This is why it is vital that we continue the dialogue, and attempt to untangle the reality we live in so we can find a united way forward. The 56% and the 44% in Norwich are by no means united in their dismay or elation at the result. Numbers are reductive. So let’s hear one another, one by one if that’s what it takes.
Featured image credit: Simon Finlay