There’s an anarchist flag flapping black-and-red over the empty fountains as we walk down the hill, away from the barricades. Leon passes me in the crowd and turns to talk. He’s hyped up and he smells of booze, which is normal for him, even at this hour. The last time we met was at his wedding six months or so ago.
We’ve split up. She’s taken out an injunction.
Some things don’t surprise me any more. Further on and the girl in the camouflage jacket tells us to stop taking photos. The concept of an anarchist telling me what to do makes me smile.
Andrew’s skulking at the edge of the crowd, lean and lost. I like Andrew. He’s a vegan and a chronic addict. He gave me all his photography books not so long ago, because he’d sold his camera. This crowd are looking for a fight though, and violence seems incompatible with veganism, just as bossing people around is incongruous in an anarchist. You have to be better than them, beat them at their own game, he says. Two wrongs don’t make a right, I say. That one’s ingrained in my DNA. ‘Them’ eventually turns out to be a couple of dozen lager drinkers, who converge on the green behind the ridiculous barricade shortly after lunch, squabble amongst themselves about whether they’re EDL or South West Infidels and adjourn to the pub. So much fuss over a damp squib, and not for the first time I’m proud of the city I’ve chosen to live in. Bristol’s probably the only place on earth where a potentially violent political clash could be upstaged by a Naked Bike Ride. Yesterday, I had cause to be proud again. Bucking the trend towards fear and isolationism, my city voted solidly to remain in the EU.
I awoke to a strange new world yesterday, yet it was an oddly familiar feeling. It was more or less the same as waking up on 4th May 1979, to find Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister. It’s a helpless sensation. A knowing that something monstrously wrong has happened and there’s nothing to be done but sit back and watch the inevitable. A friend posted from Very British Problems on Facebook just as I was trying to take it in. “It didn’t go quite as planned” – Translation: I may have caused irreversible damage on a monumental scale. I wonder if that’s how David Cameron felt as he watched the pound plummet and listened to the governor of the Bank of England telling everyone to keep calm. He’s done the only decent thing and handed in his notice, but where does that leave the rest of us?
Some odd alliances have been formed during this war. Middle-class pensioners, media moguls, ex-stockbrokers and small business owners have fought back to back with those in the old labour movement, once their sworn enemies. At first I didn’t get it. Had the nation been possessed by some kind of mass insanity? Had we become like millions of mythical lemmings, all convincing one another that the cliff will set us free?
In fact, the seeds for Brexit were sown way back on that dreadful morning in 1979. Having ruthlessly twisted the words of St Francis of Assisi on the steps of Number Ten, Mrs T went on to crush the trade unions, robbing three generations of hard-working people of job security and rights in the workplace. Her government stripped the country of its manufacturing base, money became god, and human beings became resources to be exploited in its service. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, millions of ordinary workers gobbled up the line cynically peddled by politicians and the media. The trade unions were the bad guys. They were holding back economic progress with their unreasonable demands for fair wages and equitable working conditions. Successive governments toed the line too. Yes, we got a few gaudy trinkets in exchange, and I wouldn’t want to be without my iPad now, but in the long run it does no-one any good to sell their soul and their self respect.
We’re reaping the whirlwind now. Millions of angry and alienated people have voted Brexit, in the mistaken belief that they were voting against their oppressors, and in the midst of it all I have a fearful sense of deja vu. Astute politicians have once again manipulated the impotent fury of the disenfranchised to their own ends. Nigel Farage, an ex-public-schoolboy and former stockbroker, has posed as man-in-the-street-cocking-a-snook-at-The-Establishment, and Boris Johnson has played the buffoon so well he’s in serious danger of becoming Prime Minister. Between them, they convinced millions of fearful, angry people that to vote Brexit was to ‘take back our country’, whatever the hell that means. It certainly impressed Donald Trump, and that can never be a good thing. But the cracks are beginning to show. Before lunch time yesterday a dedicated Brexiteer of my acquaintance was calling Nigel Farage a liar. The morning after, and he was telling the world it was ‘a mistake’ to claim we’d get £350 million a week extra to spend on the NHS by leaving the EU.
The cracks are also beginning to show on the Remain side though, and this worries me more. I believe all human beings to be of equal value, regardless of nationality, gender, religion or any other barrier we choose to throw up. This was the basis for my Remain vote. Yes, I’m disappointed that those principles lost the battle on Thursday, but I’m not looking to pin the blame on anyone – except Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson of course. When we lump together a whole category of people – be it Muslims, refugees, benefit claimants or anyone else – and blame them for ‘the problem’ we stir up the kind of trouble that leads to MPs being gunned down outside constituency offices, refugees being left to drown in the Mediterranean, or Jews being herded into cattle trucks and sent to concentration camps. Yet before I’d reached the bottom of my after-lunch cuppa yesterday, two good friends had advanced the suggestion that a group I myself can be lumped into – older people – should be blamed for Brexit. I took issue. I sobbed my heart out the day Margaret Thatcher was elected, and again yesterday morning. I’m ashamed to be part of the generation that sold neoliberal economics to the world. I’m truly sorry so many of my contemporaries are too selfish to grasp the repercussions of Brexit for their children and grandchildren. But I didn’t vote for any of it. I’ve spent more than fifty years swimming against this particular tide, and I’m more or less destitute as a result. I won’t be branded with the same iron as those of my peers who stand to profit from this debacle. I refuse to be held responsible for something I’ve fought with every breath in my body. But at the same time, I’m not going to be goaded into falling out with friends who’ve spoken rash words from a place of frustration and disappointment.
Andrew’s anarchic comrades sought to impose their rules by force. They wanted to crush the violence of fascism with a superior violence of their own. In the event, a Naked Bike Ride upstaged the whole show, and humanity won the day without a punch being thrown. We imperil everything the Remain campaign stood for if we start pointing the finger, if we buy into the same fear and hatred that sparked this pseudo-revolution. Human history has shown time and again that fear and hatred are always the problem, never the solution. Martin Luther King once said hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that, and we’ll do well to remember those words if we want to build something beautiful from the wreckage that will inevitably trail in the wake of Brexit.