Watching Britain leave the EU from Edinburgh
When I was a child, my father wrote a series of spider poems. One of them, Spiders in the Highest Attics Love to Play at Acrobatics, was written to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I’ve been hearing “Ode to Joy” a lot lately—it’s the anthem to the European Union. A rousing orchestral piece with just a note of threat, but mainly joy, it’s been played half jokingly, half seriously several times since the referendum for Britain to leave the EU was announced, and every time all I can hear is Spiders.
Scotland held a Vote on independence from the UK in 2014. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but that one seemed more innocent, less laced with malice. Sure, there was anger and emotion, but it was nothing like the rhetoric around the EU Referendum, which got louder and nastier, like a clockwork handle on the side of a toy.
Last month, Nigel Farage, the leader of The UK Independence Party, who has a smile like a ventriloquist’s dummy, accused Labour’s Peter Mandleson of “rubbing our faces in diversity.” Next to Nigel was Dreda Say Mitchell, a left-wing black Brexit supporter, who was horrified at what she heard. Last week, a cartoon poll by Will Dawbarn went viral. It shows five options; Remain, Leave, Don’t Know, Confused and Utterly Appalled by the Whole Thing. Utterly Appalled was winning and the cartoon struck a chord, but nothing utterly appalling had happened yet.
In the south of France, where I was visiting my parents, it was pre-thunderous. My father worried that the coming storm would knock off the England vs. Wales football match, as our cable is somewhat whimsical and sensitive. My mother and I headed to the lake to give the dog a run before the sky caved in.
By the time we got home, the football was over and Sky News was on. A young idealistic MP called Jo Cox had been shot and stabbed outside her local library, and died shortly after. She was the mother of two small children and lived on a houseboat on the Thames. She had spoken about getting a boat along to Westminster. “What a commute,” she laughed, as spray flew up and skimmed her face.
In 2013, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron promised the UK a Referendum on EU Membership as one of his election pledges. The Tory Party were losing votes to UK Independence Party, and Cameron wanted to win them back. In 2015 he did so, returning for a second term, this time not with a coalition, but with a majority. The Conservatives — a party of tax cuts for the wealthy and public service cuts for everyone else — were free to govern, but there was a catch. There would be a vote.
David Cameron struck a Rumpelstiltskin deal to win power. I guess he thought it would be OK. We wouldn’t leave. We couldn’t! Not really. Not when it came to it. The date was set for June 23rd. The EU was created after the Second World War to make sure that we looked after each other; that we were kinder, better; so that we didn’t kill each other in massive numbers. We would offer one another haven, keep one another safe, and together we would be kind to the rest of the world.
Spiders in the highest attics love to play at acrobatics.
Boris Johnson is the self-appointed leader of the Leave campaign. A Tory with a mop of toddler-blonde hair, he has cultivated an image as lovable and bumbling. As Mayor of London he got stuck on a zip wire during the Olympic Games. His voice is light, plummy and pleasant, and many people feel he is not to be trusted. In some of the debates, and he repeats the same points again and again like a broken tape. He joined the campaign believing that a Leave vote would make him heir apparent to the Tory throne.
Also on team leave are Nigel Farage of UKIP, and Tories Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Gove. IDS, as Smith is known, headed the department for work and pensions. He gained a reputation for slashing benefits, but resigned dramatically in March over disability benefit cuts. IDS has a wonderfully innocent look and a face as round and smooth as a toy man with little puffs of silver hair on either side, but it’s hard not to wonder what he’s really up to. Gove is a Tory and former education secretary, who Cameron claimed has “lost it.”
On the other side is David Cameron, the Tory Prime Minister, and Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader and his reluctant ally. Corbyn, a leftist outsider, was voted in as Labour leader last year in a show of massive public support. He is proudly scruffy, would like to ban trident and has a lot of lovely left-wing ideas, but he has been deliberately lukewarm about the whole Europe thing. Every time the High Sparrow appears on “Game of Thrones,” my boyfriend David shouts, “Look, it’s Jeremy Corbyn!”
In the UK, the press is not allowed to mention an election on the day of the vote. This normally leads to reporters standing outside polling stations and talking about the weather, or pretty birds. In lieu of real news, hashtags reign supreme. #Dogsinpollingstations took off once again, with tweets of dogs looking sad, bored or interested as their owners went in to vote. #Usepens also trended, because of conspiracy theories about pencils in polling stations. ‘Having trouble keeping all your livestock in one place? #usepens!’ — read one Tweet. A ninety-three-year-old mum (#93yrmum) also went viral, but I craved real news.
I spent referendum day in my flat in The West end of Edinburgh cooking two curries, one vegan, one not. I pottered round the kitchen, cooking, cleaning and going slowly insane. At 8 p.m., it was time to go across town to meet David so we could carry a TV set across town, from his parents’ house to mine, so we could watch the result. On the way, I met a woman who asked me for directions to the local church, which was her polling station. I walked with her.
“What did you vote?” she asked me.
“I voted Remain,” I said.
“I think it’s kinder that way,” she said.
Later, as David and I lugged the flatscreen across the meadows which fill central Edinburgh, I said, “We are so Remaining. There’s no contest.”
“Tap wood,” he said, “touch a tree.”
But I was carrying half a TV and couldn’t tap wood without dropping it.
My Swedish friend Johanna told me she took the vote very personally. “I mean it’s people like me who it’s aimed at. Everyone says, oh no, it’s not you. But I am an EU Migrant, I have come over here and I’m doing minimum-wage jobs, I’m literally one of those people who they talk about, coming over here and stealing jobs.” We sat close on the sofa and opened some beers. David put on The Final Countdown by Europe. We would know nothing until 10pm, but the hour was so tantalizingly close. More of our friends arrived. We had all voted remain, with one exception: my friend Daniel who believed that Britain was holding the EU back from being the super-state it could be.
We put on the BBC at three minutes to, and watched as David Dimbleby, the anchor did a little shiver of anticipation. We all know Dimbleby from previous elections — we’ve watched him present since we were young kids. At one minute past ten, Nigel Farage said he thought Remain had won, but there would be a next time. There were gleeful cries. Sure, the new polls were neck and neck, but so what — it looked like it was all over.
I started dishing out food. Gibraltar was first to declare. “Good Evening Gibraltar!” we yelled, and it was as expected, Remain by 19,322 votes to 838. Then there was Newcastle, a safe Remain which came in with nowhere near the 60/40 margin expected. “Not good,” said David as he refreshed Twitter. Next to announce was Sunderland, expected to Leave. Leave it did. My friend Daniel was at home moderating comments for the magazine he writes for. “That’s not good for leave! I mean remain. Brain frazzled,” he messaged me, but our TV was one minute behind and I didn’t know what he meant. Sunderland came in at 61 to 39 a few seconds later. Everyone watched intently, but Daniel’s words stayed in my head, and I knew what to expect.
The EU anthem came onto David’s playlist on his laptop. Spiders in The Highest Attics Love to Play at Acrobatics, but I couldn’t remember the rest of the words, so I just thought sp-sp-sp-spiders sp-sp-sp-spiders sp-sp-sp-spiders sp-sp-sp frantically to the tune, though I knew that wasn’t right at all. In a corner of the living room, my friends Sara and Atilla were talking about getting married. It was not a romantic proposal, they have been together for years and always assumed they’d get married sooner or later. Atilla is from Hungary, and Sara is British. It was suddenly looking like they’d be getting married sooner. Tai, who also has parents in France, went through to the kitchen and plucked at his mandolin. He was trying to play Spiders.
In The Guardian, Polly Toynbee called for an end to this midsummer madness, and I came up with the best Facebook status. I was going to post, “If we shadows have offended,” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, once it was all over. Only now it looked like I wouldn’t. The room was feverishly hot with summer and bodies and the night was almost light. My flatmate Vicky had put cans of beer in the freezer and got them out, giving one to each of us to cuddle, the opposite of a hot water bottle.
What time did we know? What time did people start leaving? I was taking notes. David had barricaded himself in the bedroom, and when I dragged him out to be sociable he sat cross legged on the floor softly swearing at his laptop. Linsday Lohan or someone using her account was livetweeting so aggressively that some speculated she was hacked (all the relevant tweets have been deleted). ‘You can’t sit with us, tweeted MP Stewart McDonald. We said goodbye to people until it was only Vicky, Johanna, David and me. The temperature dropped as people left — then it was half three, and we almost knew, but not quite.
Cameron handed in his resignation at 8 a.m.; I rather dread who we’ll have next. There are also calls for the High Sparrow to go, but whether he will or not is a different matter. Some compared Brexit to a Trump presidential victory just as Trump touched down in Scotland. He was on his way to his Ayrshire hotel and golf course, the Trump Turnberry. Some locals displayed Mexican flags in protest. First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon demanded another Referendum on Scottish Independence, sterling plummeted and reports came in that Morgan Stanley would clear out of London, though these have been refuted by the firm.
Twitter exploded with end-of-the-world memes, and people in my Facebook feed were devastated. Nigel Farage was delighted, and I wondered what Europe made of it all. I threw up when it was all finalized around 6 a.m., or maybe earlier. I had lost track of time. I chatted with Sara who said maybe she won’t need to get married after all as Atilla has been here long enough for it to be OK. I’m not sure how long that is. The idea of people getting deported terrifies me. I’m saddened the possibilities severed, the loss of freedom to move seamlessly through a continent, living and working in cosmopolitan cities.
When I opened my inbox that morning I saw an email from my Dad. The subject line simply reads “Acrobatics.”
Spiders in the highest attics
love to play at acrobatics
swinging through the dusty air
with speed so swift and grace so rare
along fine tightropes swift they tread
and even do in on their head
and if they slip they aren’t upset
for they have spun a safety net
Except Britain just voted to lose the safety net — we’re no longer arachnids, just common insects.
Hope Whitmore is a young-ish writer who lives in Scotland. She likes stories, as her dad read to her when she was a child, and she looks for the narrative in everything. She also likes running, swimming, cooking and eating. She’s a romantic, and shares a flat with another writer who is also a romantic — Vicky Hood. They share many pretty dresses.