When I speak to people in the UK, I’m commonly asked: “Is it true that some Brits living in Spain voted for Brexit?” People seem genuinely surprised when I confirm it’s true. They frequently ask: “Isn’t that like turkeys voting for Christmas?”
The next question is, inevitably: “But why?” I’ve pondered that many times over, as have other pro-EU campaigners living in Europe.
In my role as chair of Bremain in Spain, a campaign group that works to stop Brexit, with a membership of Remainers, it would be easy to ignore the question altogether. Spending so much time in a Remainer “echo chamber”, I could almost forget the Leave side. However, it’s important to understand opposing views.
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The reasons why some Brits in Spain voted Leave are the same reasons that Brits in the UK voted for Brexit. Whether they believed Turkey was about to join the EU (it isn't), that the UK doesn't control its borders (it does), or the infamous lie mounted on the side of the red bus, I believe most people wanted what was best for the UK. They voted for a better life for themselves and their families, even if Brexit could never deliver it.
I frequently hear of conversations – sometimes heated, sometimes devastating – between families, friends and colleagues, on different sides of the debate. The divisions created by Brexit are deep and strongly-held. They run against previous groupings that were based largely on socio-demographic background and political inclination. Many people have lost some old connections and have replaced them with strong, new ones, forged in unlikely places.
A common belief of Leavers in Spain is that Brexit would change nothing – life would continue as before. In some ways, that could be true for Brits living in Spain, especially for those with disposable income and/or a bolthole in the UK. In the event of Brexit, especially a hard one, we would avoid the immediate issues faced by UK residents, such as food shortages and price increases.
However, the impact could be felt re travel/visa requirements, the potential further devaluation of sterling, or a reduction in our rights and freedoms. Some of these could have significant consequences for us.
The truth is that we don't know all the implications – we don’t even know what Brexit might look like at present. Furthermore, a forthcoming snap election in Spain could impact the Brexit bilateral negotiations. I have a good understanding of the situation, but even my crystal ball can’t predict the future under these circumstances!
One thing I can predict: the divisions created in British society will take a long time to heal. Those who voted Remain are holding a lot of anger, fear and sadness. Understandably, this needs to be vented.
When we struggle to deal with our strong feelings, human nature dictates that we apportion blame. Politicians are an obvious target – whether it’s David Cameron for starting this whole mess then washing his hands of it, or Theresa May for her insistence on red lines that have limited the type of possible Brexit deal.
Naturally, many Remain voters point the blame directly at Leave voters, but is that fair or helpful? Shouldn't we blame those who misled the public, broke the law or lied about the consequences, not those who believed the false promise of a better future? How about blaming those who want to plough on with Brexit, despite understanding the severe consequences?
Meanwhile, many Leave voters are realising that their hopes for Brexit were a fiction, and some are bravely admitting to having second thoughts.
I fully admit to feeling anger towards the people who voted to put us in this position, and I won’t abandon my feelings when aimed at Brextremists. However, these feelings aren’t aimed towards most Leave voters, who were sold the false promises on an industrial scale.
To start putting British society back together, we need to listen to all sides of the debate and understand the reasons people voted Leave. We must learn to forgive, and provide encouragement to those persuaded by lies, fantasy, and a desire to improve their lot.
Much damage has already been done and some will never be repaired. The companies and international agencies that have left the UK will never return. Those jobs and opportunities are lost for ever. We can’t undo many of the consequences of the Brexit referendum, but we can work to prevent further damage.
We Remainers can continue communicating in our echo chambers, motivating like-minded people to keep the faith and continue fighting the injustices of Brexit. That alone is not enough. We must reach out to those with different views, if we are to turn the Brexit Titanic around before it hits the iceberg.
We don’t have to convince the world, or persuade the unpersuadable to our way of thinking. We do, however, need to start listening. Perhaps, in return, our family, friends and colleagues will start listening to us.
By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain, a member of the British in Europe coalition.