Watching Brexit from 3,000 miles away

Bregret Brexit protest

People hold banners during a demonstration against Britain's decision to leave the European Union in central London, July 2, 2016.

Paul Hackett/Reuters

It takes five hours to fly to London from Beirut, where I currently live. You can take a train from London to the Scottish capital Edinburgh in roughly the same time. The prices of both journeys can align too, on occasion.

I can Skype with my sister and 2-year-old niece whenever I want. My mum is on WhatsApp, and I can follow the lives of all my friends back home on Facebook.

And so, despite living in a very different country, I never feel too far from home.

That changed the morning of June 24, when I woke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the European Union.

You might think being 3,000 miles away would numb the pain a little, but the opposite is true. The cliché is apt here: Absence really does make the heart grow fonder, and expats have a tendency to clutch at things that remind them of home. Those of us from the UK smuggle hard-to-find British staples like Marmite (our notorious dark-brown yeast spread) in our baggage after visits, sausages if we’re feeling brave. We piled into bars last month to watch the European football championships and shared the misery of everyone back home when we lost. And although they could not knock on doors to speak to voters in person, my friends here campaigned just as ferociously as the ones back home to get out the referendum vote, using all the digital means at their disposal.

Britons living in France and Germany will feel the shock of this event more than us here on the coast of the Mediterranean. But we share with them a regret that all those who have stepped out into the world feel: a sense that our country has become more insular, smaller and cut off at a time when we are trying to connect with it.

This referendum tore up the political map more than a general election ever could. It divided young and old, rich and poor, while uniting Labour heartlands in the north and Conservative counties. Older, less wealthy people tended to vote to leave the EU, while the young and middle class voted to remain. (It is an unpleasant irony, and some say the result of a dishonest campaign, that many "leave" voters are saying they have regrets after realizing the promises that made them pro-Brexit are unlikely to be delivered.)

The result has been explained by some as the anger of “small-town Britain,” mistakenly blaming immigrants and Brussels for the failures of our own government or of capitalism. Others called it a working-class revolt: a desperate cry from communities who feel left behind by globalization.

I come from a working-class community in one of those small towns that voted to leave the European Union. Westbury is a town of 15,000 people in the county of Wiltshire, in the southwest of England. For hundreds of years it drew its wealth making cloth, until towns in the north of the country began producing it at a lower cost. It would be indistinguishable from any town for miles around, if it were not for a giant white horse carved into chalk on a hill overlooking it. The population is overwhelmingly white, and Conservative.

In the few conversations I had with old friends from home before polls opened, it became clear that many of them were voting "leave." The vote count confirmed it: my area chose Brexit. After the initial shock, I began to think about my hometown and the people I grew up with, and how we saw the world so differently.

I thought about when I first started hearing Polish plumber jokes (the common misconception being that they were undercutting British workmen by charging less for their services). I was 17 in 2004, when Poland joined the EU and many of its citizens came to the UK looking for work. Until then our small town had experienced many hundreds of years of solitude — the West Country has a lot of things going for it, but diversity isn’t one of them. There were small-scale anti-Polish incidents at the time, the actions of an extreme few. But there was also a sense among some that their peace and isolation had been disturbed by outsiders. People in small towns don’t tend to leave, or at least they don’t move around as much as one born in a city might. Families live in the same square mile for generations. They cherish continuity. All of this affects how they treat people who are not like them.

I thought about the area's small-town xenophobia and racism. Shortly before my family moved to the council estate where I grew up, a black family had been forced out due to racist harassment. A Pakistani family would go through the same thing a few years later.

Around the time the Polish immigrants came, unrelated to their arrival, my region lost a number of factories: Peter Black Toiletries, a place where many friends and I had worked, standing at a conveyer belt packing soap into boxes; Bowyers pork products, where friends made pigs in blankets and pork pies; the Blue Circle Cement Works, whose giant chimney could be seen for miles around. Other regions in worse economic decline also voted to leave the EU.

When the national economy took a downturn a few years later, immigrants became a scapegoat. When the biggest-selling newspapers in the country print stories every day about how immigrants are taking people’s jobs, it has a cumulative effect.

Demonizing migrants and asylum seekers has been a familiar newspaper theme for most of my adult life. After the Poles, it was Muslim immigrants in the media's firing line. Stories about Polish plumbers taking British jobs gave way to articles about Muslims trying to change our way of life. This inevitably fed fear and suspicion of the religion as a whole.

That rhetoric worsened during the refugee crisis last year — when hundreds of thousands fled conflict and instability in Syria and across the Middle East. A study conducted earlier this year by Cardiff University found that UK press coverage of the crisis was the most “aggressive” in the EU, and that “anti-refugee and migrant themes are continuously reinforced through the angles taken in stories, editorials and comment pieces.”

Read more: How the Brexit campaign used refugees to scare voters

It is possible to draw a line from those first migrant arrivals in my hometown to the vote to leave the EU. Working-class communities that were ignored by successive governments for decades and allowed to decline were told to blame immigrants for their plight. The people running the "leave" campaign did the very same. “Take back control” was the rallying cry — vote "leave" and we can control immigration, they promised.

The campaigners knew this focus would be a vote-winner. It was an issue at the forefront of many voters’ minds when they cast their ballot on June 23. Some 77 percent of Britons believe that immigration levels should be reduced, and a poll conducted in May found that 52 percent felt that Brexit would improve Britain’s immigration system.

Today, following the victory of the leave campaign, racist anti-immigrant attacks are again on the rise. Most people who voted "leave" are probably not xenophobes — millions wanted to pull out of the EU because they thought it was an undemocratic behemoth, or because they just thought we would be better off. But it is clear that racists and xenophobes have been emboldened by this outcome.

Was the xenophobia in small towns like mine all those years ago the start on a long path toward this rejection of the EU? Suspicion and resentment of immigrants, fueled by the right-wing press, made many feel the need to take drastic action to put the brakes on changes out of their control.

Being away from your own country for extended periods of time creates a novelty out of the familiar on return trips home. One notices the smallest changes in the physical environment: a new signpost, a new shop. I wonder if the change I see next time will be so small. 

Richard Hall reports for GlobalPost and The World from Beirut.