Dear Tampa Bay,
Hello from across the pond. By now you’ve read, heard and seen a lot about the UK referendum on leaving the European Union, a.k.a. Brexit, a.k.a. Brexshit, a.k.a. a win for democracy and the sovereignty of the nation, a.k.a. a total omnishambles.
I’ve been asked to write about what it feels like to live through this historic moment as an American immigrant from Tampa Bay living in London.
Two words: it sucks.
I wish I could write more articulately and optimistically, but going to bed last Thursday night in a relatively stable and functioning society and waking up Friday to turmoil and uncertainty, quite frankly, sucks. I wouldn’t advise it.
Think I’m doom-mongering? As I write this on a Monday morning, in the past three days the leader of the British government, the Conservative prime minister David Cameron, announced his resignation. The value of the British currency, the pound sterling, plummeted in value. Global financial markets shuddered - you may want to keep an eye on how much your 401K is worth. The main opposition party, Labour, is imploding, with shadow cabinet ministers resigning their posts and abandoning the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Junior ministers now follow suit. Scotland is effectively showing England what’s underneath its kilt by threatening to hold another referendum on secession from the UK.
No one knows what the hell is going on. Not an effing clue. Seriously. Here’s what we’ve learned since Thursday:
The campaign to leave for the UK to leave the EU has admitted it never had an exit strategy to extricate itself from a 43-year political, financial, social and cultural alliance with the European Union.
The instrument in place for members to leave, Article 50, has never been invoked - we will have to make it up as we go along.
In a post-referendum survey, over a million people who voted to leave the EU now say they regret the decision. That’s roughly the same number of people who tipped the balance in favour of leaving.
Google reported that the second most asked question from Britain to its search engine hours after polling stations closed on Thursday was “What is the EU?”, signalling not only that it’s possible that many people voted on a topic they were sorely uninformed about but also that many may have lived for years in ignorant bliss that the reason they were able to sail through passport control in Spain was because their country was part of a 28-member state bloc that supported the free movement of goods and people across members’ borders.
Why on earth should you care? The big issues on the “leave” side of the debate revolved around levels of immigration (they’re too high), the sovereignty of the nation (let’s claim it back and make Britain great again) and how much money the UK contributed to the EU (way too much, it’s better spent here at home). By now all this may be ringing some bells.
While the British political landscape differs from that in America, there are parallels to be drawn, lessons to be learned.
Lesson No. 1: Don’t be complacent. As a non-British citizen, I don’t have the right to vote here. Nor do the millions of Europeans who, like me, have lived, paid taxes, given birth and raised British children, and contributed to its culture and society. We have to accept the outcome of the election without having had our say on an what impacts our lives and our children’s lives. If you have the right to vote, use it.
The referendum has sparked increased levels of political engagement from a demographic key to the future of this country: young people, who, having been born and raised as European citizens, largely voted to remain in the EU. Now, they need encouragement, support and the tools to participate in the political and democratic processes that shape their own future. It’s vital that they not feel betrayed by the outcome and turn their backs in disillusionment but instead seize this opportunity to create a new way forward.
If you know a young person of voting age who doesn’t think the US presidential election affects them, please point them in the direction of their British brothers and sisters who will open their eyes to being on the wrong side of history. Connecting with peers around the world in the digital age is natural to them, and one of their strengths.
Lesson No. 2: Get the facts. The U-turns by politicians in the leave campaign after they won are disheartening to say the least and a betrayal of epic proportions. Expert after expert in fields from economics to politics to education to business to the arts went public to warn that the unknown consequences of leaving the EU were too great to go ahead with. In the face of this data-based evidence, a leading politician and leave campaigner said “People in this country have had enough of experts.” Errrr… like cancer patients have had enough of doctors?
If you feel that immigration is too high, find out if the data confirms this. The government spends too much on the wrong things - show us the money. The country needs to claw back its power and sovereignty? Find credibly sourced evidence to support your position. The government, universities and other bodies collect loads and loads of different types of trustworthy information - and by now we should all know how to use the interwebs to find it. Politicians should base their policies on data and evidence. If you can turn a campaign pledge into a meme or fit it on the side of a bus, you're being lied to.
Lesson No. 3: Look at the bigger picture. Be careful of inward-looking politics and party in-fighting. Let our experience in the UK be a cautionary tale for those of you who think the US can’t be derailed by jingoism, racism, xenophobia, intolerance and censorship. Now's the time for strategic voting and alliances, not the time to stubbornly back candidates based on ideology. There's too much at risk. And, like I said, living through the disruption and division sucks.
Here's to hoping life goes back to not sucking real soon...
Roxanne Escobales grew up in Pinellas County, earned her bachelor's degree at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and started her career in the media at the paper formerly known as the Weekly Planet. She has lived in London since 1998, bar a year she and her British-American son moved back to the Tampa Bay area. As a journalist, she's worked at the BBC World Service, The Guardian, and WMNF 88.5 FM.