As an exit from the European Union threatens to become a reality, I find myself imagining a conversation in the distant future where I attempt to explain Brexit to my child.
I imagine he has been asked to do a history project on the moment that the UK decided to turn its back on 50 years of peaceful cooperation because of not liking foreigners and their slightly different ways.
This all occurs in the aftermath of a war with the Netherlands, who, having enjoyed the full backing of an entire continent, have thrashed us roundly. Little, let’s call him Derek, clambers on to my (robotic) knee, as I rock back and forth in my (hydraulic) rocking chair on the veranda (all houses, or rather shacks, have verandas now due to the stifling nuclear heat) and asks; “Papa, pourquoi Britian quitte l’Union Européenne?”
He speaks French of course, because in an attempt to remain a musician I had to move to a country where state sponsored celebrations of the royal family were not the only music still permitted. Back home an elderly Gary Barlow is doing a roaring trade, like a latter day Norman Wisdom, marching on the spot and saluting to a hologram of the Queen whilst singing his latest hit “Jam, not Arm” to a dead-eyed-but-still-pretty-full Hyde Park. Well, I say ‘roaring trade’, there’s no money any more, but he’s got a lot of Instabookter (they merged) likes.
But what am I to tell little Derek? Because people were stupid? Because people were racist? Because our country had more stupid racists than non-stupid non-racists? Or because more stupid racists cared enough to vote than non-stupid non-racists did (which would actually make them even stupider)? It’s difficult, but the boy is owed an explanation of the misdeeds of the previous generation when they have affected his life so much.
But it’s not really just my generation, the happy snappy Millennials, all selfies and Angry Birds and body shaming protein drinks and food blogs. We have also to include Generation X and the Baby Boomers. The generations who, as an amusing meme of the day cleverly pointed out, used their free educations to make boner pills whilst the ice caps melted. The generations who decided greed was good whilst other continents starved, as long as we did charity stuff once a year. The generations who decided that it was okay to let the incredibly rich and privileged own and run our broadcast and news media. The generations who liked to make sweeping generalisations about how selfish and stupid young people were whilst at the same time outnumbering us at the polling booths and deciding our (and little Derek’s) future for us.
God those sweeping generalisations used to annoy me, I never even played Angry Birds.
So I explain to Derek that a lot of people who already owned their houses, had their fat pensions, and weren’t crushed by student/payday loan/credit card debt, felt that the economic uncertainty surrounding our leaving didn’t really apply to them, leaving them to indulge their bigotry en masse. “Papa, you could own a house in the past?” he says, still in perfect French.
“Yes, and there were other wonderful things,” I tell him, “There was a thing called the NHS which meant free health care for everyone”
“Everyone?” he gasps, “Even the sewer people?”
“Even the sewer people” I say, “And there were welfare benefits, which gave money to people who couldn’t afford to eat, so that they could buy food.”
“Money,” he says, puzzled now, “buy?” I spend some time explaining that rather than our simple barter system, swapping cabbages for parsnips and so on, there used to be a system of currency for everyone, but it was spoiled when it stopped being a way of measuring the value of goods and services and started to become a way of accumulating power.
“Like the tower people have?” he says, gesturing up towards the glossy glass towers and bridges. “Yes, like the tower people.” I say
“Papa, sometimes I wish we were tower people.” I well up and turn my head away from my petit garçon.
“But why did they want to leave Papa? If all of those things were so good” Biting my lip and wiping my eyes I try to explain.
“They wanted fewer foreigners to come because they didn’t like the smell of people seasoning their food slightly differently. Not all countries share the same idea of what a queue is and this was also problematic. People also didn’t like it when foreigners came and used the NHS and claimed benefits.”
“But why Papa? Didn’t those people who came also help with those things, and make them stronger?”
“They did Derek, but the government of the day had adopted a divide and rule strategy, which made it seem to lots of people like the problems caused by the super-rich were actually caused by disabled people, single parents and most importantly, immigrants.”
“But Papa, I was taught in school that the government of the day did not want to leave the EU!”
“Yeah that really came back to bite them on the arse.”
“There must be more reasons that people wanted to leave Papa! There must!”
“None that made any sense,” I tell him with a pat on the head. “For example, people liked to say that in Europe our rulers were unelected,”
“Like the Queen of England?”
“Yes like the Queen of England. And they liked to say that our laws were made by other countries. But we elected our representatives in Europe, as did every other country, and the laws that the EU passed were almost unanimously what our elected representatives voted for. The idea was that the whole of Europe would collaborate for the benefit of the greater good. Of course the EU wasn’t perfect, it was certainly in need of reform and it was corrupt in the sense that it often benefited big business more than the people, but it was better and more progressive than what followed.”
Feeling that Derek needs a little break, I send him off, carrot in hand, to lease the neighbourhood toy for half an hour (this is actually just an old shoe with “race car” scratched into the bottom of it, but a child’s imagination is a wonderful thing.) Returning from play, he sits cross legged at my feet.
“Papa,” he says, “what happened when the UK left the EU?”
“Well,” I begin, “Everyone, myself included, thought that Boris Johnson would then become the Prime Minister, but at the next election the public voted instead for Lord Edmonds. Lord Edmonds immediately threw a huge televised party at his house and there was a genuine good feeling all around the country. People played little pranks, got covered in gunge.”
“Like that gunge over there Papa?”
“No Derek. You mustn’t touch that gunge. You haven’t touched it have you?”
“Not since last time Papa,” says Derek, holding up his translucent left hand.
“Good boy. Anyway, shortly after the party everyone was given a little box of magnets and that replaced the NHS”
“What did the little box of magnets do Papa?”
“Nothing son. And things just went from bad to worse from there. We couldn’t easily sell our goods to other countries so our manufacturing industries closed down. With no jobs to fund the welfare state, that went as well. Meanwhile the rich were able to pass laws that suited them, so they paid less tax until there were no public services left at all. That meant no schools, no army, no hospitals, no prisons, no waste collection, no courts. Pretty soon there was nothing but chaos and that’s when the Dutch saw their chance.”
“Damn Dutch!” says Derek, tapping at my robot knee.
“Yes,” I mutter, ruefully. “Damn Dutch.”
A few days pass whilst Derek busies himself with his project, before he comes back to me with some follow up questions.
“Papa, what did you mean the other day when you said “seasoning food”?”
“There used to be spices, herbs and plants which made food taste different, nicer. It’s hard to explain because now….”
“Everything tastes of batteries!” shouts Derek. He of course doesn’t know the difference, or what a battery tastes like, but he has heard his Mother and I say this every day of his life. “Where did these flavours come from papa?”
“Most came from other countries.”
“That’s good Papa, so the blending of different cultures and people actually improved quality of life!”
“It did Derek. And that’s just one way that life was improved.”
“Papa, if I, a simple child, can understand that leaving Europe was a bad idea, and that free movement of people was a wonderful thing, then why could others not see the same?”
“I don’t know Derek,” I say sadly, “I just don’t know.”
I quite enjoy imagining myself as a wise old man, plus my kid seems pretty bright, so that’s good.
I mean obviously my imagination’s just running wild; if we leave the EU it’s unlikely that I’d be able to move to France, imagine the paperwork! And if I had a robotic leg who knows what other parts of me might have been replaced; I might not even be able to have kids! No, everything I’ve written here is just my mind running away with itself, pure fantasy. I’m pretty confident that whatever happens next week, nothing that I have written here has any chance whatsoever of coming true.
It doesn’t, does it?
Gareth Roberts is a musician and writer who lives in the North West of England. His band, Man & The Echo are signed to 1965 records and will release their debut album in 2016.