A Dispatch from the Brexit Frontline (3/18)     Print Email

By Geoffrey Lewis, Resident of Duddenhoe End in Essex, UK

Duddenhoe End village hall was crowded and noisy with chatter on Friday evening. The local Conservatives were gathered to debate Europe - in or out. This is a Tory family matter and a family row. Neither Labour nor Lib Dems seem split on the question, although they have plenty of other things to worry about. Everyone in the hall was wearing the casual uniform of the Home Counties: check shirts, blazers or tweed jackets, and they were raring to go. There were tables in two rows laid for supper. This was free with wine, all the gift of the lady organizers, and so a full house was guaranteed.

Proceedings began with high class school food served at the tables by aproned members of the committee: cottage pie and chocolate blancmange and cream. After that was dispatched the lady chairman called the meeting to order and gave the floor to one of the two platform speakers, Vicky Ford, a voluble and well-informed young woman from the European parliament with a background in economics.

She strode up and down between the tables letting off a stream of facts at her audience, all of which she said showed why it was clear that we ought to stay in Europe. It was impressive but it was a rehearsed speech and it failed to move many of the male audience. Later on during questions she lost her way and began to flounder under a hail of interruptions. One tweed jacket was heard to mutter that he 'had had enough of that woman.'

She was followed by Alan Haselhurst, the local MP. He dwelt on his advanced age (an unwise point for him to make as many of his constituents had thought him too old at the last general election, and this had led to an unsuccessful putsch against him) and reminded his listeners that he could remember the war. We knew now that Germans were human and not evil creatures with horns - as he had thought when he was a schoolboy. The EU had given us peace for a generation. How? By France and Germany pooling their sovereignty. We should remember, he said, that no one would be happier than Putin if we weakened Europe by leaving it. But a history lesson of this sort was as unwelcome to the audience as 'that woman.'

Everyone who spoke from the floor was a Brexiteer, advocating “leave.” Many were angry and all were noisy. There was heckling and the platform speakers could not finish what they wanted to say. One angry old man left in disgust after making a choleric speech and becoming red in the face. Some said that the 'debate' was a farce because there was no official speaker for the 'Leave campaign.' They were fed up with being told what to do by a bunch of foreigners in Brussels. They didn't listen when they were told by the two politicians that it was better to take part in rule-making than have the rules imposed on us. Even our law could be trumped by the European Court. Clearly, according to them the ever closer union was not for us. We would lose our identity. The economic argument that nearly a half of our exports went to Europe was brushed aside. Maybe there were five hundred million people in the single market of Europe, but there were six and a half billion people outside Europe apparently bursting to buy what we have to sell.

Then there was the elephant in the room, the migrant problem. Neither speaker had dealt with that. MEP Vicky Ford tried. She pointed out that there were two sorts of migrants: there were the Europeans who could come here freely and were a net benefit to our economy, and there were the refugees. She tried to enlist sympathy for the plight of the refugees by describing the conditions under which they were living, but the audience had seen it all on the television news and did not want to hear it again.

The anger and the minds tight shut were a shock, as was the near-unanimity of view. What is at the bottom of it? Not just isolationism, rather a sort of self-delusional nostalgia affecting those who live in quiet monochrome seclusion isolated from the fast-changing cities and their polyglot populations. On the way out I asked a friend what he thought of the evening. Many noisy little minds, he said.

Geoffrey Lewis was a partner in the law firm of Herbert Smith for more than thirty years. He retired in 1990 to write. He has published five books, among them the lives of Lord Atkin, Lord Hailsham, Sir Edward Carson and a study of the Balfour Declaration.