On Brexit: Stabbed in the Eye, by Harry Parker

In the first of our new Writers Respond series, Harry Parker, author or Anatomy of a Soldier, offers a personal and powerful meditation on the fallout of the EU referendum result and consequences of Brexit.

I don’t cry very much. My British stiff-upper-lip won’t allow it. The last time I cried from a sense of loss was seven years ago. I was in the army and there was too much death and injury. I wept in private.

Last Saturday I was shocked to find a similar feeling making me cry again. I was on a train watching the world drumming past. The fields and hedgerows. The rotting caravans and red brick streets. The traffic waiting at a crossing. As hard as I looked there was a haze pulled over it and I couldn’t see my country. I was crying, a foreigner in the place I call home.

I never realised my feelings for Britain would mean so much.

A new vision of Britain

I’d always had a nagging doubt about my relationship to this country. It was green and pleasant, it was saying sorry when someone bumped into me, smiling at strangers, patiently queueing, avoiding eye contact on the tube. It was cheering Mo Farah around the Olympic Stadium.

It was completely naïve, of course. Deep down I knew that. It was blinkered to inequality and ridiculous class structures, the self interest hardwired in us all, the messy reality of struggling in a capitalist system. But sitting on the train two days after we made the decision to leave the European Union, I was unable to feel any connection to the place where I live – for two days I’d been trying to see my country and couldn’t. It was stunning. Loss had moved me to tears again.

My sadness had little to do with the potential economic damage or cutting our connection to an unwieldy organisation which has on balance been a force for good. It was because I had misjudged our moral core.

I was proud of coming from a country that was free and fair. A society that is open, welcoming and outward looking. Many who voted to leave will say we can still be all these things – yes, maybe – but the vote seemed to pivot on a question of controlling our borders, of keeping people out, of us and them and a sense of nationalism. In my opinion we took a backward step – undercurrents like these have led to some of the most damaging episodes in the history of man.

Isolation is not the answer

Some say we can have our country back, our jobs. That we will be more secure and stronger, that all we have chosen is a greater ability to govern ourselves and decide who should be allowed in. But distancing ourselves from a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected is not the answer. Isolation may make you safer in the short term, but it’s an illusion. Taking the risk of being open and inclusive, embracing globalisation and diversity is what make us more secure and prosperous.

Security is not police, soldiers and border checks. It is social cohesion, education and equality – our society is global now and stepping away from that can only be damaging to the things that deliver long term security.

Despite this, I’m not angry with those who voted to leave. During my time in the army I served in countries where democracy is only a dream. I’ve seen people willing to die for it. I understand there are too many who feel marginalised and want change, that the gap between rich and poor has widened since the financial crisis. I know people feel they have been failed. As a thirty-something Londoner, I was in a demographic more likely to vote remain, and although I’m deeply disappointed in the result, I know to rerun the vote would be to undermine our own democracy.

I am angry at our politicians who used the referendum for short term political goals and failed to communicate to us any sort of reasoned argument. Lumping together multiple issues – all wickedly complex, which become ever more complicated as they interrelate – into one binary decision. That was their failure. People point to the democratic deficit we have with Europe – and I am the first to agree that it is far from perfect – but there is a deficit much closer to home, a lack of leadership and a relationship between the media and electorate which is crooked and broken.

An act of self harm

A week on and I am starting to see my country again. I’m queuing, saying sorry and ignoring people on the tube. But I can’t help feeling that Britain has committed an act of self harm akin to stabbing herself in the eye. And I don’t mean because of the fall in markets and the fear we might all be worse off. That doesn’t seem so important, and who knows maybe the UK will prosper separated from the EU, maybe it will be better to govern ourselves.

What I’m sad about is the damage to Britain’s moral core. We’ve poked out one of our eyes. We now look uglier to the rest of the world, we’ve become more blinkered, and our vision is that bit more one-dimensional.

Author photo of Harry Parker. Copyright Gemma DayHarry Parker grew up in Wiltshire. He was educated at Falmouth College of Art and University College London. He joined the British Army when he was 23 and served in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009 as a Captain. He is now a writer and artist and lives in London. His first novel Anatomy of a Soldier is out now.