Sunday 26 June 2016

Screw Brexit – but thank you to all my European friends and colleagues

It feels like someone has died.

I’m struggling to focus on work, and in a way I can ill afford right now. I’m struggling to engage in the most mundane conversations, especially with strangers. I feel numb and angry and sad all at once. I’ve never experienced depression but I guess this is similar.

Projects that dominated my thinking on Thursday morning now appear as the tiniest specks of dust in the rear view mirror. In their place is my children’s future, once full of hope as part of a leading European nation, now diminished as a small island walled off by fear and intolerance. A murdered MP. An economy in crisis. A rudderless government, set to be led by a mercurial psychopath who believes in nothing but himself. A far right that hates all non-white humans and is bent on grasping ever more power. A UK set on a path of Balkanization. A European peace project battling to survive.

We have lanced the boil of hatred and xenophobia in this country and the poison is already destroying everything the world once admired about us. Racists and bigots now feel empowered to “say it how it is” – the ultimate badge of the irredeemable arsehole. Dragging their knuckles from their basements and white vans, they feel entitled to accost people on the street, telling them to “fuck off home.

I have to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s proud defence of immigrants and rejection of bigotry brought a genuine tear to my eye. I wish she were in charge of more than Scotland. Her clear plan for what must happen next in Scotland is thoroughly professional and considered. THAT is the Britain I believe in. We are already considering moving there, and I think a lot of people living in England and Wales will do the same.

Compare Sturgeon’s response to the cadaverous Boris Johnson, now realising he is the proverbial dog at a keyboard. The great British electorate threw the Leave campaign a treat and now they have to type an opus while the economy founders. Sure. And while we’re at it, I’m going to ask my cat to drive my son to his swimming lesson, change a flat, and pick up the shopping. Boris Johnson hasn’t got the faintest fucking clue how to fix this mess because he never thought he would win in the first place.

The Welsh are an even greater mystery. Here is a country that has benefited enormously from EU funding and migration, and STILL it voted to leave, surrendering its economic future to what will likely be a generation of Conservative rule from Westminster. Turkeys voting for Christmas doesn’t even come close to describing this act of self destruction. It’s more like Turkeys cutting their own heads off, rolling themselves in duck fat, wrapping themselves in foil, and thrusting themselves stumpfirst into a 200-degree oven. Perhaps they felt they have nothing to lose. Perhaps they just didn’t give a shit and thought “Hey, this oven looks like a change of scene, and that must be good, right?” 

The psychology of Brexit is complicated, but not that complicated. People who have been left behind by society and basically distrust anyone who isn’t the same as them were fed a diet of pernicious but convincing-sounding bullshit by politicians who thought (quite correctly) that a large chunk of their audience would either be unwilling or unable to challenge it, at least until it was too late. The remain camp had a simpler but less enterprising argument. They tried to convince us not to drive our car over the cliff. An endless parade of experts, politicians and business leaders warned us that the rocks at the bottom would kill us. “Seriously, this is a bad idea”, they all said in unison. But rational concerns over impending self destruction became badged as Project Fear. “We’re sick of experts”, snorted Gove, as the car we are all travelling in went hurtling into the abyss.

It’s easy to ignore experts when you hate what they are saying. And there is nothing easier than believing in bullshit you already agree with. In psychology we call this confirmation bias. We have psychological terms to describe all of these behaviours, but really this all boils down to a few simple facts. It is easy to reject people who belong to an outgroup ("them"). It is easy to find evidence that agrees with our preconceptions. It is easy to embrace ignorance and groupthink. These are all easy because they require no cognitive effort, only emotion. Acting by impulse is straightforward and dangerous and exactly what the Leave campaign wanted us all to do.

When I moved here ten years ago from Australia, my new home seemed like a progressive, quirky, outward-looking country. A nation that embraced (albeit sometimes reluctantly) its connections with Europe and the rest of the world. I was excited to discover the mother country– the land where my father’s side of the family had come from. I was proud to gain my UK citizenship in 2014. I was particularly proud that the front page of my UK passport declared me to be a citizen of the European Union. I had suddenly joined a large, inclusive, and dynamic community – one that my children would one day be able to join too.

Now that is gone and I fear all of society will suffer for it. The hit to science and medicine – my profession – will be extremely harsh. The warnings were loud and clear. We gain billions more in funding from the EU than we contribute, which is one reason why the UK leads in science. I imagine a lot of Leavers don’t care very much about science, but they will notice the impact on one part of their lives that touches everyone.


Cancer research – perhaps the only kind of science that Sun readers give a shit about – will be seriously damaged. If you voted to leave the EU, you voted against cancer research. It’s that simple.

I am angry about this because I feel that my children’s futures, and even their health, has been betrayed by a nasty and bigoted middle England, who in turn feel (perhaps rightly) betrayed by everyone. And they will be betrayed again because, apart from the act of leaving the EU, none of the promises they were fed by Johnson, Gove or Farage will ever happen. There will be no economic boom. There will be no extra billions for the NHS. There will be no sizable reduction in immigration. If your life sucks now, it will still suck. Maybe more.

Young people have also been betrayed by the rich baby boomers who, for no reason in particular, voted to leave a peaceful union that their own parents fought and died to create. The stupidity and selfishness of this decision is staggering.

But I also feel thankful. I’m thankful to every continental European I work with. I want you to know that I feel ashamed by this referendum result and I am sorry that it has made you feel unwelcome in this country. This referendum does not speak for millions of UK citizens who value you enormously. To me you are invaluable. Science is a global endeavour and I have the privilege of friends and colleagues from an extraordinary array of countries in Europe and beyond. My research would not be possible without you. Thank you for your different world views. Thank you for your fascinating languages. Thank you for your food and art and culture. Thank you for sharing your stories of adversity in your home countries, which put our often trivial British problems into perspective.

I now see three tasks before us. First, we have to somehow make this Brexit nightmare as painless as possible for everyone, especially the most vulnerable. I have no idea how to do this but we all have to come together to make it work. Second, we need to ensure that the younger generation is sufficiently educated to detect bullshit being spouted by political liars, and that they always vote and speak up. We can do much of this work as parents and teachers. And finally, my message to the younger generation who voted overwhelmingly to remain is the same one I say to young scientists who question the status quo: one day all this will be yours. Be patient, cope with the dark times as best you can, and we can turn this around.

Because we will turn this around. A boil of hatred has been lanced but the Britain I know and love is still alive. As long as its heart still beats, there is hope of one day rejoining the European Union.