I flew into Britain on June 23, the day of the Brexit referendum, or “Independence Day” as the country’s most popular tabloid, and champion of leaving the European Union, put it. The next morning, results showed that London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland had voted to stay in the EU. But they were outweighed by a decisive vote to leave from the rest of the United Kingdom. It was a revolt of Welsh villages, northern English cities, and southern country towns.
As I walked the cobblestone streets of Durham, a cathedral city in the northeast of England where I grew up, it didn’t feel like Britain had won its freedom. The mood was nothing like America’s Fourth of July. There were no hot dogs being eaten, or fireworks rippling through the sky. “Independence Day” felt more like the aliens had just landed. Within hours, the pound lost 10 percent of its value. Business confidence plummeted. The country faced disunion. Nationalists in Scotland claimed that Scotland’s vote to “Remain” justified another referendum on Scottish independence.
The mood was anxious, melancholy, funereal. The British seemed to have disavowed their traditional pragmatism, and the joyous multicultural atmosphere of the 2012 London Olympics, and embraced something darker and more irrational. Remain supporters were shell-shocked, especially young people who saw their future living and working in the European Union suddenly ripped away. Even many Brexiters wondered what on earth they had done.