Music Matters
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

U.K.'s 'History-Changing' EU Vote Reflects Deep Distrust, Concern


Great Britain has voted to withdraw from the European Union after more than 40 years of being part of this giant political and economic bloc. To try and make sense of this enormous development, we're going to talk with two people. Robert Harris is a novelist from the U.K. and also the BBC's Jonny Dymond.

And I'm going to start with you, Jonny, because you've been covering the campaign running up to this vote for months. I'm curious about the polling on this because for days, weeks, it was the people who wanted to stay in the European Union who seemed to have the edge here. And then I woke up this morning, and it was the opposite. How surprising is this result to you?

JONNY DYMOND: Well, Rachel, you can't be blamed for being a little confused. It has to be said, the people who wanted to withdraw from the European Union did start edging ahead in the opinion polls, I would say, in the last 10 days of this. I think the presumption of many was that in the end, a quite conservative country, the United Kingdom, would probably vote to stay in the EU. It's obviously gone the other way.

On the ground, you found - I found people utterly disconnected from the political process, deeply distrustful of their political leaders - whatever their political stripe - unhappy about what they saw as broken promises in the past - whether it was the war in Iraq or whether it was the economic situation here in the U.K. - concerned about public services being stretched, concerned about levels of immigration. Now, not all of that has to do with the EU. But referendums have a habit of taking on a life of their own, and this one certainly did that. And it has ended up with this astonishing vote, this history-changing vote that we'll see Britain withdraw from the European Union after 40 years of active and sometimes guiding membership.


Jonny, let me ask you this. There was some talk that, I mean, people who wanted to leave the EU were much more mobilized. They would get much higher turnout, especially on a day when it was a little gloomy across parts of the country. I mean, is it possible because of that that this is not necessarily a reflection of where the country as a whole stands but where the people who decided to go out and vote stand?

DYMOND: Yes and no. I mean, certainly the ones who wanted to get out of the EU were the ones with passion, quite often anger. They were the ones, I think, who were much better organized. They were the ones who would do the postal votes, make sure they got up in the morning and made the vote. I don't think there's any question about that. And when you spoke to those who wanted to remain in the EU, they were wary and confused. And very, very few people - if any, out of the hundreds that I met over the past 10 weeks - expressed any liking for the European Union at all.

But the vote is the vote. And I doubt no one here is questioning the legality of it or its legitimacy. It is now the case that Britain will leave the EU. It is now a long and very, very tangled tale of the technicalities of doing so and maintaining stability in the country and the economy whilst it does so.

MARTIN: I want to bring in Robert Harris into the conversation. He's a writer from Great Britain. And Robert, we heard earlier from your compatriot, fellow British novelist Frederick Forsyth. And on our air, he said anyone who can remember the last century of European history will be, quote, "delighted" with, what he calls an escape from this opaque and intransigent bureaucracy that he sees as the EU. What are your thoughts on that?

ROBERT HARRIS: Well, my thoughts, as they are very often, directly opposite to Freddie Forsyth's. I think that anyone who knows the history of the last century knows that the European Union was a marvelous creation that has preserved peace ever since the end of the Second World War, and was deliberately constructed to do that. It grew out of a pact between France and Germany over steel making to make sure that neither of them could ever go to war with one another again because they wouldn't have the industrial capacity. From that, through the common market, Britain spent most of the early part of my life trying to get in because there was nowhere else for us to go.

And once we were in, we proceeded to not be a particularly congenial member of the club. But I think that it's completely the wrong way around to say that it's something that fostered war or was hostile to freedom. On the contrary, the most eloquent case for remaining, in fact, was made by the British actress Sheila Hancock, who spoke of how she had been - her early years, she'd been evacuated in the war. She had been bombed. Her first husband was in the air crew who bombed Germany and never got over killing German civilians. And for all its imperfections, the European Union represented an attempt to escape from all that. And I think we'll rue the day we left it.

GREENE: Mr. Forsyth - I'm sorry, Mr. Harris - Mr. Forsyth is an author who you always disagree with, so you probably don't want to be called that. Let me just ask you, Frederick Forsyth also describe this as a peasants revolt, unseen in centuries and something to really celebrate. And you and I, a couple days ago, did talk about this is a sort of reaction against the elite and, you know, working people feeling they were fighting for their rights and their place in a globalized economy. Is - I mean, is that sort of what we should take from this in a way, even though it's not the result you wanted?

HARRIS: Yes, I think there's something in that. I mean, don't get me wrong. You know, it's a democracy. And people are absolutely entitled to express their view. I just think a referendum on a single issue like this of such huge importance is the wrong way to go about it. The conservative government is a red flag to a bull for a lot of labor-working-class voters. They don't like it. They think it's toffee-nosed. They don't like how rich London is. And they don't like being lectured.

And they took the opportunity to make a rude gesture to their masters. I think they've been sold a pup, to be perfectly honest, if - to use an English expression. It's pretty clear immigration will continue because we need immigrant labor in an aging population here in England. And the money that has supposedly been saved, the contributions we no longer have to make to the European Union, were half the size that they said that they were throughout their campaign. And even now, they're admitting they won't be spent on things like the health service. So I fear that there's going to be a lot of buyer's remorse over the coming weeks.

MARTIN: Finally, I want to turn back to Jonny Dymond of the BBC. Jonny, this has been an emotional campaign, to say the least. Can you just describe the tone of the campaign?

DYMOND: Extraordinarily bitter and divisive - vile. I think nearly everybody agrees it was. Very, very few people that I spoke to thought they were better informed at the end of the campaign than they were at the beginning. There are many, many raw feelings. There was a terrible incident about a week before the end of it, where a British MP was killed. I don't think Britain, the United Kingdom, has seen a campaign like this. I doubt anyone will ever want to see another one like it again.

GREENE: Jonny Dymond of the BBC. We also heard from Robert Harris, a novelist from the UK. You've been listening to continuing coverage of the Brexit vote here on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.