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Roundtable: Brexit Attitudes


We live in a time when political divisions run deep, and they are felt very, very personally - in some cases, down to the family level. And not just in the U.S. - in the U.K., Brexit is causing the same kinds of tensions. After more than three years of arguments, first over whether and then over how exactly the U.K. should leave the European Union, the British government is in crisis. After only a few weeks in office, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been left reeling from defeats in Parliament and defections within his own party, including that of his own brother, who quit rather than oppose him.

But we've been wondering how British citizens who are not politicians or reporters or commentators who have to talk about all this - how they're dealing with the state of the Brexit conversation right now - so we've reached out to a few people in Yorkshire in the north of England. Andy Shaw works for a software development company, and he joins us from Wakefield. He voted to leave the EU.

Andy, welcome. Thank you for joining us.


MARTIN: Also from Wakefield is Louise Houghton, who works for a government agency that inspects police forces. She voted to remain in the EU.

Louise, welcome to you.


MARTIN: And finally, Leon French is an account manager for a private awarding and training company. He joins us from Doncaster, a bit south of Wakefield. He initially voted to leave, and then he's changed his mind.

Leon, welcome to you as well.

LEON FRENCH: Hello. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I know it's complicated, but as briefly as you can, Andy, could you just tell us what was your main reason for voting leave?

SHAW: Yeah, sure. To be honest, at the beginning of the campaign, I wasn't quite sure. I like the idea of a sort of - an outward-looking international country. You know, I've got lots of friends over in Europe. You know, I work internationally as well. So that sort of aspect of what the European Union could be sort of appealed to me.

But I also was very attracted to the argument that politics has become hollowed out, and rather than elections being a time where different political issues are debated, and the big issues are discussed, and we decide as a nation what we want to do, it's really been replaced by a sort of managerial class of politicians who don't really come and talk to us about the big issues, let alone feel they need to get a mandate for us.

And the EU has become the perfect excuse and the perfect way to outsource authority and lawmaking to a body that is utterly untouchable. They don't even - we don't even know the names of the presidents of Europe. So I became attracted to the Democratic argument around leaving the EU.

MARTIN: OK. Louise, what about you? What was your main reason for voting remain?

HOUGHTON: I voted to remain because I listened to as many people as possible talking through the arguments. I realized that it wasn't a simple case - that a lot of the promises made by the leave campaign at the time didn't seem like they were realistic, and they turned out not to be. Some of the things that were said were so blatantly not true that they were laughable. And so to me, it was a bit of an obvious choice.

I think a lot of people who voted remain kind of arrogantly assumed that everyone would vote remain because that was the sensible and logical thing to do. You can't unpick 40, 45 years' worth of being in the EU in one fell swoop. You can't - people liken it to trying to take an egg out of a scrambled egg or an omelet. You can't just do that.

So to me, listening to the leave arguments, I realized that they were just saying whatever they wanted to say to get the popular vote but that it wasn't possible to offer what they were offering.

MARTIN: And, Leon, what about you? Because we've been wondering, given all the turmoil that has ensued in these three years, of whether there were more people who had changed their minds, and you are one of those who has. Can you just tell us how that worked for you? Like, what did you think initially? And what is it that changed your mind about it?

FRENCH: I mean, to be honest, my reasons for voting leave started off with - quite similar to Andy's reasons. It was a lot about the Democratic argument. But my change of heart is not through any newfound love of the EU or anything like it. It's purely pragmatic reason in so far as I think the costs will outweigh the benefits.

I think it's all well and good making the argument that we'll be a free and independent nation and what have you, but if you're a free and independent nation with citizens not being able to put food on the table, it doesn't really do much good, to be honest with you. So it was purely pragmatic reasons. I just think it's going to cause a lot of harm, and I wish I'd realized that sooner.

MARTIN: So, Andy, I get the impression just from our first conversation that your sense is that the reason that Brexit has proven so hard to actually pull off is that the politicians don't really want to do it and are sabotaging it. But you hear other people say, actually, it's hard just because it's hard. It was always going to be hard and that they sold you a bill of goods. So now that you've had, like, three years to think about it, what about that?

SHAW: We have learned a lot in the last three years. This is in the question of whether you have a vote, and that vote is accepted by the people who didn't win that vote and is enacted by the politicians. And that is what democracy is. This is how we resolve conflicts. But the question is, where does power lie? There are a lot of people that I talked to who did vote remain and would actually prefer to stay in the EU but want to see Brexit enacted because they fear that if we no longer live in a country that - where we can democratically decide things, then that's a hugely dangerous situation.

And the thing that really, really upsets me - and I think many people feel really despondent - is that the vitriolic reaction against that result was absolutely awful. And there was so much of an attempt to denigrate the stupidity of the voters. They didn't know what they were doing. They'd been (unintelligible). They were fooled by a number on a bus. They were - don't like foreigners, whatever. It was vitriolic, and it hasn't stopped. And that is having an effect, and it's having a hugely destructive effect on any sense of unity in this country.

MARTIN: OK. So Louise, that's where I have to - I feel I have to ask you, what do you say about that?

HOUGHTON: It wasn't vitriolic. It was a grief. It was a huge grief. The feeling that remain has described is part of that grieving process of denial that you first go to, and you just want to wake up again, and it's not the case. And then that's - that refusing to believe that it's happened, and then acceptance to trying to turn back the clock. And it was a horrible, horrible process, and we felt it. And I've spoken to - I've not met a remainer that doesn't describe this - the absolute horror. So there was no vitriol.

We talk about the democratic process, but a democracy is - you know, what we've said many, many times, a democracy can change your mind. In a democratic process, we listen to the people. And as the facts change, we reassess them. And we know now that the country does not want to leave. Every single poll since that - since the referendum has shown that the majority of the country wants to remain and getting bigger and bigger each time. It's still not a massive majority, but most now want to remain.

MARTIN: So I appreciate all of you for being so candid and also explaining this to an audience where - for whom these are not our sort of daily issues. And so now the question I want to leave us all with is, do you think that this can be put back together? I mean, can this - can what seems broken be fixed? And if so, how?

And I'm going to start with Leon on this. And what I'm hearing is a sense of fracture. And I do appreciate all of you being so respectful to each other in a way that I understand is not always the case in these conversations. But having said that, at a time of such deep fracture, do you envision this being able to be put back together again? Leon, let me start with you.

FRENCH: I'll be quite honest. I'm very cynical, so I think the answer's no. I mean, I don't want people to think it's just one-sided, that it's just remainers having a go at leavers. You've got the other side as well - the amount of times remainers are referred to as being traitors. And there's somebody who I know - she's an EU national, has lived in Doncaster for years, who was campaigning for a people's vote and was told by a self-described Brexit party supporter, your opinion doesn't matter because you'll be kicked out of the country soon.

There's a very ugliness that's coming out amongst the public. The cost of the division that this stupid referendum has caused - I don't see, at least not in the next 10, 20 years - however it's resolved, the country's not just going to go back together, and people aren't just going to start getting on again.

MARTIN: I'm sorry to hear that. Louise, what about you?

HOUGHTON: I agree, and I would imagine Andy will agree, too. It's - people that have written after Nazi Germany and talked about how people on the streets were suspicious of each other - you didn't want to say anything or make eye contact because you didn't know which way they were. There's a sense of relief when you find someone that agrees with you, a real sort of sense of angst when you find that somebody doesn't. Because it defines - it's not just how you voted. It wasn't a single vote or different political parties.

To me, it's about your values and and how you look at the world and how you look at yourself and a kindness and a compassion. So it's a horrible fracturing, and I think Leon is probably being optimistic in saying, you know, a couple of decades. It will heal, but it's going to take probably a generation.

MARTIN: Andy, final thought from you?

SHAW: I think we need to leave. The thing that does worry me slightly is that it's now become almost like a cultural identity. And I think people project their own wishes and their own fears onto the question of the EU. So I think the only way of resolving it is to resolve the question itself - to leave. And then we can address these other issues. Otherwise, if we don't, this is not going away.

MARTIN: That was Andy Shaw, Louise Houghton and Leon French, three British citizens talking about Brexit.

Thank you all so much for talking with us today.

SHAW: Thank you.

FRENCH: Thank you. Bye-bye.

HOUGHTON: Bye. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.