two years on, Cambridge Brexit divides friends and neighbours
For a surefire way to deflate the buzz at any social gathering, raising the subject of Brexit takes the cake.
The subject is so emotionally riven in Cambridge that people simply avoid it. 'We’ll be up for hours’ one man told me when I attempted to chat about the vote at a supper party, 'Let’s not even start.'
Oddly the one thing both sides can agree upon in the city is that talking about Brexit has driven a wedge between friends, even family members. An ‘us and them’ attitude has arrived.
In Cambridge, which two years ago voted 73 percent to stay in the European Union, the highest in the UK apart from Orkney and a few other places in Scotland – even London was not as high – leavers especially find themselves astonished at the fury their decision has evoked.
'I would have never have thought the remain camp would get, well not exactly hysterical, but overwrought,' said Brexit supporter Kate Paterson. At a community meeting she walked into a conversation of people claimed they hadn’t met anyone who had voted to Leave. 'I had to put the case as I saw it but I can see why people are nervous. No wonder they haven’t met anyone who voted leave -- they’d have had their heads bitten off.’
It goes beyond casual encounters. With echoes of the falling out between now pro-Brexit Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and his sister Rachel over the summer, a Cambridge architect told me, 'I just can’t bring myself to ring my sister. I know she voted Leave, even though she’s never met a migrant worker, and I can’t bear to talk to her.'
Underneath the tension lies the fact that for Cambridge the move to leave the European Union is a particularly high-stakes bet.
The Silicon Fen of the UK and home of the University of Cambridge, the cosmpolitan city is a liberal economic hot spot that feels threatened with losing its ability to attract talent and students from around the world, by the possible cut off of critical cooperation with the European Union research and funding and the simmering insults, even violence those of other races and national origins. What plays out on the emotional level is but reflection of the hard facts of Brexit for Cambridge.
Whatever voters for Leave intended, Brexit, as now proposed, clearly means curbs on immigration and an end to the free movement of people. At the highest level Prime Minister Theresa May herself has confirmed this and has made moves to inhibit the influx of students from outside the country and their right to stay here and work when they have qualified.
This directly impinges on the University, which put it concisely in a tweet: ‘We have +3700 international students from +120 countries: 21 percent undergrads, 63 percent postgrads.’ Students from the EU are threatened with fees of£17,000 and upward paid by other foreign nationals to study here instead of the British rate of £9000. When courses go for £2000 in the Netherlands and elsewhere, the hike will undoubtedly limit numbers for British universities.
It's ‘Not just about the free movement of researchers and students from Europe, but indeed the attractiveness of the UK as a destination internationally,' said Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England a few weeks ago, sounding very worried indeed.
Cambridge University Vice-Chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz, along with 96 other university heads begged the country four months ago not to jump to depart from Europe and all the deals and links it offers, now he faces a stonking £100 million hole in his finances, with 15 percent of research income from the EU and 10 percent from overseas. One of the biggest funders, Bill Gates, has said that if Britain left the EU it would become a significantly less attractive place to fund research.
‘We're not an English university but an international university that happens to be located in England,’ the outspoken Professor Ross Anderson told me. He expects such a loss to set the University back years, undermining the ability to hire ‘the best people in the world.
In the hi-tech spin-offs around the city, a similar view is common. Enocam Ltd the hugely successful engineering outfit in nearby Huntingdon making crash dummies, has announced it is dropping UK expansion for a move to Poland or Spain where engineers are more available and more highly prized.
Brexit supporters counter by pointing to recent decisions by Google and Amazon to base themselves in London, saying out that growth has shot up since June, though, in fact nothing has changed yet and cost of Brexit is project to be £69 billion.
Paterson dismisses these issues. 'There has been a lot of noise about how we were short sighted, racist and silly to do so. But for me the vote was about institutions, about stepping away from the Brussels/Strasbourg machine with no one accountable and no means of getting rid of them.' Leaving will make us ‘more responsive to people’s concerns, and more flexible in getting things done,' she said. ‘What is good for Lithuania, be it in conservation or seed production, may not suit another region’ and EU rules crowd on little producers and local needs.
For Brexiteer Lynette Burrows it’s also about righting the balance with Europe, 'The unemployment in places like Spain and Italy is heartbreaking,' she said. ‘Especially for the young people there. No wonder they are all queuing up to come here where there is so much more flexibility in the labour rules and where you can get a job easily.’ She contends this ‘would never happen in their own countries, weighed down by regulations as they are.'
For Cambridge remainers, like radio commentator Simon Bertin, these arguments miss the point about Brexit. 'I thought it was a mad decision based on strong emotions not political reality,' comparing them to Donald Trump’s recent victory in America, a choice based in strong sentiments from the working population who feel cut off from and out of touch with the political and economic reality now running their lives from afar but without ‘properly to enjoy the rewards of a just society.'
The mood among those who voted to stay, meanwhile, has changed from one of frustration and despair.
Alison Leigh, one-time Cambridge broadcaster was in Bruges when she heard the news and stood in the rain weeping alongside a German colleague. Now years on, that sense of outrage has abated, the pessimism has deepened, 'I try not to think of it most days’ one ex-councillor told me. 'It is so maddening and makes me so sad.'
Others remainers feel bereft of their European identity, with remarks I’ve overhead lately ranging from 'like being in a zombie movie where people around you are not what you thought they were’ to 'deprived of all the marvelous things European life has to offer' and ‘condemned to consider salad cream, miserable Sundays and cold cafés with no choice like we had in the 50s'.
Much worse of course has been the rise in outright racism, xenophopia and anti-semitism, with ‘Go Home Polish Vermin’ leaflets in Huntingdon, reported attacks on school children, a misquoted Voltaire quip daubed on the Beth Shalom Reformed synagogue, Nazi-style rallies near Ely and the south, a Polish plumber beaten to death in Harlow punctuating the undercurrent of hatred towards foreigners.
The poisioned atmosphere makes my Swiss neighbour feel like a stranger in Britain now. 'For the very first time, I feel unwelcome. I have an accent but I am British.'
But the feeling of inevitability about this vote has begun to change too. Tony Blair has taken the view that the vanquished 16 million voters in the referendum must be listened to, saying the country should keep its options open; people who voted to go might change their minds once they know what was involved in leaving.
Celebrities and the movement for a Second Referendum have supported him, while Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is determined that we should wait until the negotiations for exit are concluded and then, in the light of reality, decide whether or not the price was worth paying. Both Denmark and Ireland have had re-runs of their referendums where 'No' switched to 'Yes'. Last week’s People’s Vote March turned out a record 700,000 people, passionate enough to travel from all over the county to protest. And of course Cambridge was well represented. Our M.P> Daniel Zeichner is a supporter of the movement . He has defied his Party leadership to initially vote against Article 50 and paid the price of non conformity. His constituents are proud of his stance, given the Remain balance in Cambridge he is the perfect M.P. to represent the City.
But Paterson thinks a new vote would not wash, 'We are leaving, that’s it' and reports that friends who voted to stay in the EU are privately pleased that the vote went against them.
But to many people, on both sides, the recent developments will sound like a calmer, more reasonable way for a country to behave – to move to a place where claims and counter claims about the future by warring sides are replaced by a cold hard scrutiny of what in reality, is on offer -- and then to make a decision in the light of the facts not in the heat of the arguments.