“Damn it, you two, we have to do something about these wretched old people. They just don’t get it.”
I guess it was the winter of 2015. We sat — me and my Uncle Terry — in his council flat, one early, dark Sunday evening. He had just put on one bar on the electric fire and lay back into his chair. Next to him was a magnifying glass he used to do the crossword in the paper. I had just delivered him back to his small, but neat council flat in Battersea. He was 92 years old and alone. I tried to fetch him every Sunday so he could spend some time in different surroundings, among real people, not the ones in his television in the corner of his lounge.
“What do you think about this European referendum lark?” he said.
Terry often struck up a conversation at this point in the evening. I think he wanted me to stay longer than I might have done.
“I think it’s a good idea,” I replied.
“Get us out of the European Union.”
“Why? Why do you think we will be better out of Europe?”
He was a lightly educated, working-class man who only ever left Battersea to fight in a war, but he was a shrewd, deep-thinking, life-rich individual and he was not going to let me off the hook with empty answers.
“The EU, Terry, not Europe. We are voting about being a member of an organisation, not a continent. They’re unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats who don’t really like us. Most importantly, they refuse to allow us to control our borders. If a country doesn’t have borders it is not really a country is it? If you cannot control your borders then how do you plan and run your infrastructure? How are people meant to run our schools, our health service, our police service, our roads…”
Terry is nodding all the while.
“I could go on.”
“Yes, there is that. But we are part of a club and you have to abide by the rules. Maybe we are not a country. Europe is the country…”
“Well, I don’t want to be in that club anymore. And if Europe is a country it’s not doing a very good job in managing its borders.”
“It’s bigger than borders. We haven’t had a war in Europe for 60 years. There was two in the first 50 years of the last century. That’s something. Quite something.”
His “something” was loaded with emotion and I knew what he meant and he knew I knew. I had been taping Terry over the previous months as he recounted his poverty-soaked childhood and then his war experiences. He was at Monte Casino and other bloody battles and in Greece as the war ended. He said his most harrowing experience was in Athens as the new Government, backed by the Allies, took control and began to weed out the Partisans. They took over schools and held hastily-constructed courts to try those they believed were attempting to overthrow them. Many of them were young men. The country was essentially in civil war. Terry’s job was to keep the prisoners calm while they waited in one classroom before entering the hall where they were summarily judged and if found guilty marched into the playground where gallows awaited. Terry would roll them cigarettes he passed to their trembling hands and tried to keep them talking to take their mind off their impending fate, or bolting for their lives. That scarred him as much as the maiming, murder and fear he saw on the battlefield. Just boys, many of them, he mused – a film of tears on his eyeballs.
“But, do you think the fact there hasn’t been a third world war has anything to do with the EU?”
“Well, it’s helped, I’m sure of that.”
His position was valid. Compelling, even, and the unsaid emotion of it stopped me in my tracks. When the moment seemed right, I continued.
“But, Terry. It’s different now. The EU are intransigent. They treat us with disdain. Cameron went out to see them, didn’t he? He said ‘Look, I’ve got a problem. My people are worried about immigration. They don’t want to leave really. But they’re really worried. Their country is changing fast and unfettered immigration is a worry. They feel like they’ve lost control. Give me something. Something to take home. A brake on immigration. Just a brake to get me through this referendum I had to promise them.’
“They saw a desperate man in front of them. Their respect for him was so minimal they said no. Would not budge an inch. Not even for the sake of pragmatism. Why would we want to be in an organisation that thinks that way? They can’t even be smart. Intentions may have been good once, Terry. But it’s gone now. They do not treat us as partners. These EU rulers have disappeared up their own arses.”
“I didn’t know you felt that strongly.”
Neither did I.
“You’ve got a point, Martin. It’s a bugger and it’s a mess.”
Referendum day came around. My own feelings had been hardening. I’d seen Project Fear and how the establishment closed ranks. Every newspaper and TV and radio channel feeding us the same fanciful stories and eerily united in their position. Like the rest of the country I started to see how the masses were being manipulated. But, things had changed this time. Social media presented alternative voices and started to demonstrate how news agendas were being set, manipulated and even falsified. Earlier, the MPs’ expenses scandal had fostered a massive sense of distrust in the whole political system. They thought they’d got away with it, but they hadn’t, the damage was far deeper than a few MPs losing their seats. Parliament, politics and the establishment had been fatally compromised. British people don’t mind being ruled. They understand how the system works but when they see their rulers robbing them, laughing at them and lying to them they fight back. Voting for Brexit was not a shot across their boughs, it was the first decisive blow in a people’s movement.
Unlike much of the rest of the country I was not one that felt the result of the referendum was a foregone conclusion. If you believed the mainstream media you’d think there was no point in traipsing down to the ballot box and voting Leave, which was exactly their intention. I have always put great store by anecdotal evidence. I didn’t meet one person in the flesh who said they were voting Remain. Not one. I didn’t live in an echo chamber. I meet and mix with all sorts. Two nights before the referendum I got a mini-cab home from London. My driver told me he was from Iraq. I had had a few pints.
“I guess you’ll be voting Remain on Thursday?”
“Why you say that, sir?”
“I just thought you would.”
“Because I am a foreigner in your country?”
He was not being combative. He was smiling, accustomed to inane conversation from inebriated passengers.
“I will tell you now, sir. This country has to control immigration. I drive a cab. What do you think all the new people that come here want to do? Yes, they want to drive a cab. Each year it is harder and harder for me to feed my family. I will be voting Go! and all of my family and friends will be voting Go!”
The penny really dropped for me. People vote with their heads, not their hearts. It was like when Mrs Thatcher was around. Speak to people, and they professed dislike of her but when it came to the ballot box they re-elected her because they felt their money was safer with her than with Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock. That’s why opinion polls are bollocks. People lie. I checked out the odds on the country voting Leave and it was 3-1. Even the bookies were believing the propaganda. I put £1,000 of my hard-earned on Leave.
That night I intended to stay up and savour the result. Until Mr Farage conceded very early on. I couldn’t face it. I thought the early results looked not too bad but he obviously knew things I didn’t. I went to bed. In the morning I came down and switched on the TV. I saw Dimbleby’s face and Laura Kuenssberg. They were in shock. Staggering around bumping into one another. The BBC studio was in mourning.
I saw Terry on the Sunday following the vote.
“Well, that was a turn-up for the books.”
“Yes, fantastic, wasn’t it?”
He lived to see the unprecedented efforts by the establishment to reverse the democratic vote. He was appalled by the demonisation by the media of the majority of the voters who only did what they were told — to go out and vote. He saw “old people” cop some of the blame. This man who had fought for the country that hadn’t given him a great deal in the first place but loved it all the same was used to being called a “bed-blocker”, but now he was an ignoramus. A selfish man pouring his pension coins onto his bed and rolling naked in them. He saw the EU leaders at their autocratic, manipulative and vindictive worst. Although I’m sure he voted Remain, I am equally sure that what happened after the referendum convinced him he voted the wrong way.
One of the last things he said to me on the subject before he died was “they’re fighting like they are because it’s just the beginning. If this goes through they’re all finished. One by one the old establishment institutions will fall. This is the people rising up. They’ve no time for the Labour Party, all privately-educated, preachy, money-grabbers. They’ve no time for parties, full-stop. When a leader for the people emerges — and he or she won’t be from the traditional party set-up – then it’s a real battle. I just hope the people have still got the stomach for it.”
At 94, last year, Terry decided he no longer had the stomach for living. He made a measured decision to die and starved himself to a dignified death in his little flat. Not wishing to block any beds while he passed.
He and my father had fought and survived World War Two, but they could have easily have been killed, were prepared to and probably thought, often, they would do. My grandfather was a casualty of World War One. They did this willingly because they loved their country. Their sacrifice has meant so little to our rulers that they have decided for the United Kingdom to become part of a centralised Europe, ruled by an unelected elite without even consulting the people. If this had been the people’s wish, so be it. But it is a situation we have arrived at slyly, by stealth. Brexit was an opportunity for Britons to say, hang on, this isn’t the road we want to go down. We were never asked if we wanted to go down it in the first place, so, no hard feelings, but we’re getting off here, Guv. And we did.
History will again show that the United Kingdom, once more, stood up for what was right – for them and for our European friends. I am trying to get a bet on that too.
Martin Knight is an author of non-fiction and fiction. His novels include Battersea Girl and Common People, and his non-fiction includes autobiographies with George Best and Alan Longmuir of the Bay City Rollers. His collaboration with Joe Smith, Gypsy Joe, was Observer Sports Book of the Year.