t is six months since we woke up on 24 June to be greeted by the referendum result to leave the EU, an outcome that exposed a divided Britain. At the time, the anger on both the leave and remain sides was palpable, and when I was asked to talk to people who had been thrown into bitter conflict with their own families over the results, the fury I encountered was potent. Most apparent was the sense of betrayal felt by remainers – particularly younger adults – towards members of their own families who voted leave and therefore, as some saw it, discarded their futures.
Conventional wisdom states that time is a healer, but I disagree: it’s more of a modifier. At the time, several interviewees were so hurt that they were unsure how their family relationships could be healed. But since, with little achieved politically and much of the rightwing press spewing more than enough divisive bile to go around, many of them seem to have settled into a very English diplomatic avoidance of the topic.
“We just try not to talk about it because it still feels quite sore,” says Jo, whose parents and parents-in-law voted for Brexit. She’s still angry, she says, but there is a weariness in her voice that implies that sustaining the kind of rage she felt in the immediate aftermath of the result was impossible.
But she has become more careful about what she posts on social media: “There was a meme I reposted along the lines of: ‘When your parents said, “I will give you something to cry about,” we didn’t know they meant Brexit,’ and my mother-in-law got fairly stroppy in a comment on my page,” she says.
“I think the mother-in-law and father-in-law relationship is always quite difficult … if I bring up Brexit, my husband’s parents get quite angry. They voted Ukip in the election, so we knew they had quite negative views,” she says. “This is going to sound awful, but they read the Daily Express, so I expected it of them. They are quite rightwing. But my parents have never been.”
Jo was much more upset about her parents’ vote. They are Liberal Democrat voters from the north-east, were always strongly anti-Thatcherite, and were some of the many “lexit” voters. “They thought it [the EU] ended up being something beyond what they voted for,” she says.
“I no longer talk to my dad about it; he just shuts down. My mum gets quite upset if I mention it. I think she’s upset that I’m upset.”
Emma, from the West Country, had a similar experience in June, saying at the time: “My mum [who voted Brexit] now feels bad about how upset I am … we are having very tense conversations.” Six months on, she has also decided it’s easier to avoid the topic.
“I’ve been through the full grief cycle, and landed, finally, on acceptance. I’m now interested primarily in making the best of a bad situation. I tend not to speak about it with my parents, especially with my mum, as we would just argue again. My dad is frustrated by how long it is taking to get a plan and trigger article 50, and we argue about how much time should be spent on plans versus giving stability to the market – I favour the former, he the latter.”
While Jo says the daily headlines about the political machinations regarding Brexit act as a reminder of the rift, stoking up people’s anger once again, Emma feels they have helped to foster peace and compromise. “The anger and sadness has gone, and I think we have been brought together overall by sharing a feeling of uncertainty. And what’s more, we’ve found common ground on one thing – a dislike of Trump!”
She is not the only one to be negotiating calmer seas. In late June, Stephanie from Merseyside had just had an awful week of arguments at her parents’ house. “I have never felt so insulted by members of my own family before,” she said then, adding that their belittling of her decision to vote remain had “made her see them in a different light”. This month, when I caught up with her, relations had mellowed. “Things have calmed down,” she says. “In the immediate aftermath emotions were running high and, as my family and I are all very passionate people, fallings-out were inevitable.
“At this point, while we are all still divided over the pros and cons of leaving, we agree on certain things: the need for a plan to go through parliament, and how even if the government was convinced of a remain win, it should have had a plan in case of a leave vote.”
Even the families where both sides remain defiant seem to have realised that arguing is pointless. “He exists in an irrational universe,” says one interviewee, who had been considering uninviting her Brexit-voting uncle and his wife from her wedding. “I can be angry at his narrow-mindedness and cause a rift, or I can simply invite him while privately considering him to be a complete tit, as most of the family does. I’m not even angry with him, really. He has just lost my respect.
“When someone is immune to facts, where is the sense in arguing with them? That person isn’t going to change their mind.”
Likewise, Jo doesn’t avoid the topic with her parents just because it causes grief, but because there doesn’t seem to be anything productive in having yet another discussion about it. They are, she says, old and set in their ways.
“They think we’re children and don’t really understand. It’s a case of ‘we know best’, basically. How can you argue against that? They don’t feel conned at all. It’s this post-truth thing. We seem to have a backlash against facts … I don’t wish to sound patronising, but people in their 20s and 30s have been brought up in an information age; they do know that a lot of it is rubbish.”
Much has been made of the generational gulf that the referendum exposed, but it also highlighted differences between those who have left the communities they grew up in and have an outward-looking attitude to the world, and those who are still there. Another interviewee, from west Wales, was dismayed at the result and its economic implications for Wales, though she no longer lives there. Despite having a daughter who spent her entire adult life working or studying on EU-funded programmes, her mother hadn’t bothered to vote. She was angry about this, and still struggles when her mother expresses anti-immigrant sentiment, but has made an effort in the months since to understand.
“My mother repeated the rhetoric of ‘immigrants taking all the jobs’ in a recent phone call, which I pretty much ignored, as my mum’s not a lady to argue with,” she says. “The economics of the area are tough, but whether or not unemployment is exacerbated by immigrants there presently, I couldn’t say. Our town was ‘priority one’ for EU regional development funding – it’s highly unlikely that the funding will ever be replaced by Westminster. In around 2007, it became home to a large group of Polish civil engineers and builders. In a town of 6,000 people, it was an easily noticeable change. I think it did cause problems, in that it was around the time of the credit crunch and jobs were scarce.”
She plans to find work abroad, Brexit allowing. “After the vote, I felt ashamed both to be British and Welsh, something I have never experienced, and it was devastating. Jo Cox’s horrific murder, anti-immigrant/refugee sentiment in the news and the racist incidents after the vote really made me worry what the UK could become,” she says. “I’m pursuing the science/environmental career route [and] it seems to be tougher now, as research will definitely lose funding … so if I do find an opportunity outside the UK, I would not hesitate to take it.”
I catch up with another former interviewee who also dreamed of living abroad. “My parents have voted away my right to live and work in nearly 30 countries,” she said in June. Now, she says she is still angry, but she and her father are in uneasy truce territory.
But she feels some good has come of it. “I’m trying to convert my dismay at the result into productive action rather than feeling helpless and angry. I’m volunteering at a language centre that gives free English classes to non-native speakers. I want to help anyone who felt marginalised by the result of the vote by letting them know they are welcome here,” she says.
“I’m also taking a course to refresh my German and am considering options for working abroad next year … I just want to make the most of my chances before I find them curtailed.”
Not everyone sees Brexit as a disaster. Emily, 26, who voted leave, much to the dismay of her family, said in June that she wasn’t sure she had made the right decision, but now sees Brexit as an opportunity. “I don’t Bregrexit any more. I wish I’d held my conviction after the vote,” she says, when we catch up.
“I’m moving to a new flat that is £200 a month cheaper post-Brexit … we now have a state-educated woman prime minister who wants to raise the minimum wage further and has talked about having workers on company boards.
“I still have to lie to colleagues and friends about which way I voted. My parents are more forgiving. With the world becoming increasingly unstable, my dad, a remain voter, thinks there could be more black-swan moments similar to Trump across Europe next year. If the far right starts to take back control of the EU, he’d rather be out than in.”
The recent rise of populist far-right movements isn’t something that has brought all families together. In June, Alex said: “I can barely look at my parents.” And now? “I think my mum is starting to regret her decision to vote leave, as she’s been forced to watch a similar situation unfold over in the US with Trump’s win. Now, she seems to be listening more to my concerns rather than just shooting them down. Likewise, I am also much more accepting of her views and have relaxed a bit, as I know that she’s still a great person.”
“My dad is a different story, though. He lives in Essex and really seems to be embracing this whole rightwing populist thing – not in a really aggressive way, but he buys the Daily Mail and believes every single thing they publish. I saw him very occasionally before the referendum, but part of me just wants to avoid him completely now.”
As for Sarah, who at the time was accused of “calling her family racist” after things turned quite nasty in the days following the result, Brexit has acted as a catalyst. “My family have always been racist, sexist and homophobic, and the referendum result has just shined a massive spotlight on their behaviour. [It gave them] a green light to be overtly racist rather than keeping it behind closed doors.”
And so, she has made the difficult decision to let go of some family members. “I am afraid, like many, I’m guilty of little more than eye-rolling when someone makes a racial slur and it has really made me realise I can’t do that. I have to challenge it,” she says. “It feels wrong to say it, but I feel relief mostly. There is no sadness there and I’ve certainly not removed people just because they voted leave … The referendum just gave me the kick up the backside to deal with something I should have years ago.”