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Can Britain avoid a post-Brexit brain drain?


An isolated, myopic island is not an attractive idea for thousands of young Brits used to travelling the world

On Friday morning, many of those who had voted to remain in the European Union spoke of how they felt they'd woken up "in a different country." For those of us who watched the vote from abroad, it felt like waking up in a parallel universe, a grim parody of Britain's very worst and most inward-looking tendencies.

As the "rainy fascism island" comments began to flood social media, Nigel Farage's weasel-like face was broadcast across seemingly every news channel in existence, declaring a "new dawn." His new dawn felt like a cold reality where those of us who have left might never be able to return.

In what proved to be a vicious fight for the soul of the country, Little England had won. Tragically, no moment exemplified this more than the murder of Jo Cox: the realisation that Britain in 2016 is really a place where a Member of Parliament can be shot to death is just as deep a wound as the referendum result itself. The Britain that triumphed in the early hours of Friday morning was born from years of Conservative measures to radically curtail immigration, including cutting post-study work visas for visiting students and Theresa May's recent proposal that asylum claims be processed outside of UK borders. A government that declares it wants to reduce net migration to below 100,000 people a year by 2020 shouldn't be surprised when it's thrown into chaos by the ever-more populist, fact-lite politics of UKIP and Vote Leave. It also shouldn't be surprised when the UK starts hemorrhaging talented foreign nationals, many of whom prop up UK businesses and the National Health Service, who simply can't withstand this political climate any longer. The worst part is, this punishment is deserved- not just for letting Brexit happen, but for not doing enough to counter this scapegoating and xenophobia long before the vote.

The risk now is that whatever happens, those with the means to will start looking for alternative ways of life, meaning a life abroad. This referendum has burst the pus-filled boil of xenophobia that lay beneath British politics for so long, and it's hard to criticise those who don't feel obliged to stay and suffer the ensuing mess. The divide here is stark: a British middle class who have experienced 20 years (for some, their entire adult lives) of day trips to Paris, access to language lessons and the prospect of international travel for a decently-paid job, and a working class where budget flights to Europe broadened their horizons, but did nothing to improve their ability to withstand an age of grim austerity measures or to be enticed by easy answers around immigration. It is easy to try and categorise the reasons behind those who voted Leave as economic or social – poverty versus xenophobia. In reality, it is likely both of these reasons and many more besides, and no amount of branding the pro-Brexit camp as close-minded will do anything to fix it.

The question is not just how we bridge the gap between a more liberal, affluent and open London, and areas outside of it that feel marginalised. It is also how we prevent a brain drain from the UK of citizens who feel they're fleeing a sinking ship, combined with EU and non-EU migrants who no longer feel welcome.

It's how we prevent members of my generation that live abroad from looking at the UK and deciding that home isn't a place they recognise any more, and that they have no intention of going back. To fail to do these things is to potentially create a lost generation, something that will do more damage to the future of the country than any one economic crisis.

Amid the "rainy fascism island" comments were desperate bids for any possible solution that could un-do the verdict, calls for a second referendum and calls to action. It is entirely possible to challenge this grim new reality along several lines at once: by all means, call for another referendum, but this shouldn't excuse anyone from looking at the deeper inequalities and social divides that made the first result possible.

It's easy to say that we should be prepared for an ongoing fight against inequality, quite another thing to actually suggest how this can be done. This solution is unlikely to come from any one political party, especially given that some of the responsibility for Remain's loss is down to Jeremy Corbyn's failure to connect with marginalised voters in the traditional Labour heartlands of the north of England, leading to a spread in support for UKIP and a swing towards voting to leave the EU.

There is a temptation to punish people for having made such a catastrophic decision, but a second economic crisis is only more likely to increase this new breed of virulent nationalism and racism. As the bids for a second referendum and the internal politicking roll on, there needs to be a consideration as to how to attack the causes of this new breed of myopia.

The new government that will replace that of David Cameron needs to find substantial resistance to their bid to reduce immigration and a push to show that Britain is not Little England, but an inclusive society that wants to welcome people from all over the world. These efforts should include not just London, but outreach to those beyond well beyond the islands of Remain support and well into the regions that voted Leave. It should also include the estimated three million non-British EU citizens living in the UK, not to mention the thousands more who come from outside of it. Given the sickening wealth of anecdotal evidence surfacing of non-white British people being told to "go home" in the days following the referendum and Sunday's attack on a Polish cultural centre, it seems that time is of the essence.

In short: let's have that discussion on immigration that the Nigel Farages of this world claim they’re not allowed to have, and let's prove to them that they're wrong.


Ruth Michaelson is a journalist based in Cairo. She contributes regularly to the Guardian, as well as Newsweek, Foreign Policy and The Daily Beast among others.