I have been hosting phone-ins on BBC Radio 5 Live for 20 years and never has there been a time like this. Our station, more than any other, is in touch with our audience because listeners getting in touch with us is our lifeblood. We pride ourselves on reaching far beyond the confines of metropolitan England. The referendum’s result surprised no one here.
The numbers of people texting and calling have been phenomenal. For the sake of unimpeachable balance, we had to make sure that Remainers and Leavers had equal airtime and the statistics show that we succeeded. This wasn’t always the easiest of tasks, because before polling day most of the fire and fury came from the Brexiteers. They were the insurgents. They were storming the Bastille.
However, as Friday dawned, a new equilibrium began to emerge. The ancien régime sprang into life and stormed back. We have broadcast some fascinating conversations encapsulating our national divides. What a professional privilege it has been to hear the ebb and flow of the debate – the pride, the prejudice and the passion – play out in my headphones. It’s what we’re here for.
Lives of others
On Friday morning, I arrived on College Green in Westminster at 4.15am. The grass was already churned up like Brechin City’s pitch in late November and the scene was as manic as the stock exchange would soon become. At one point, I was in our gazebo interviewing Jeremy Corbyn. The press, radio and TV crews were five deep outside, trying to hear the exchange – just as they were outside all the gazebos with the big beasts in them. Corbyn had walked into mine.
David Cameron appeared on the screen to make a statement. I apologised to Jeremy for cutting short our conversation and he courteously acknowledged the significance of the moment. Then I found myself looking at him as he watched the humiliating demise of his foe, whose place in the history books would now be blighted. Jeremy’s expression was pensive and intense as he stroked his chin in slo-mo. What game of multidimensional chess was he playing in his head?
Woody Allen once said that in an existential moment, his entire life flashed before his eyes – then he realised it was somebody else’s life. In Jeremy’s case this was somebody else’s fate but, in the fragility of the moment, perhaps he glimpsed his own and that of every player, eventually. He knew that many worlds were changing. But I don’t think he was pondering the next chess move. It wasn’t political calculation. It was human sympathy.
The day after the morning after the night before, I asked callers to sum up their mood in a word, before making their points and talking to the other callers. We opened up a can of words – people were gutted, ecstatic, excited, miserable, vindicated, wretched and even “discombobulated”. Then Barbara came on the line. “So, in one word, Barbara?” She didn’t hesitate but her voice was quivering, as though her dog had just died. “Devastated,” she said.
I was expecting yet another Remainer, drivelling on about the voting equivalent of “best of three”.
“How did you vote, Barbara?”
“I voted to Leave.”
The silence was deafening. On the radio, four seconds is a lifetime. She continued: “I never in a million years thought we would ever win. It was only a protest vote. I wish I hadn’t now.” She was Édith Piaf in reverse.
“I’m not condoning it but . . .” is the apologists’ refrain. Whenever I hear it, I want to chuck something at the radio, which is hard when you’re on the radio at the time.
One example arose while I was interviewing England fans on a train bound for glory (or so they hoped). We were heading out of Marseilles, which was a lovely place . . . to leave. The train was heaving and I squeezed up the corridor and through the carriages. Most of the fans were brilliant but there are always a few idiots and one of them was eager to opine, so we spoke.
“I’m not condoning it but . . .” Boom! Here it comes. “They do it to us and we do it back. I feel we wouldn’t be here as a nation had we just curtailed [sic] and rolled over. We’d all be under Nazi control.”
The late Alan Clark (a proper diarist) once said that these were the men who won us the empire. He also said that he found Mrs Thatcher attractive – particularly her “dainty” ankles.
Snooze of the world
In the time that I’ve been presenting the Breakfast programme on 5 Live and “springing” out of bed at 4am in a disbelieving stupor, only three pieces of news have made me step back into the boudoir and wake up my wife: “Michael Jackson is dead”; “They have killed Osama Bin Laden”; and “We are out.” Her reply to the last might betray BBC impartiality by one degree of separation but was it: a) “You are effing kidding”; or b) “Ya beauty. Get in!”; or c) “Don’t wake me up. You are so unbelievably selfish. And could you stop clattering about and making so much bloody noise?” Clue: it wasn’t c).
Nicky Campbell co-presents the “Breakfast” show on BBC Radio 5 Live
This article appears in the 29 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies