From a distance I thought it might be amusing. My Brexit Christmas: the story of how I, a staunch Remainer, battled my way through a festive visit from my Leave-voting nearest and dearest. Exploiting the genre of scripted reality, there’d be laughs a-plenty as each of us attempted to bridge that classic divide (recurring catchphrase: “just don’t mention the Brussels sprouts!”).
In-between opening presents (“I’d have got you something, only I decided to set fire to £50bn for no reason”) and raising a toast to the our future (“to misery, which is entirely the fault of all the people who predicted it!”), I’d cut to the camera to offer some wry commentary on the proceedings (“so THIS is what’s meant by taking back control!” *eyebrow raise*).
Unfortunately, the whole idea stopped feeling fun somewhere between a madcap plan to get the children to creep into bedrooms posing as the ghosts of Brexit past, present and future, and visions of a grand finale, in which everyone put their differences aside and re-enacted the Christmas truce (we, too, can play football in the No Man’s Land between EU membership and Ukiptopia!).
The truth is, though, that the thought of all this just makes me incredibly sad. If having close relatives who voted “the other way” were no more than fodder for some half-baked comedy of manners – if our biggest festive challenge were to be overcoming social embarrassment – I wouldn’t mind at all. Most family gatherings are awkward; they’re your family, not your friends. You cringe a little at each other’s opinions but most of the time you persuade yourself that really, deep down, there’s not that much difference between you.
Brexit has changed all that for me. It’s not that I’m bitter about “losing” (I’m a feminist; I always pick the losing side). It’s that never before did I realise how much the caricatures we have of each other – images created in tabloids and broadsheets, in killer put-downs and clever puns – can become larger and more significant than the flesh-and-blood people we’ve known all our lives.
I can’t talk to my family about politics; they can’t talk to me. Words are distorted, and slotted into pre-written columns about what “those other people” think. I’ve become the other to them, them to me. It didn’t happen on 23 June 2016, but up till then I’d somehow insulated myself from it.
The weekend after the referendum vote, I visited my family. It was on the Sunday, watching the news, mesmerised, that the divisions between us really hit home. I’ve long known myself to be ripe for mockery as Ms Liberal Elite, the one who swanned off down south to study French (bad) and German (worse), started reading the Guardian, marched against the invasion of Iraq, and dared to start thinking she knew better than Jan Moir. It’s something that irritates me about myself, too. I open my mouth to speak and already I’m thinking “oh god, I sound like one of them”. I am the caricature Nigel Farage warned you about. I let myself become that way.
Yet within the context of my own family, I always had a hope that this gulf between us amounted to nothing more than familial bantz. My decision to spend a year teaching in Germany was greeted with “you tell ‘em who won the war”. Haha. You don’t really mean it, I thought. Twenty years later I realised how deadly serious this request had been.
Turns out these divisions aren’t surface-only. They are deep, permeating every cell. The drip-drip-drip messages we’ve absorbed – not by living different lives, but reading different newspapers – mean we see the same world in completely different ways. David Cameron might have seen arguments over Europe as a boil to be lanced but they were a cancer, already metastasised. And on a different scale, that’s a mistake I made, too.
I tried to see political differences within the family home as a kind of performance. We were hamming it up, weren’t we? That’s what families do. Rants about the French existed for the sole purpose of winding me up; I wouldn’t rise to them. Besides, what could I have said without sounding even more like the elitist caricature I was assumed to be? Push back and people will only dig deeper.
So I let it go. Now, in the aftermath not just of Brexit but Donald Trump, I see people from more left-leaning backgrounds than mine hold forth on the need to challenge xenophobia, sexism and racism within one’s immediate circle. Easy for you to say, I think. I’d like to see you try. There’s never been a time in my life when I’ve been so aware of how little influence we have over those we love the most.
Facts don’t matter; compassion is suspect; disagreement is either violence or condescension. We’ve been here for years, only we didn’t spot it, and the people with whom it can be hardest to connect are those for whom every word can be loaded with double meanings and past resentments (am I really all that bothered about an exponential rise in racist attacks and the devastation of this country’s economy? Or am I still eight years old, convinced I’m far too special for this family and waiting for my real parents – Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe – to come and collect me?)
It hurts, all of this, for both sides. I want the middle ground back, even if it was only illusory. The arrogance of “I wouldn’t be friends with a Tory/Centrist/Corbynite” leaves me cold. The people I’ve grown up with are people whose politics I disagree with. Neither the brutality of severing ties nor the comfort of condescension works when you’re in that tangled mess of shared responsibilities. The work of caring isn’t for those who insist on keeping their hands clean. I used to console myself with the thought that we all wanted the same thing, just didn’t agree on how to get it. Now I think we don’t.
The person who needs you most might believe Boris Johnson is a hero, Katie Hopkins a prophet. They might be busy voting to withdraw the very support networks upon which you both depend. So be it. If you believe in compassion for those who are not like you – in love that is unconditional – this is where you start.
And yet here I am, in my Forties, fearful that I’ll be transformed into Rik from The Young Ones, crashing down plates, stomping up to my room. Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re all such FASCISTS!
I don’t want to be that person. I’m not so confident of my own purity of heart. I know my prejudices are hidden from me. But what’s the alternative?
I guess we’ll just have to keep talking across the dinner table, through thick glass, mouthing the words.