After Britain’s shocking vote to leave the European Union, the cooutry’s leftist elites (and the New York Times) shouted bootless cries of “xenophobia” to the rafters. The headline and text box to Jim Yardley's front-page story were reasonable: “Strength of Populist Revolt Is Felt on Both Sides of the Atlantic.” The text box: “Rebellious Voters Lash Out Against Elites.”
But inside the paper lurked doom-saying, paranoia, and “xenophobia,” among other plagues to be visited upon Britain for its reckless leap from the crushing embrace of the European Union, an unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy staffed by wealthy elites with not one but two elaborate headquarters, one in Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU, and the other, 250 miles away in Strasbourg, France, the official seat of the Parliament.
Saturday’s front-page story by Claire Barthelemy and Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura collected the wisdom of Britain’s young Remain-voting (and bureaucracy-loving?) baristas, bartenders, and festival-goers in “Among Young Britons, ‘a Bad Feeling’ on Result.”
As the bands played on at the Glastonbury music festival in Somerset, England, Lewis Phillips and his friends drowned their sorrows in song and alcohol.
“We’re the ones who’ve got to live with it for a long time, but a group of pensioners have managed to make a decision for us,” Mr. Phillips, 27, said on Friday of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union. He said he was now “terrified” about the country’s economic prospects.
Louise Driscoll, a 21-year-old barista in London, spent most of the day crying. “I had a bad feeling in my gut,” she said of Britain’s referendum on Europe. “What do we do now? I’m very scared.” Her parents both voted to leave the bloc, she said, and “will probably be gloating.”
The vote to leave the European Union exposed tensions and fault lines in British society, but perhaps none more gaping than its generational divisions.
For those under 25, the desire to remain in the union was especially high: Three-quarters wanted Britain to stay in Europe.
They are often more comfortable living in a multicultural society than their elders are, particularly in cities like London and Edinburgh, which are flooded by people from across the Continent to study and work.
Many young Britons expressed astonishment, anger or despair that their parents and grandparents would seek to limit the travel, exposure to other cultures and opportunities to work and study abroad that being part of the European Union has afforded them.
The Times tried to sharpen the generational hostilities.
Anxiety about the economy and immigration drove the Leave campaign’s victory. But many young people said they thought the decision would only set back their prospects.
“I’m already part of a generation stuck in rented property unable to buy my own house,” Hannah Shaw, 25, who works at a National Health Service hospital and lives with her parents, wrote in an email. “The older generation seem so happy with the result, almost smug like it’s some sort of victory completely unaware of the chaos they’ve caused for my generation. I’m dreading what will happen to employment, workers’ rights, the environment and our economy.”
In a slam at their own culture, the Times reporters even quoted respondents pointing fingers at U.K. journalism for being insufficiently supportive of the Remain side (something the Times did even before the vote).
Ms. Shaw blamed the news media for spreading misinformation about European Union membership. “A lot of the older generation rely on newspapers for all their facts and don’t actually do any of their own research unlike my generation.”
Jenna Ives-Moody, 19, a journalism student at the University of Huddersfield in northern England, wrote in an email that “serious fact-based journalism within the U.K. is not valued by the majority of the English population.”
Even a supposedly just-the-facts rundown had its moments of hysteria. In “Confused by ‘Brexit’? Here Are the Basics,” even the basics have bias: “In the most ominous scenario, there could be a revival of sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland for three decades until a power-sharing agreement was reached in 1998.”
Reporter Steven Erlanger’s “news analysis” used the x-word in paragraph three of “Upheaval Sends a Nation With a Storied History Into Uncharted Territory.”
Asked to vote in or out, Britain has chosen decisively to cast off its 43-year-old membership in the European Union, leaving it to face a more complex question: What kind of nation will it be now?
Will Britain be the outward-looking, entrepreneurial, confident country that makes its independent way in the world, as the leaders of the “Leave” campaign insisted it could be?
Or will it retreat to become a Little England, nationalist and a touch xenophobic, responding to the voters that drove it to quit the European Union?
Even in a supposedly balanced sentence, Erlanger couldn’t help hint that the Leave voters yearned for the racially homogenous England of the past.
Those with cosmopolitan lives and money were afraid to lose it; those whose lives are bounded by England and are struggling with the pressures of globalization and immigration looked for a return to a calmer, more homogeneous past.
Amid the overwhelming confusion about the next few years, it will take more than a few reassuring words about a festival of democracy to begin to bring Britain back together.
As Mr. Harris warned, “We are in a terrible mess, and it is probably going to take decades to even begin to put things right.”