What the hell just happened?

In the early hours of 24 June 2016, under cover of Brexit, an even bigger event took place and, as planned, everyone missed it.

What the hell just happened?

Overnight, from southern France, I watched my nation decide to leave the European Union. It is a decision which will have many far-reaching and unforeseeable consequences for millions of people for many years to come.

At enormous expense, a tiny number of people will play a major role in what will be a long process of withdrawal, while millions of participants in the vote, and millions more who were not involved, will have no control whatsoever over the consequences.

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

Fredrich Nietzche

It has been a strange day. A journey from a morning of disappointment to an evening of realisation.

The real story is not Brexit!

The accepted norm today, is to wax lyrical about the shock-horror of the result and to speculate about its implications. Brexit is an important story, and I possess my fair share of surprise, but something else has bothered me all day, about an event which was planned to take place while everyone was looking the other way.

Across Europe and the world, the vast majority of people will have woken to a surprise. Vote Leave supporters, those who were not awake all night, will have come down to breakfast to find delight, and an equal measure of shock!

International consensus held that the result would be close, but that the UK would choose to remain in the EU. On reflection, it was a lazy assumption, and in the UK the result should not have come as a complete surprise. The Vote Remain campaign suffered from the same assumption and could have done much more to promote and support its cause, but no one wanted to admit it at the time. There was a large element of denial in the camp. That the UK would actually vote to leave the EU was, frankly, unthinkable!

This morning in France, there is a commiserating solemnity in the simplicity of the headline and the isolated figures in the image carried by Le Monde. It quietly conveys everything.

Le Monde newspaper front page, 24 June 2016
The Guardian Gallery “The UK Leaves Europe”

News of the result is everywhere and everyone wants to talk about it, which means our short break to relax and escape the incessant din of Brexit is pretty much over. The proprietor of our hotel greeted us with a cheeky smile over breakfast, and offered us her condolences! We had to laugh, but she has a point. Something has died!

In recent days, Le Figaro characterised the British attitude to Europe over the last decade, with words from a song, delivered as only the French can:

“je t’aime… moi non plus”

“I love you… me neither”
Serge Gainsbourg

Sitting here on the south coast of France, I find myself, not raging with disappointment, but in a state of quiet reflection. While taking-in this sumptuous evening, I’m revelling in a wonderful un-British lack of effort. The mood is mild and happy in the late afternoon, lit by an ageing amber-orange sun, glowing across an expansive, rippling tide, drawing the evening behind it.

At our table on the bar terrace, we just poured our second glass of Rosé. I watch it sway in the glass as a smooth, cooling breeze flows by, out over reclining, sun-touched bodies, relaxing in crisp, fresh summer clothes, ready for the evening.

Soft music winds its way through the bubbling chatter, and a waiter hums to the tune, tinkling glasses as she clears and prepares a table.

I hear, “Vite, vite!” From the head waiter, somewhere near the bar. Then, “Tu marches trop vite!” And a cacophony of playful laughter as they put the new waiter through his paces, his young smile sweeping in front of his long curly hair. A burgeoning newcomer to the enviable skill of tray-craft, he floats between the tables collecting gasses without stopping. “Si j’arrête je laisse tomber,” he replies, to the amusement of the staff and customers alike.

Encompassed by this fun and beauty, feelings of trepidation and sadness still penetrate. Why is the UK unable to find ways to get along with its progressive European partners? Another passing moment in which I find it stunning that it has come to this. It quickly fades.

My sentiments are echoed with all the glory of Big Apple brashness in The New York Times:

The New York Times newspaper front page, 24 June 2016
The Guardian Gallery The result triggers a rare ‘Paddle Wheel’ headline in the postscript edition

And, of course, we cannot ignore the British tabloids…

They tend to capture the mood of the country. It is perhaps, just as brash as New Yorkers but without their toughness. Words only! The hard work, accompanied by the great British expertise in moaning and complaining, is yet to come.

The Daily Mail newspaper front page, 24 June 2016
The Guardian Gallery

Over the course of today, I have come to the conclusion that no matter how hard I work, or how optimistic I am, my country has not and does not work for my wellbeing, nor does it work for the wellbeing of its population. A petulant intention to self-destruct has bred within a section of the population, but I realise now that, for some people, this atmosphere does not register. They may even see it as perfect.

Over recent months, possibly longer, a few unknowns set a plan in motion; a plan to make a ‘killing’ of epic proportions.

The atmosphere across Britain is saturated with discomfort, like a fractious child for whom nothing is satisfactory, flailing and screaming bitter rejection of anything which is even gently offered. The corrosive political procession of the last few acrid months, has felt like sitting in a crowded rollercoaster, knowing it is hurtling downhill to inevitable destruction, while everyone in it is joyfully cheering. This evening, I wonder why I chose to get on board? There were other choices.

By a narrow margin, Brexit supporters clinched what is to everyone, and particularly to them, a completely unexpected victory, but only after wilfully and happily cleaving a bloody split through friendships, through families, and through the country.

The result is a brutal swipe from a razor, inflicting a few slow-motion moments of disbelief before a long, deep gash appears, bringing a terrified, painless anticipation of the inevitable pouring and the agony about to ensue.

Rather than heal, the victors will poke and prod with glassy-eyed smiles, then purse their populist lips to suck hard on the yawning wound, to lick, to sip, to drink well and gorge on the deep red, thick ooze of division and conflict that exudes.

Sides will scratch and scrape and scamper and spit. Teeth will be sharpened and claws will sink deep. Schemes will be hatched with daggers concealed, while truth will be kept where it has been for months, screwed-up and bound-tight in a strongbox buried low beneath a stinking, seeping, septic tank of lies.

Feuding for years will resonate through the classes and penetrate profoundly into the bowels of society, forming deep roots to feed thick veins which forge a body of two halves of an unidentifiable notion of nation. A nation sliding, drifting, reeling and railing, and impossible to meld.

While wasting my time thinking about what is right and wrong, trying to determine how things should or should not be, and describing what I see and feel, they laid their plan and executed it. This evening, I am left with my thoughts in the midst of the tatters of some long-lasting damage, but they cleared-up and left hours ago.

Somehow, I have to find a way to step out of the mess that is about to be unleashed.

This shimmering French day of sunshine on the beach, has been pushed to the background by a burning spark of interest in the overnight plunge in the value of the British pound.

Why, precisely, did this happen?

Chart showing fall in sterling as brexit vote results came in
BBC News British Pound against US dollar 23-24 June 2016

There are observations in news media of City traders heading to work this morning, looking harassed and worried, and there is speculation that this is because of ‘leveraged trading’.

What does that mean?

While I have no understanding of the details, it makes sense to me that if the British pound falls then some City traders will lose money, but that is not the story. I am convinced that there is another side to this.

“… as results came in” and many of us dozed-off, there were others busy making stacks of money…

All day I have been thinking that, at the same time as millions like me were watching what we thought was the most important event in a generation, “as the results came in” and many of us dozed-off, there were others busy making stacks of money from a freefall in sterling—somehow! But how?

I have the vague idea that if something goes down in the stock market, then something else must go up and vice versa, but I don’t know. And if there are losers then there must also be winners, but how does all of this work…? Who are these people?

Then there is this:

Chart showing fall in FTSE 100 as brexit vote results came in
BBC News FTSE 100 23-24 June 2016

The FTSE 100 (Footsie 100), an index of the top 100 companies trading on the London Stock Exchange. It plummeted at 9 a.m. this morning because the pound had already dropped.

The ‘footsie’ is mentioned during the financial news, from time to time, but I rarely take an interest. Today, however, for the first time, it feels like something more important than Brexit took place overnight behind the smokescreen of the vote, and I need to understand what really happened.

I imagine that people own shares in companies and, because the pound has dropped, they sell, but I don’t understand the connections or mechanisms. All I do understand is that, obviously, a drop like this is not good! Once upon a time, ‘not good’ would have been good enough for me and I would have moved on, but not today.

It is normal for me to take an interest in current affairs, and the referendum result was akin to a TV election night special—only bigger! It was an event not to be missed. Today, however, it feels like the act of watching the result was an intended distraction. It sounds bizarre, but I feel like I was somehow deceived or suckered. I fell for it! But at the time, I would have said I was “taking an interest, taking note, paying attention to an important issue,” but now, it is as if I was looking the wrong way!

Perhaps I feel like this because of my surprise over the referendum result? Perhaps I’m in shock?

I think, far from it. I would concede that it is a disappointment which will not be instantly shaken-off. There will be moments when I feel that disappointment, but already, now that I know which way the UK is heading, I am keen to know how withdrawal from the EU is going to work. As with everything, my attitude is to see it done properly. Whether I agree with the decision is no longer relevant. The debate is over. It is a national decision and to maximise the benefit to the country, every next step must to be done well. In short, “Bring it on!”

So no, my thoughts surrounding the stock market and the drop in the pound, are not a presentation of shock.

It is rather more like a dawning of realisation, like understanding a joke ten seconds after everyone else! There has been something right under my nose which, for most of my adult life, I have been completely overlooking. The question is, what!?

The impact and the significance of a drop in the British pound, the idea that it could or would fall, would plummet, on a surprise result and send ripples across the stock market, had never crossed my mind. Not that it should. I’m just a bloke in the street, as they say! The value of the pound only matters to me when I have to exchange it for a trip abroad, and even then, it is nothing more than a minor issue, quickly forgotten. But for the first time, the fact that I know so little about currencies, the economy and the stock market is deeply uncomfortable. I feel stupid and a little enlightened at the same time!

Consequently, I have been telling myself all day that I should have known. “I should have known!” And all day, the idea has been bugging me that others anticipated what could happen to the pound and the stock market. They were watching it, ready and poised to make millions, while I was watching the result and dozing-off! But what exactly were they watching? How does it work? And who are these people, these others?

My notion is they are people who are ‘apart’ and busy. They are separate, and I assume, unaffected or detached from the emotional politics which consumed an entire country. They focus instead on a strategy, their strategy, with no personal concern for the socio-political dialogue or consequences, though they may pay lip-service to it. They have observed a divisive event taking place and building in intensity, but rather than become involved in it, they devise ways to exploit it. They know that because of the degree of innate emotional distraction already built into the event, no one will notice what they are doing or what they have done until it is too late. This is a theory, a pure construct, on my part. I am guessing!

Questions I need to answer but cannot answer are not fading away. They have flipped my mind onto a brand new train of thought.

I am led to conclude that I am on the outside of something, and on the wrong side of it. The reality has always been that I am, like most people, immersed in a vat of human cluelessness, swept along with millions of others to nowhere in particular. I have followed many elections and news events, and indeed, the experience leads me to nowhere in particular. The event fades and life sweeps on, to nowhere in particular!

Not today! Today, I am snagged by these relentless unanswered questions. I am halted in the mêlée. While everyone is flooding by, deep in discussion about Brexit, I am stationary, quietly wondering who made money out of it and how? Today, I am not being swept to ‘nowhere in particular’, I am profoundly intrigued by the others!

The real story is that while millions were concentrating intensely on an event in which they had infinitesimal control over their hopes, others were ensuring that their hopes were fulfilled, that they benefitted, regardless of the event’s outcome.

Events absolutely do not matter. It is what you do with them that counts.

Time to try and become at least a little smarter, step out of the crowd, and learn to think fundamentally differently. I’m going to learn about the stock exchange and ‘trading’.


  • 2020/12/01: Added excerpt text. Additional tags.