For the past few months I’ve sized up dinner party invitations with a degree of caution: they’ve become less than relaxed, jovial affairs, particularly on this side of the Atlantic. In intimate settings, groups large and small have been debating the same question since the start of the year and, without fail, the dessert course sees some guests sitting slumped in their seats with arms folded and eyebrows raised, others leaning into the table hammering home a point and timid partners scrambling around for the car keys and making a move for the door.
In a sprawling villa I watched a family almost come to blows as the father suggested he didn’t want to see hordes of people descending on his ancestral territory and his offspring should do everything in their power to ensure things become more, not less, exclusive.
Weeks later the same topic came up over post-dinner coffees and liqueurs in a castle with the matriarch and hostess stating her business (brewing) needed to be open to the world and as many markets as possible. “We either want to be part of something bigger and all the opportunities that brings us, or we want to be cut-off, remote and less relevant,” she said. “I want to be part of something bigger but let’s see what the people say.”
If it sounds like I’ve been doing the rounds in the run-up to a referendum, I have. The only difference is that this particular referendum happened earlier in the week in the villages and valleys of northern Italy. In many ways it offers a cautionary tale of what might unfold in polling booths in the UK.
For the past few months the people of South Tyrol (or Alto Adige), the autonomous, largely German speaking region in Italy’s high north, have been locked in a debate about whether they should expand the region’s main airport. Central to the issue has been the regional governor, who has staked a good portion of his political career on asking people to vote on whether they not only want to invest in a bit of extra concrete to allow bigger planes to fly into the capital, Bolzano, but also if they want to be part of a larger, increasingly interconnected world. The debate saw cosmopolitan business people pitted against farmers and the rurally remote, with the former lobbying for more flights to allow locals to do business more efficiently abroad while also bringing in more tourists, and the latter saying the noise from aircraft would upset cows, goats and bring in the wrong type of people.
By Monday morning the votes were tallied and it was a “No” for runway expansion. “It was also a no for opportunities, a no for courage and no for our next generation, who will expect to be more connected, not less,” said a friend and business owner. “How can this be a good thing in an increasingly interdependent world? So much of the discussion was focused on all the people that were going to arrive when the real issue is all the smart people that will likely leave.”
And there, in a small town in the shadow of the Dolomites in northern Italy, my friend summed up the key issue that many people are confronting with the UK referendum: it’s not just about leaving the EU, it’s also about the hundreds of thousands of talented, clever people who will leave the UK. As the referendum has taken an increasingly ugly tone there are many who will say that watching hundreds of thousands depart is exactly what’s supposed to happen and an untethered UK will be better off without them.
Who needs people who don’t want to be part of a new UK? Who wants people who are cosmopolitan, speak multiple languages and bring skills and international experience to the economy? Who wants more interesting cities with better food, interesting small businesses and good art? Who wants to walk into a business where people chatter in various tongues, reading papers with umlauts and circumflexes in the headlines?
I do. So do all of the 160 people I employ in London, and I’d say the same goes for the 200-300 freelancers and suppliers who rely on us for commissions, paper, printing, IT support and everything else we require to keep our business ticking over.
At its foundation, this referendum is about political jockeying and dangerous game playing by Boris Johnson and his clan, it’s about immigration and making the UK a more complicated place to enter (you can say goodbye to the blue lanes with their gold stars) and do business. Ultimately, it’s about making the UK a less interesting, diverse and dynamic place.
Like the lady in the castle, I prefer to be part of something bigger.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine; firstname.lastname@example.org