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British Author Robert Harris Finds 'Brexit' Referendum Disturbing


Let's hear now from someone who will be voting tomorrow for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. Best-selling British novelist Robert Harris told us he will do so because he remembers life before the U.K. was a member.

ROBERT HARRIS: We were isolated. We needed the trade. We needed the diplomatic links. We needed a sense of being part of the continent. So that was what I grew up with. And in 1975, the last time there was a referendum, I cast my vote - the first vote of my life - in favor of remaining in the EU. And that - I think, because of that historic memory of what life was like outside it, I think we have to stay in.

GREENE: We spoke with Harris on the eve of tomorrow's referendum and one week after Jo Cox, a member of parliament who supports staying in the EU, was murdered, possibly because of her views. The day of Cox's death, Harris tweeted, how foul this referendum is.

What has you in such a terrible mood right now.

HARRIS: There is a bit of bad feeling, I think, here during this referendum that has being caused by each side trying to scare voters into supporting them. Those who want us to remain in the European Union have painted a picture of mass bankruptcies and unemployment and the collapse in the currency if we leave the European Union. And the people who are campaigning for us to stay in have, I'm afraid - not all of them, but a lot of them - played the race card, hopped on about immigration with dark undertones. And that - that really culminated in the shooting of poor Jo Cox.

GREENE: So you see something really crossing the line in terms of the politicking here - I mean, something that - that has truly gotten extreme in your mind.

HARRIS: Yes, I'd say so. I think it's a single-issue campaign, which is - so you don't have the complexity of a general election, and people just go on and on and on around it. I'm not sure how many minds are being changed. I think most people's minds were pretty well made up to begin with. There's been a lot of disparaging of experts and the elite, which has been quite disturbing. I mean - and I think a lot of people aren't really qualified, quite frankly, to take the economic view. You feel that the country has fallen into the hands of demagogues, and it feels frightening. I do notice, from sitting here 3000 miles away, slight similarities to the phenomenon of Donald Trump. This is the same harping on about immigration, the same sense that people have been let down by the system, the same turning on the elites.

GREENE: Let me just ask you about the Donald Trump phenomenon that you see a comparison to. I mean, many see people supporting, you know, Donald Trump as having extreme views. I mean, but others say there's a real, legitimate anger there that is driving a movement in the United States, and it seems to be driving movements elsewhere in the world. I mean, rather than sort of dismissing it as demagoguery, I mean, is there something that we should really be grappling with as - as a world today, where this anger's coming from?

HARRIS: No, I accept that completely. I mean, the world economy has been transformed. Old jobs have gone. Money has become international, shifted around. There's been a sort of breakdown in political societies on both sides of the Atlantic, and, of course, I completely understand how people feel. They feel left out of this. Their factories have closed. Life is insecure, both for them and for their children. If we vote to leave the European Union, all these problems of globalization will remain. And I - one can't help but feel that the EU has become a very convenient whipping boy for everything about the modern world that people dislike, and that's why I think it's quite dangerous. And that's why, if there's a sort of emotional spasm across the country to leave tomorrow, I think we may well end up paying a heavy price for it.

GREENE: Mr. Harris, thanks so much for talking to us. We appreciate it.

HARRIS: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.

GREENE: That was the British writer Robert Harris, who is a remainer. He will be voting for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.