Why We Won’t Shut Up

I feel as though I should write something personal to explain why I’m so hurt and bewildered by what has just happened. Especially since plenty of people seem to think folks like me should shut up. In the lead-up to the vote I focused on facts; on the direct disadvantages of leaving and the possible political consequences. I didn’t make it personal; I’m involved with politics because I care about our country and the wider world. I would never normally make the kind of argument I’m about to make now. I’m even going to try, for once, to resist discussing the bigger implications. But these are exceptional times.

Firstly, however, let’s remind ourselves that this wasn’t an election for politicians who can do only limited damage over only a limited period; it was a decision with massive, long-term ramifications. These are not only political. Many of the consequences put severe limits on our personal freedoms; so for those of us who embraced those freedoms, the decision to leave the EU restricts the way we live our lives and, as I’m going to argue, is a kind of censoring of the way we see ourselves.

Being a European Citizen is central to my sense of who I am. I have worked in EU countries, and in the UK I work alongside many uniquely talented people from elsewhere in the Union. I have friends that are in relationships that cross the borders between the UK and other EU countries, or who have gone to live in other parts of the Union. I make use of the fact that I can travel easily and cheaply. I care about what happens in the EU parliament. In fact, I campaign in the elections of our MEPs and I take pride in the achievements of the European Greens and their allies. I’m involved with projects and organisations that have EU funding. I value the intellectual exchanges enabled by things like the Erasmus scheme. The progress of some of the things I care most about, chiefly human rights and environmentalism, is being driven by European politics, while the UK government often proves inadequate.

Of course I also want radical reform of the EU, but writing those words now brings another wave of sadness, as I realise that involvement in that process is also being ripped away from me.

One irony is that the Leave campaign’s scaremongering included the threat of a European superstate. This was never going to happen, at least not with the UK as part of it. Nonetheless, many people naturally felt horror at the idea of a loss of British identity. Likewise, I now feel horror at the loss of my European identity, at least in official form. And that’s not a fictional threat like the superstate. That’s actually happening to me and, to be honest, it fills me with grief. The idea of having to join the non-EU queue at airports haunts me not because I’m arrogant enough to expect a place in the faster queue but because it symbolises the exclusion – the walk of shame to outsider status, the forced stripping down of personal identity – that I’m dreading.

There are also things that are not dependent on the EU per se, but which make my European citizenship feel a natural and obvious thing to have. I play in and English folk band and like real ale, and think the modest British countryside offers some of the most undervalued natural beauty in the known universe, but I don’t feel like an alien in Dublin or Prague, or in the village in the Alps where my family has sort of been adopted; my grandma, aunt and I having been there so often. My aunt used to work in Italy, in fact; now she teaches English to Italians who came over to work in greenhouses. Coincidentally, my family also has Italian links by marriage. Going in another direction, I had a teenage obsession with Yeats and all that Celtic Twilight stuff, which reached its apogee playing the fiddle in a pub in a village called Carrick in Donegal when I was 16. My mum works a lot in Ireland too, as an sculptor. Or did. I suppose that might be ruined now as well.

You see, I keep thinking of other things that have been broken by this vote. Of more friends, family and colleagues whose lives have become more difficult, more complicated.

I feel that European history is my history, not only because English history makes no sense without the Roman conquest, Norse and Germanic settlers, Norman rule, how awful the English were in Ireland, the conflicts and eventual Union with Scotland (something else blown apart on Thursday), the slightly incestuous pan-European genealogy of our royals, and so on… It’s also because my family’s own history of Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to East London to escape antisemitic persecution is as essential to my sense of self as the other half of my family’s roots, which are in Essex and Dorset.

And now I’m to be stripped of the citizenship that binds all these things together. How can I just bat that loss away? How can I just accept it as the casual cost of a game of politics? It’s a diminishment of who I am. It’s not just the technicality of the citizenship either; its my fellow Brits telling me that they want none of that kind of thing, that they put no value on that international identity; that instead we should pull up the drawbridge, re-write our history and limit our horizons.

Those of us who have embraced our double English and European identities now feel under attack, as do the educated, the politically-aware and, most bizarrely, anyone with any expertise relevant to the effects of leaving Europe. A large section of society is, in fact, being made to feel slightly less at home in its own country. I certainly feel it. We work in business, media, academia, the arts, health, education, science, and many other sectors. We are often university educated, well-informed, and give a lot back to society. We’re part of what make the UK what it is. And we are fundamental to the UK’s success. Not alone of course, but a significant component. Yet we’re dismissed by Farage, a posh ex-banker, as the metropolitan elite. We’re put in a box, sneered at as a kind of insufficiently-patriotic enemy within, and our views and professionalism are belittled. I’m not complaining that we have it tough: we don’t. I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m not denying how much we’re bound up in the structures of privilege. The way this campaign has normalised racism and the way immigrants have been presented as the cause of all ills are the most horrifying aspect of all this and I’m absolutely not claiming any kind of equivalence. But the fact remains that we’ve been very specifically scapegoated and smeared, even demonised. And it’s not just politicians attacking us. I’ve been shouted at in the street and abused on social media for publicly supporting the Remain campaign. Again, it’s nothing like the racist abuse that seems to be becoming more frequent in today’s England. But it’s still unpleasant and unsettling. And symptomatic of something quite sinister.

It’s not surprising that people should turn against us. We didn’t create the status quo, in fact many of us want to overthrow it and make society radically fairer. But we do visibly benefit from it, and it’s easier to point a finger at us than at the complex structures that keep privilege in place.

The biggest blow of all, however, wasn’t what was said about us but the referendum result itself, and the hard fact that so many people seemed to care so little for what the EU can offer and for all the many lives bound up with it.

I’m making it personal, so I ask you to look though my eyes. So much of what I value, so many things that are central to the way I live my life, my very European citizenship, is being taken away in a referendum called only for political expedience, won by an incredibly dishonest campaign and the votes of a minority of the electorate (a point that’s not irrelevant when you consider the electoral hurdles the government is imposing on the unions). And these votes seemed very often to be cast with a lack of seriousness, as if membership of the EU were some kind of bargaining chip that could be spent to make a political point. In fact, there are now Leave voters in the news saying they didn’t realise how big the effects of the vote would be, or that they voted thinking they could safely loose. Meanwhile the leaders of the campaign backtrack on their promises. Since this is personal, let me ask you: how does that make me feel, do you think?

This may sound like white privilege throwing its toys out the pram, but the Leave vote is white privilege burning down the house, shooting up the car and drowning the dog. And remember that there are almost as many people who wanted to stay as wanted to go. And each of them has a personal set of reasons for wanting to stay that they could tell you about, just as I have told you about mine. Each is set to have their life limited in a unique way.

So in the end we have been abused, had our lives diminished, had part of our identities taken away… Not to mention the wider effects, such as how the country has been split and racists given succour. And for what? In the end, just to aid the careers of some callous, rich, establishment politicians, and maybe to provide a punchbag to distract the disaffected. I wanted future generations to be able to experience all the cultural and intellectual riches European Citizenship has to offer, and to benefit from what continental-level politics can do to make the world a better place. I want – wanted – so many good things for the future that could have come from the UK having a meaningful, reform-led continuation of its membership. But I said I’d make this personal, so I’ll end with this: I’ve never before felt unwelcome in my own beloved country before. Since the early hours of Friday morning, I do.

And all these consequences aren’t for a few years; they’re for life.

So excuse me if I find all this rather hard to digest. And excuse me if I choose to go down fighting.

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3 thoughts on “Why We Won’t Shut Up

  1. Could never have said it so eloquently myself but I see many of your experiences as my own and I feel seriously sad and angry about this situation right now and cannot actually believe it has happened. My family are already feeling that we will only remain in England fora short time now as to remain will never feel quite so welcoming or easy now.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I’m one of the lucky ones with a chance at another passport but it still feels horrible. We’re now the outsiders; we should have engaged with Europe instead of playing the eternal dog-in-the-manger. Ironic that in the WW1’s centenary years, another generations of politicians has done considerable damage to the lives of the young.

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