Swimming against Brexit

Serbia’s main broadsheet newspaper Politika asked me to write something about Brexit. Since the article was published a) two weeks ago, b) in Serbian, and c) only in hard copy, I don’t think anybody will be too worried if I publish the English language version here…

I haven’t lived in the UK for a long time, but I still think of it as home. I was born and raised in England, but I don’t think of myself as English. When I’m in the UK, I think of myself as a Londoner; when I’m outside the UK, I think of myself as British. Both of those identities are wrapped up in a sense of being European – but the difference with being European is that it is something that I chose, rather than something I was born with.

A truly European identity has only really emerged since 1992, when the Maastricht Treaty established freedom of movement across the European Union. For many people younger than me, therefore, a European identity is something they were born with – and now, they have been denied that identity. One key statistic from the Brexit referendum was that 71% of 18-24 year olds voted to Remain, but only 36% of people over 65 years.

Of course, not all young people voted to Remain, and not all old people voted to Leave. The picture is much more complicated: people with more formal education were more likely to vote to Remain; people without passports were more likely to vote to Leave; people living in areas with higher numbers of immigrants were more likely to vote to Remain; people living in areas more dependent on EU funding were more likely to vote to Leave.

I’ve been living outside the UK for such a long time that I wasn’t eligible to vote. If I had been able to vote, I would have voted to Remain in the EU, but many of my family and friends voted to Leave. I understood their reasons, although I didn’t agree with them. Their vote to Leave had nothing to do with evidence, and everything to do with identity. Many people in the UK feel that their sense of identity has been slowly eroded, and that the EU is at least partly responsible.

This is felt in two ways. The first is that the EU has taken political power from the UK, taking away our power to make decisions for ourselves. The second is that the EU has opened up the UK to immigration on an unprecedented scale, changing our culture. However it’s important to note that in Scotland or Northern Ireland the majority voted to Remain in the EU; the Brexit referendum was a proxy vote for an English (and to some extent, a Welsh) identity.

The vote to Leave was a protest vote, by communities that feel frustrated and disempowered and marginalised. Early signs of this protest could be seen in the rapid growth in popularity of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) from around 2008, a party formed around a single issue: taking the UK out of the EU. Despite their success, UKIP are still kept at arms’ length by other political parties, because their Euro-sceptic position has always been wrapped in a barely-disguised xenophobia.

This association of Euro-scepticism and xenophobia explains why there has been a sudden rise in the number of racist incidents since the referendum. Minorities have always faced racism in the UK, but the decision to Leave seems to have been a license for many people to express ideas that were previously unacceptable. This needs to be understood as part of the protest: people looking for somebody to blame for their problems will first attack the most obvious targets.

This is where identity becomes important. The most obvious targets are the people who don’t look like you or sound like you, but in a diverse society such as the UK, those people may still be British citizens. To me, this is the difference between a British identity – which can include anybody, no matter what their race or religion – and an English identity, which is more limited. There is nothing wrong with being English, but the way in which it is expressed now is often unacceptable.

It’s no coincidence that the popularity of UKIP rose after the global financial crisis in 2008, which hit the UK very hard. This protest vote was against political elites who have failed to listen to their constituents for many years: not just those in European institutions, but also in the British parliament. There is a crisis in democracy across Europe, and the Brexit referendum result is a clear signal that people will not tolerate it for much longer.

The European project was built on hope. It was designed to stop Europe from falling back into the horrors of the Second World War. It has been largely successful; it’s almost impossible to imagine members of the EU going to war with each other. There have been plenty of conflicts on the periphery of the EU, such as the break-up of Yugoslavia, but those smaller conflicts have not lead to wider conflicts between EU states, as they probably would have done a century ago.

It’s now likely that the UK will also break up, as Scotland and Northern Ireland have both expressed interest in leaving the union in order to remain in the EU. If that happens, then being “British” will no longer have any meaning, leaving me in a difficult position. Occasionally one of my Serbian friends will refer to me as English, and I’ll correct them: I’m British, not English. That’s because I’m not sure what being English means; but now I’m not sure what being British means, either.

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