When something like this happens, as a Brit living in America everyone wants to know what you think about it. What is going to happen now? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? What about this, that or the other?
It’s rather flattering to be treated as a source of primary information regarding whatever I’m being asked about concerning my country, but the truth of the matter is that my first-hand experience of Britain on a long-term basis is now over a decade old and there have been many changes in the interim.
Nonetheless, for the record, here are my thoughts on the Brexit we’ve just voted for ourselves: I don’t know.
I really don’t. I’ve been sceptical of the federalising nature of the European Union for decades now, mistrusting its stated aim of creating a single European state that I feel little to no emotional attachment to (and yes, that has been the stated aim right from the beginning). I don’t like the concentration of EU power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, I dislike its general wastage of time and money (the British government isn’t really any better, but at least it operates on a smaller scale), I mistrust the necessity of giving up control of our borders, and I do not like the distant, basically faceless nature of European government.
However, I’ve been living in the US for long enough now to understand exactly how small a fish the United Kingdom is in the global pond. London is still one of the great financial centres of the world, but in American financial news it’s frequently less important (and therefore less mentioned) than the French or German markets. And the collective “European markets” are only one beside the USA, China and Japan.
The UK together by itself is a much more viable proposition as a state than something like Scotland trying to go it totally alone, but we’re still pretty small and should not get arrogant as if we still owned a quarter of the world’s land surface.
Also, Donald Trump thinks the Brexit is a good idea, which should give us pause.
Watching from a distance, I’ve become disturbed by the increasingly fascistic and anti-immigrant tone of UKIP and sections of the Leave campaign. Immigration is going to happen whether we’re in or out. We can’t and shouldn’t try to completely close our borders; the diversity of perspectives and understandings brought in by our immigrant communities ought to be a source of strength, not weakness.
Neither should we withdraw from the world into the snail-shell of our Island Britain, drawbridge raised and spears bristling against “contamination” or whatever. Britain really does have a vital role to play in the world, whether as a part of the EU or separately: we have real national gifts and perspective that the world needs. Too many of the Leave camp seem to want to do just that, and I am not with them.
Also, Donald Trump thinks it’s a good idea.
Would we be better off Remaining? I don’t know. We can’t hope to influence the European Union from outside, but we seldom seem to have very much influence on it even from within. Is it better to be a single small fish in a large global pond, or a single small fish in a slightly smaller European pond that wants to assimilate the shoal into being a single large fish? Either way it seems like we’re being eaten.
The EU is widely considered a nightmare of overreaching red tape and stifling regulation, but Britain’s recent record on actually beneficial legislation to protect the weak and the poor from predation of various kinds is not good. Typically we’ve opposed it until made to change our ways by Europe, and that’s not a good pattern. Take note, American Republicans. Sometimes government is there as a sheepdog to stop massive corporate interests from turning predator. The EU has been a force for human rights and peace in Europe. I recognise and honour that.
Also, Donald Trump thinks the Brexit is a good idea.
That’s been one of my main problems with the whole campaign, actually, but particularly the Leave folks. The fearmongering on both sides has been dreadful even from this side of the Atlantic, but the fascistic tone of much of the Leave arguments and many of the people who support an exit put me off, including just about all of UKIP.
One of the things this vote has done is expose how deeply divided our nation is. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain; Wales and England voted to Leave. Older people wanted to Leave, young people overwhelmingly voted to Remain. London voted to Remain, the rest of England voted to Leave.
Is the name “United Kingdom” a bad joke? We’ve seldom before seemed so divided. You probably have to go back to the time of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms before “England” was even a thing in order to reach a comparative level of disunity. What is “Britain” now? What is “Europe”? What are “Scotland”, “Wales”, “Northern Ireland” and “England”?
I suspect that part of the success of the Leave campaign is a reflection of this especial confusion of our national identity as British.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have strong identities as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have done for a long time, and they hold them tenaciously. Not so the majority English. When I was young the English were always taught that it was wrong to say “I’m English” because we wanted to include our brothers and sisters of the several Celtic nations (that is, the Welsh, Scots and Irish). We were always taught to speak and think of ourselves as “British”, engendering a monumental confusion over what is “Britishness” as opposed to “Englishness”. This was brought to the fore by the recent Scottish independence referendum, but it’s been a real question for quite a while. And I’ve been out of the country for most of that time, so I’m not directly familiar with what sort of answers, if any, my country is coming up with.
Add in another level of “Europeanness” and an EU that really fundamentally doesn’t like the idea of separate national identities and it’s perhaps less surprising that the Leave camp won (or who it was that voted to Remain). Those with the strongest subnational identities (Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which have strong separatist movements and can view Britain as “English rule”) voted to Remain, while the confused English and the much more connected-to-England Wales (Yes, there’s a Welsh nationalist movement as well, but Wales has always been more integrated with England than Scotland is) voted to Leave. London, the determinedly cosmopolitan and internationalist financial centre, voted to Remain, the rest of England voted to Leave.
We don’t know what happens now. No-one does. In a real sense I have little invested in it any more; I live in America now. But I’m still at least emotionally committed to the country of my birth. I’m still a citizen of the United Kingdom rather than the United States, and I still don’t feel I can swear the US oath of citizenship in good conscience while it contains that clause about “renouncing all other allegiances” or however it’s worded. But the situation doesn’t affect me directly any more, so anything I say has to be viewed through that lens.
I’ve not been there for the arguments and wrangling. I’ve not lived in the UK for a decade. I’m viewing things from a distance, and that can sometimes play weird tricks on your perspective.
It will be very interesting to see how it all plays out, though I hope not in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse.
Britain is one of the top three or four economies in Europe. Her exit is going to leave a hole, not to mention potentially acting as the First Domino. But is this a fallacious “slippery slope” type argument? Only time will tell. And while I’m at least reasonably confident that Britain isn’t going to try to retreat from any and all engagement with the outside world, that may not be the case with all of the other potential exitees.
We don’t know what will happen as we try to extricate ourselves from the Union. At least we don’t have to get kicked out of the Eurozone and renegotiate our currency, but no-one can tell where the unravelling of that Gordian Knot will lead, whether for better or for worse.
So basically I’m still unsure over the whole thing. If I’d been registered to vote in it I would have done so (particularly if I’d been living there) but I don’t actually know which way I’d have voted. If I’d never left the UK, I might well have voted with the eventual majority, but I don’t know. It took moving to the USA for me to self-identify as a European, and I still mean that in a continental rather than political sense. But I’m a lot older and less naïve now than I was when I was in my early twenties in Britain, and watching the Scottish independence referendum gave me a certain sympathy for the rest of Europe who have been forced to deal with British Eurosceptics for at least a generation.
Who can say? As CS Lewis says, none of us are ever told what would have happened.
I hope that now we can all come together as a nation and do what’s right, making the best of the situation no matter how we (collectively if not actually personally) voted. We’ve historically been quite good at coming together and doing what’s right when our backs are to the wall. It remains to be seen whether that is still true.
I hope that my country doesn’t descend into the sort of ignorant anti-immigrant near-fascist mess that sections of the American electorate seem bent on becoming. I hope that we actually discover (or reforge) our real identity both as British and as English, Scots, Irish and Welsh. And as belonging to the European continent if not the Union. And as citizens of the world with something to contribute to the nations.
My optimism gives me hope. My cynicism isn’t so sure. And with the turn American politics seems to be taking, I see the same forces of ignorance, anti-immigrant nationalism and snaillike isolationism at work here.
What manner of world are we creating?