From Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant
The longest day of the year has been and gone. So has the worst. This is what I declare today, on the 27th of June, midway through the year: enough. Let this be the worst of it. Let the second half of 2016 be an opportunity for figuring our shit out, and healing.
I say healing – not licking our wounds. We are not wounded, even though we are in pain. We are not wounded unless we choose to take these wounds on, to let them break our skin and our spirit. Unless we take on the mentality of the wounded, the injured, the put-upon. And then what? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression? Retaliation? Self pity?
We are in pain, but we are not wounded. We are grieving. Some of us are grieving; some of us are rejoicing, celebrating an outcome that we think is for the best; some of us are confused; some of us riddled with regret. But I say us, did you notice? All of us are us. The Leavers, the Remainers, the in-betweeners, even those who only thought of googling the EU after they’d voted, even the ones who decided, on the day, it wasn’t all that important to turn up, even people like me, who weren’t given the choice at all: they are all us.
It’s not easy to say this. I feel no connection to core of the Leave voters. I feel no connection to those motivated by racism, xenophobia or nationalism. I feel no connection to the ignorant, because ignorance can be cured or, at least, ameliorated (perhaps by doing a google search on the EU before voting to leave it) and it is not – as demonstrated by all of those declaring themselves devastated by the outcome of their actions – any kind of bliss. I feel no connection to those who hold on to a past, a time before, that can never be recreated, who voted for the ghost of Great Britain instead of the living, breathing people that make up this country today.
It’s not easy to say this, because some of these people want me out. To some of them, I’m not the collateral damage of a decision driven by loss of faith in European politics; to some, I am the problem. They didn’t vote for themselves, they voted against me. It’s not easy, in the face of people rejoicing in the fact that they’ve voted me out, to not feel wounded. But I have to try because to give into this is to perpetuate the division that I’m fighting against, in my heart and with these words. To give in is to legitimise it. And that’s when they’ll have truly won.
Trying to take in the world, today, makes me feel a little nauseous. It reminds me of dystopian fiction, a reality that looks vaguely familiar, but not, and makes your stomach turn. The Leavers and the Remainers have already become terminology; they have taken root, they have taken hold. They are used as if they’d always been around, as if we’d always been using them. Already, in the space of a few days, we cannot imagine there was ever a time when that split didn’t exist.
Dystopia: the Divided Kingdom. Where Leaver and Remainer are the only available choices; where there are no more classes, and no more opportunities, only two factions at war. Where you have to wear the government-issue yellow or blue armband at all times, so that you may be instantly recognised as one or the other, and no one has to waste time talking to you to ascertain where you stand. Endless queues at specially-converted clinics, blue or yellow, where they brand your identity – Leaver or Remainer – onto your skin, and secret, back-street places popping up, where you can have the mark burnt off, for those, unthinkably, who want to switch allegiance. And later, branding babies at birth. And later, coding it into your DNA. And somewhere, out of sight yet too much in-your-face to be tolerated, the unmentionables, the identity-less: the EU citizens. Cast adrift, segregated in special ghetto housing, and knocking on unmarked doors for black-market papers, so that they, too, may be branded, and belong.
Does it sound far-fetched? This is what happens when you perpetuate division. When you legitimise it. This is what happens when you split people down moral lines, with rhetoric and fear. You don’t have to go too far back to fetch an example: do you remember a man called Hitler? Do you remember Apartheid? Have we already forgotten that world, just three days ago, when these were things with which we did not agree?
We are all of us grieving. We are grieving for the United Kingdom we once knew, the United Kingdom we still believed in just three days ago. A country built upon imperialism and colonialism and nationalism and racism, but that evolved. That grew to include us, that chipped away at the divisions to make sure all of us were us. That forgave itself for the –isms of the past, and gave itself the opportunity to grow. We are grieving, all of us, for the country that we loved.
But the nationalists and the racists and the colonialists and the ignorant have always been around. This referendum did not create them, it only gave them voice. It allowed them to identify as Leavers, as opposed to Remainers, and it gave them a leg to stand on when, for so many years, they had none. When their legs would have been kicked from under them, just three days ago, the very moment they gave voice to hate. It placed them in the moral majority, alongside people who genuinely did vote for what they hope will be a better world (regardless of whether you or I agree), and they are piggybacking on these people to gain credibility. But, on their way to a better world, outside of Europe or within it, I doubt many of the Leavers want racists riding on their backs. Let them walk alone, and then be counted. Let them see that they don’t count for much.
Because the United Kingdom that we love may not be lost, not irrevocably, not yet. Not unless we give in, not unless we perpetuate division and legitimise hate. Not unless we allow ourselves to be wounded and lash out. Retaliation? No. Self-pity? No. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression? No. We may be grieving, but we are not trapped. We don’t have to follow the same old patterns, blindly, that invariably lead to the same results. We can grow to include them, these others, to accept them for what they are and still be us. It isn’t easy to say this, in the face of so much hatred, rejoicing in a victory that it calls moral, tainting those around it with its brand. Daring to show its face, all of a sudden – but these people have always been around. They may be in our faces, now, but we don’t have to give in, and we don’t have to carry them on our backs. They haven’t won, not yet. We can show them that they will not be tolerated. The world may be changing, but these are still things with which we do not agree. We can neutralise them, not legitimise them, by being us. In the name of the United Kingdom that we love, we can still be us.
This is what I mean by healing. Skin unbroken; spirit intact. Not like it never happened, but like it happened and we learned.
So let the 23rd of June be the worst of it. Let it be the worst day of the year. Let us not be wounded; let our pain help us heal. Let our grief bring us acceptance. Let us figure out our shit, instead of flinging it at each other. Let us learn; let us grow. Let us forgive ourselves and the United Kingdom that we love; let us still believe in that place that included us; let it not be lost.
This is the fourth of five essays written in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016. The first four were published as Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant. Click here to download the Kindle version of the book for free on Amazon – or read part one, part two, part three, and part five here.
And before anyone else rushes to point this out: no, I no longer live in the UK. And yes, in a way, Brexit won. It drove me out. I left London, the place that I’d called home for 20 years, and moved to an island in Greece. But not without sadness, not without regret, not without looking back. I look back all the time because, no, I still haven’t given up on the United Kingdom that I love. And yes, in a way, I still identify as a Londoner. And I’m lucky in that I had other options, but I’d still like the option to come back.
Image credit: BBC News From the People’s Vote march in central London, March 23rd 2019