nb This is written today, amidst the greatest uncertainty we’ve ever experienced in my lifetime, in the tattered remains of a postwar political consensus. I’m hurting. Be kind.
I am European. I was born in 1974, in a European country. I love being European, and I love being British. There’s no contradiction there; I am also proud of being from Sussex too, with all the traditions that brings. And will always love my hometown, Worthing, which has its own identity, quirks and ways within the wider county. Think of it like Russian dolls, a Worthing boy, my Sussex identity nestled inside my Britishness, inside a European shell.
In the last few years, I have been very lucky and, for the first time in my life and thanks to work, I have been able to travel. We had a couple of childhood holidays – Austria with PGL, Paris – but I have never had the opportunity to travel. My 20 year old daughter travels casually, spending a few months abroad with no concerns, while I pack and repack for a few days in Ireland.
Work took me there this month, to talk at the inspiring All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference (a coming-together of older, separate Ireland and Northern Ireland events). Unilever took me to Italy a few years ago. And my work with empty shops took me to the Netherlands a few times. I took those opportunities nervously, as I’d never travelled; my daughter is at university (achieving something neither of her parents did) and is already embracing travel. She is casual about it, while I’m still excited to get a window seat. I’m still dazzled by cloudscapes and overwhelmed by the distant curve of the horizon, while for her the horizon is where she going. Her world is bigger, her opportunities broader.
Or rather – they were.
This weekend, her chances have been reduced. She will have less options. My two younger children will also have to live in reduced circumstances, but at least they will never have seen how wide the horizons were to start with.
And me? Well, I’m genuinely heartbroken. The cry from Leave campaigners was ‘I want my country back’. That’s exactly how I feel.
Everything I’ve been taught, the values and beliefs I’ve been given since childhood, have been ripped away.
I was taught (in an ordinary school on an ordinary council estate, in an ordinary postwar comprehensive) that we’d come through war, and seen that co-operation was better. We’d fought for peace. We’d battled for kindness, for care. We’d welcome immigrants, pre and post war – the Basque children, the young people who arrived on Kindertransport. We’d wanted the people from the West Indies on the Windrush, people from Bangladesh and India, the Italian brick-makers in Bedford because all those people helped rebuild our country post-war. We’d seen off isolationism, told Enoch Powell he was wrong, kicked back against the rise of the National Front. We’d moved from Empire to Common Wealth in a reasonable way.
We’d give a share of our wages to bigger things, knowing we got the benefits – education, the Welfare State, decent homes, a sense of safety. The things we celebrated on the opening night of the Olympics in London, what feels like a very long time ago.
The country I’ve grown up in since 1974 has been essentially safe and secure, fundamentally fair, moving consistently towards something even better. Yes, there were still class inequalities, fights for gender equality, and some residual racism – but the direction was good, the momentum there. People have more now than they did before I was born, when our economy was broken.
Nobody I have ever met believed that going backwards, that reducing fairness, that shrinking horizons was in any way good.
Except – they did. In their secret hearts, they hated all the things I’d been taught were good. Half the country voted for exactly that. They voted knowing the immediate impacts; a damaged economy, the break up of the United Kingdom, less opportunities for young people to work and travel, and the rise of racism on the streets. All these things were known, but labelled Project Fear.
But – it turns out, they were a legitimate fear; we got them all. And we won’t get the things the Leave campaign promised either. Within hours of winning the referendum, they have withdrawn promises of extra funding for the NHS, of reductions in immigration numbers, of closed borders and the end of free movement. And they have admitted they have no plan. None. The thing they claim they have wanted since 1973, they have not spent one single moment planning for.
We have everything that the Remain voters feared, and nothing that the Leave voters wanted. An election in which everyone lost.
I’ve been called a traitor for my vote, told I should leave the country. Nigel Farage has said we Remain voters weren’t decent people.
For the first time in my life, I have no optimism left. The thing that has kept me going, the sense that we can make a difference, that we can do things, that we have agency and power and magic in our hands, is gone right now.
I can’t talk to people who voted Leave. They have broken my country and broken my heart. They have left me adrift, unsure of the very identity the country has wrapped around me since birth. I am scared and I am lonely.
The country is broken, and I am broken too.