The best analogy I could make for this British election is that it is like a patient who has received a diagnosis. They have a terminal disease, but it is not yet visible, so they begin to make up a vast series of plans which they will in all probability never be able to realize, or indeed afford; at other times they are defiant and resolved to beat the illness. In reality their later death – evident for now in only the odd palpable niggle – is inevitable, but the patient, and those who love it, cannot bring themselves to spoil this period, perhaps its last one before reality bites, by mentioning the fact.
So the central absurdity of calling an election because of Brexit but never discussing Brexit, or if doing so, employing only the most vapid terms, such as our Prime Minister’s claim that if we only believe in Brexit enough everything will be alright. Presumably we have to click our heels together three times while doing so. Post-Brexit Britain may indeed be like Oz, only this time Scarecrows lose even more brains and the Yellow Brick Road is made of horseshit. Such fantastical stories are now, to the extent that it can be said to have anything so rigid, the backbone of British politics. The parties and their supporters seemed locked in curious reveries of historical revival, either 19th-century nationalism, or the protective huddle of the post-war settlement; presumably these latter are people for whom the 1950s were a glamorous time. It seems to me sometimes that there is no period of British history sufficently dreary to not at some point give birth to a nostalgia industry.
Nonetheless there are still some of us living on this island who care deeply about Brexit. There are people for whom a Britain outside the EU presents a fundamental challenge to their identity. Of course, Brexit fans, ever reliable in their delivery of their three or four arguments, will say that Europe and the EU are two different things. This is true. But to my particular tribe, the EU is first of all a tool to allow us to easily live our lives as Europeans; to travel, study, and work, across Europe’s countries, to deepen our understanding of the continent.
When I say my tribe, which one do I mean? My tribe is perhaps defined as being that of the people who are not particularly keen on the idea of tribes. Who cross between cultures, who exchange, who are proud citizens of the world. We are, by dint of the complexity of such identities, small in number, but we do nonetheless have the right to represent ourselves and be represented. We have a shared knowledge of Europe which binds us and breeds our closeness, and to us, this British election and its language seems more foreign than living abroad. We have more in common with Emmanuel Macron than Theresa May. We find the language of being ‘pro-Europe’ very strange, because Europe is just the place we live in, with all its drawbacks and positives. How can you be ‘pro’ or ‘con’ a geographical region?
I admit freely that my tribe’s cosmopolitan identity is an elitist one. I myself was only able to move to Germany as a young man thanks to subsidies from my parents for language courses and rent. Clearly, not enough people in this country enjoyed similar opportunities, or they would never have voted to squander ones so precious. If the EU is an attempt to create transnational solidarity between European citizens, it has not, for most people in the UK, worked. But still – our elitist identity is still an identity, and an identity is how you make sense of the world. And what I am asking myself at this election is, as no one else is going to, What is the future of this, my tribe, in the UK?
In the recent Dutch election there was a party called ‘Denk’, formed to represent immigrants and their rights by immigrants themselves. If ‘Denk’ were running in the UK it would have my vote in a flash, not just because any party which translates as ‘Think’ would be a welcome addition to the British political scene. At a basic level, I want my country to start being kinder to immigrants, to stop demonizing them, to become more welcoming again. Even more than being in or out of the EU, I realize, I want to live in a country which welcomes foreigners, and certainly not one that seems to believe it has nothing to learn from them. I want to live somewhere open to the world.
On offer is the contrary. The immigration crackdown the Tories propose is predictably draconian but nowhere more so than in its proposal to raise income thresholds for marriage spousal visas for non-EU citizens from their current, ridiculous level of 18.6 thousand a year, a sum that is to be earned solely by the party who is a British national. The idea that only by earning more than a particular amount am I allowed to marry the person I want is both absurd and cruel. The undermining of the right to marriage alone deserves to lose the Tories the election; conversely, Labour, which proposes to abolish the thresholds, deserves to win on that basis. Such harsh immigration laws are a calculated insult to my tribe: ‘How dare you fuck foreign!’, they say. They make many of my us, I am sure, desperate to take our business elsewhere; our taxes, our children, and our expertise.
Meanwhile, the absurd election continues. Some promise vast sums of public money the coming economic contraction will render impossible; others boast of a crackdown on the workers that the new country will desperately need to even just stay afloat. Hard facts are scant, and as for serious thinking; well, let’s just say that there’s never been a better time in England to be an utter bonehead. Hard, seeing this, not to feel profoundly alienated, and to feel little love for a country threatening to become both the only country in Europe my tribe would never want to live in, and the only place we will be allowed to. If we do indeed leave our country, as the online Brexit army frequently request of us, it’s hard not to see British life in our absence becoming even more insular and adrift, more snug in its monolingualism, hostility and ignorance. Many of us feel this to be precisely the reason we should stay. But that means accepting that the country we want to live in, Britain in the EU, is not going to exist anymore.
Europe goes on. Recently I was in Brussels when I saw a shop selling EU memorabilia. I went inside and bought a small EU bracelet, and a flag. I was thinking that as I ordered the flag, using the French which I taught myself and practiced by working across the continent this gesture was, for a middle-class bloke from Nottingham, an act of resistance of sorts. Of course, what it in fact was identity politics, albeit the identity politics of an elite. It was an elite that a great many people and not quite enough of them had been offered the chance to enter. In Britain our elite identity, in its complexity, has been rejected. But once you had joined this elite, there was no going back. It was who you were.
Photo by Dave Kellman on a Creative Commons License 2.0.