“This is a letter of hate. It is for you, my countrymen. I mean those men of my country who have defiled it. The men with manic fingers leading the sightless, feeble, betrayed body of my country to its death… Damn you, England. You’re rotting now.” – John Osborne, A Letter to my Fellow Countrymen.
On the evening of June 23rd, I went to bed with a sense of unease, but nonetheless assuming that the following morning would see things continue much as they had before. When the morning of the 24th arrived, it became clear that this was not to be and that I had awoken into a strange place I no longer recognised. I got up and took the train into Central London. The city was eerily quiet with a third of the seats on the Tube at rush hour empty. In the time taken to get from Paddington to Liverpool Street the Prime Minister had resigned and the currency markets have collapsed. Much of the rest of the day felt like sleepwalking. A sense of nausea overwhelmed me and I noticed that my hands were shaking. All meetings were cancelled and most of the day was spent looking disbelievingly at TV screens showing events that seemed far away but were anything but.
There’s a common joke in Central Europe that someone can live in scores of different countries in their lifetime without once having to move house. I find myself thinking of what it would have been like in East Berlin as a system that had been hollow and decrepit for years finally crumbled. By contrast, England is used to watching countries fall apart from afar, even as its own fabric has progressively frayed over the years. A long process that had seen duopolistic rule by two parties eroded, the smashing of liberalism and the rise of nationalism, had finally come to a denouement in a political campaign marked by lies, threats, conspiracy theories and murder. The sensation of ceasing to be a spectator of chaos and becoming an unwilling participant, as the United Kingdom severs itself from Europe and begins the inevitable process of its own disintegration, still feels unreal.
Nonetheless, events begin spiralling out of control quickly; both government and opposition dissolve at the same point that abuse and attacks against minorities and foreign nationals spike. The far right clearly believe themselves to be emboldened and validated; something malevolent has been unleashed that will not be easy to diminish. Petitions are signed, recriminations begin. Theories as to how things fell this way are evinced according to personal prejudice; none of them are especially convincing. As it becomes clear that the winning campaign had no plan for what would follow their victory, the revolution quickly devours its own would-be Marats and Robespierres. The vestiges of the Liberal party commit to reversing the referendum decision; several friends who have previously always voted for other parties switch to join them. I find myself wondering instead whether there is anything left to fight for as my feelings veer between a sense of numbness and grief for the loss of my country. It’s difficult not to also feel a sense of shame and guilt at some sort of implicit culpability for its actions. Any inclination to waste further time on elections to Westminster’s tin-pot Parliament is the last thing I feel. As the Conservative Party begins the process of electing a new leader, who unlike the previous one seems unlikely to have any truck with liberal Britain, a sense of helplessness descends. Events are looked on from afar as a spectator, in much the same way as Kremlinologists once did.
I begin thinking about what my country had actually meant. I grew up in the West Midlands, a part of the country where 58% of the electorate voted to leave the European Union. By contrast, I was educated in Oxford (Remain: 70%) and have since lived in Berkshire (Remain: 55%) and worked in London (Remain: 75%). During the course of the campaign I saw numerous people and posters campaigning for Remain and almost nothing from their opponents. Over time I’ve studied and worked with large numbers of people from different countries, both from within and without of Europe. It becomes easy to see your place in the world as essentially transnational, divorced of connection to the rest of the country. During the course of the 24th it became obvious that many people had begun questioning that; a UK national with a Spanish wife begins applying for a Spanish passport, a Korean stops the process of applying for UK citizenship while a UK national applies to renew her lapsed Polish passport.
My own mental map of my place in the world, as someone ultimately descended from German immigrants, begins to unravel. Concepts like freedom and democracy that had underpinned any sense of national identity seem deformed and corrupted by their appropriation in the campaign. My identity as a European has been taken from me and it seems likely that the ability to call myself British will also be removed. What remains is a rump sense of Englishness that now stands for little more than isolation, xenophobia and nostalgia. This is something I can only repudiate. Although my love of England has diminished over the years, there’s still much I care for about it. But that only makes it harder for me to even countenance forgiving it.