Nation of shopkeepers that we are, neither side of the referendum debate considered the immaterial losses that would be wrought on the next generation by Brexit.
My Dad, post-war Atlanticist and Empire nostalgic as he was, to my constant irritation, would talk about Europe as if it were a continent beyond the Channel to which he didn’t belong. “We’re part of Europe,” I’d tell him and he’d mumble, “Yes, yes.” But I always knew he was unconvinced. It wasn’t until last Friday that I understood how deeply entrenched this view of world geography still is in the UK. Waking that morning, I discovered that my father’s ethos, its nostalgia for the past, its discomfort with the present and its dread of the future, had won the day.
Even when, out of his five daughters, three were living in France and one in Spain, my Dad never accepted the idea that the UK might actually belong in Europe. He grew to admire from a bemused distance the miracle of his seven bilingual grandchildren, their mobility and their adaptability as they moved through European cities, studying and working as easily in French, English or Spanish, but he never embraced his country’s place in the EU, which irritated and bewildered him to the last.
I should have realised that the bitchy, lowbrow campaigns unfolding in the run-up to the EU referendum were already a sign that the conversation had been hijacked by those, on both sides of the argument, who did not really see Britannia as part of Europe, but clung to the delusion that she was superior to it. With hindsight, of course, we all now realise that both the Leave and Remain campaigns were too busy lying to each other – about immigration, the NHS, the cost to the economy of staying or going – to think of arguing for the value to future generations of belonging to, by which I mean being proud citizens of, not just a marketplace of 500 million customers but an extraordinarily rich continent.
My own children and their cousins understand the value of their pan-European heritage, so they’re bereft: “I’m so sad, Mum,” my daughter Ella texted on the day of the result. “I feel part of me has been rejected by this vote, so a part of me wants to cut myself off from my Englishness.” Her 24 year-old cousin, Bee – also raised in France by an English mother and French father – was “aghast.” She’d always seen xenophobia as a French malady, from which the UK, with its natural openness to globalization, had recovered. (It’s now clear, from the upsurge in racist attacks across the country that the referendum has also served to unleash Britain’s darkest forces.) This niece was in Brussels during the bombings and is, like my own children since the Paris attacks, more than ever bound to her European identity. Since Brexit she feels “no sense of kinship with a country that can abandon Europe.”
Stanley, my English, London-raised nephew, who grew up wanting the cultural fluidity that his cousins had, ended up reading French, Spanish and Arabic at Southhampton University. He has just graduated speaking all three languages fluently and was considering his options. “I feel dismay, depression, anger, disappointment,” he told me. “This has made me want to leave England even more.”
Jamie, a 30 year-old English friend from Somerset, who’d just found a job working in an art foundation in Arles, said he feels “ashamed” by this vote. “I love the EU and have been extremely proud to be a part of it.” He blames Boris Johnson above all, recalling the author, Charles Bukowski’s words: ‘the world is full of intelligent people who are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.’
It’s one thing to deplore the selfishness of the affluent elderly, many of whom voted to leave the EU out of fear of modernity or nostalgia, or to regret the arrogance and moral vacuity of those sophistical, Spectator-reading right-libertarians who voted Leave to be contrary, but it’s impossible not to the sympathise with the poor and disenfranchised who voted out of rage or despair and who, like their counterparts in France (many of whom vote for Marine Le Pen) not only don’t feel represented by their mainstream politicians but are utterly disgusted by them.
The English thrive on adversity and I’ve no doubt we’ll come through somehow, but it’s a tragedy to me in a world where so much of humanity’s cultural heritage is being wiped out by ISIS, that neither Cameron, nor Corbyn ever saw fit to give voice to the potential cultural, emotional and psychological costs to the next generation of Britons, and to the world as a whole, of the UK turning its back on its European neighbours. Or indeed to point out what the educated young already know: that in this digital age, this renewed fixation with national borders is a retrogressive fantasy.