Sunset over the British Empire

Last week, I discovered a sense of patriotism.

I have never had a strong sense of nationalistic identity. I’m not emotionally invested in the outcomes of sports games, the only flag I own is from the USSR, and I don’t fully understand why people tear up at national anthems. The strongest inkling of national pride I have ever felt was when I watched that episode of Doctor Who with Winston Churchill. (In hindsight, that may have been extremely patriotic of me. It could only really be more quintessentially British if everyone were drinking tea and moaning about the weather.)

I was born in England. My first memories are of the UK. We moved to the Netherlands after my little sister was born; I spoke Dutch at school, and English at home. A few years later, we moved to Canada. In a misguided attempt to fit in, I developed a mental chart of English-to-English “translations” and picked up an accent that more closely resembled that of the American south than Canada. Some years later, I watched my dad’s citizenship ceremony and thought the whole thing was a bit strange.

I remember, at nine years old, being incredibly uncomfortable when teachers forced me to sing the national anthem. There’s a line about “our home and native land” that always bothered me. Canada wasn’t my “native” land, and it frustrated to me to identify with something that negated a part of my identity and experience. I didn’t understand why living within an arbitrarily drawn border meant I was suddenly something different.

I was a pretty weird kid.

This probably contributed more to my feelings of outsiderishness than my mangled accent or my ever-so-slightly different cultural background. I was awkward and read too much and was always being pulled out of class for special enrichment classes—all of which would generally be more than enough to make me an easy target for taunts. I think I would have felt like an outsider regardless.

But I also remember being made fun of for having a funny accent and for being English. Refrains of “tea and crumpets!” or a rendition of “Pinky and the Brain” were the most common selections. It wasn’t terribly insulting, but it was successful in making me feel like I didn’t fit in, which may have been the point. I’ve never really felt Canada was my home in the same way that Britain was—even though I’ve spent more of my life in Canada.

Last week, my country collectively voted to leave the European Union. I was in Vienna for WordCamp Europe and had indulged in one or extra two ciders the evening prior, nervously anticipating the referendum result. I woke up at 7am to a hangover that scored somewhere between “substantial” and “incapacitating”, and immediately Googled “referendum”. My heart sank. My home was ripping apart.

Most of the resulting chaos wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t even 6am in the UK yet, but the pound had already hit a thirty-year low and the prime minister had resigned. In the following days, I checked the news compulsively, as things unravelled. The markets tanked. The Labour party more or less dissolved. Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, and Scotland started eyeing up prospects for leaving the UK, or at least remaining a part of the EU. Protests were occurring everywhere, from both sides of the argument. Scores of Leave voters immediately regretted their decision, calling it a “protest vote” or maintaining they didn’t know what they were doing. And worst of all, racist and xenophobic harassment and abuse in the UK spiked dramatically.

As a country composed of other countries and various post-imperialistic remnant states, the United Kingdom is a complicated concept to grasp, both politically and culturally. And while I’m pretty supportive of Scottish independence right now, the thought of the UK tearing apart breaks my heart.

That’s an awfully emotional feeling about a political entity.

But the trouble is that people vote emotionally, particularly in a referendum. People voted Leave primarily out of a conviction that the EU was holding Britain back, or out of a fear of “people who don’t look like me.” A shocking number of people voted for an outcome they neither expected nor wanted.

While I’d be happy if a Scottish independence referendum were called tomorrow, that’s largely based on emotional, rather than rational, reasons. I’m not certain enough about Scotland’s economy—or about how negotiations between a post-Brexit UK and the EU, or between Scotland and the EU will shake out—to say that it’s in Scotland’s best interests to gain independence. But I feel betrayed by England, and I feel like Nicola Sturgeon has been the sanest voice in this whole mess, and I literally just bought a flat in Edinburgh three days before we collectively voted to tank the economy.

I don’t think I’m qualified to make the decision regarding Scottish independence, and I’m certain that the vast majority of voters aren’t, either. Isn’t this what we elect politicians to do—understand the nuances of economies and political relations, and negotiate those relationships in our best interests? Of course they often mess this up, but the people aren’t doing a better job, are they?

As it turns out, nobody bothered to think about this, or ask these questions, until we’d actually made a decision. The sheer irresponsibility there is unquestionable. The prime minister who called the election, the morons who campaigned to Leave and made empty promises without any backing, and the treasurer in charge of ensuring our economy doesn’t tank, have all pointed fingers at one another in the days following the vote, each maintaining that it wasn’t their responsibility to think up a plan for what “Brexit” would actually mean. Incorrect. They were all responsible for figuring out a plan. We needed as many plans as possible, and the people that we elect to take care of these things for us should have at least given it a passing thought before just handing an uninformed populace the ability to vote for their own uncertain future.

But the voters also should have asked these questions. Not by Googling “what is the EU” after the polls closed. Not by voting for a massive political turnover without bothering to ask what that would actually mean and entail, in a desperate attempt to express dissatisfaction with the established powers.

Michael Gove said “Britain is tired of experts” in response to the dizzying array of third-party analysts who warned that a Brexit would invariably lead to a recession, and it turns out he was right. The people are wilfully ignoring both their elected leaders, who begged them not to choose the nuclear option, and the experts who warned them it would be a catastrophic choice. The response is either an embracing and turning toward hatred and xenophobia or a profound feeling of regret.

The future is pure conjecture at this stage. There are a huge number of variables, and it’s unlikely we’ll know the outcome for years to come. But one thing is almost certain: everyone loses. The economy likely will be in shambles for years. Ironically, the people most likely to have voted Leave are also the most likely to be hardest hit by the incoming recession. Remain voters lose out on the rights and freedoms afforded by the EU, like the right to bum around Europe for as long as you feel like and the right not to be totally screwed over by big corporations. It’s likely we’ll choose to stay within the EEA as an EFTA member, either via a Norway-style arrangement or a Switzerland-style arrangement, either of which means we’ll need to contribute to the EU budget, and accept the free movement of people—both of which were huge contentious issues for the Leave campaign. We’ll need to be bound to EU laws without being able to influence or shape them any more. So basically, we’ll be in the same position we were before, except we’ll have a weakened economy from an extended period of speculation and market volatility, we’ll have wasted a huge amount of time and resources trying to get everything sorted out.

I travel a lot. I have been to over fifty different countries. I can’t remember the last time I spent a month straight in the same place. The concept of a “country” doesn’t always mean a great deal. Sometimes there’s a huge cultural variation within a country, and sometimes three different countries can be more homogeneous than three different areas within the same country. I consider “country” to be shorthand for “a place with some sense of cultural identity that makes it different from another place”, but it doesn’t really mean all that much in the long run. People are more or less the same everywhere. It’s just that the wrapping is different.

In spite of that, over the last few years there’s been rising nationalistic movements all over the place, particularly within Europe. The obvious comparison feels cheap. The irony, of course, is that the EU came about more or less to prevent this kind of nonsense—to bind the constituent countries of Europe closer together, so we wouldn’t spend all our time and resources actively trying to murder one another over religious differences or border disputes. Economic recessions always prompt people to look for a scapegoat, and it’s easiest to blame the people with whom we identify the least. Because that worked out just fine for Europe the last time.

And so the UK democratically elects to leave the EU and suddenly there’s a huge rash of hate crimes, directed at everyone: from Muslims and Indians to Poles and Italians. It doesn’t even make any sense—these assaults are directed at anyone who looks slightly different or who speaks slightly differently, regardless of whether they’re EU citizens or born-and-bred in the UK. And we’ve already established (sort of) that we won’t be doing any mass deportations, right? Trading all the EU citizens who contribute taxes to our economy for the pensioners living in Spain would be a travesty on several levels. So all the taunts of “go home!” and the graffiti and the leaflets and all the terrible things people are doing—it’s all just baseless hatred, rooted in unchecked emotion and unfounded racism.

This is what breaks my heart the most.

While the prospect of the UK breaking apart and the EU dissolving is saddening, watching people violently attack one another in a place I call home is utterly and indescribably heartbreaking. The wide-ranging array of immigrants and the resulting cultural diversity within Britain is one of the things that makes it Great. It’s one of the things that makes me love it in spite of all its many faults. For fuck’s sake, we have “The British Curry Awards”. The unexpected side effect of hundreds of years of imperialism and destroying other people’s countries is that you absorb bits of pieces of those cultures. And so in Britain we have curry and halloumi and pierogies and jerk chicken and duck pancakes and gnocchi and thank heavens we do, because otherwise we’d all be eating mushy peas and boiled potatoes.

Farage declared the referendum a victory for “decent people”. While not inherently racist, this is unquestionably code for “white British people”, or whoever the fuck these lunatics think counts as “real British people”. From a national standpoint, I am British, first and foremost. But I wouldn’t for a second say that makes anyone else any less British, and I don’t dare presume that anyone is any less British than me because they look different. (Actually, generally I assume they’re more British than I am.)

National identity isn’t about where you were born, or where you live, or what colour your skin is, or even what it says on your passport. It’s a fluid concept that can change over time. It’s based on arbitrary borders that may not remain consistent throughout a lifetime. And like any other aspect of personal identity, it’s yours to choose. It’s nobody’s place to police whether or not you’re “British enough”.

Farage called this Britain’s “independence day”. Many have pointed out how incredibly offensive this is, given that most other countries in the world celebrate “independence day” as an independence from British colonialist powers. The irony there is pretty palpable.

And so there’s a little part of me that thinks maybe this is for the best. Britain has felt increasingly like a country at odds with itself, both politically and culturally, for a long time. The referendum result is a clear indication of that split, and of how the desires of one political entity can drive the choices of the entire union.

Maybe the country that I love, and loathe, and have extremely complicated feelings about but have always, always, felt like it’s my home and a part of who I am—maybe that country is dead. Maybe the United Kingdom is too broken to fix. You know how sometimes you’re in a relationship and you have this really sad realisation that it’s just not working, or you have a terrible fight and say awful things and nothing will ever be the same again? That’s how I feel about the UK right now. We broke it and we can’t fix it.

Maybe it’s better if we all went our separate ways and try to stay friends.