Here’s what the Brexit vote means to me: 52% of the people I share a nationality with think there should be fewer people like me in Britain’s future. And before you object, or make excuses, let me point out that if Britain clamps down on immigration, there will be fewer people like me.
I was born in England. In Hammersmith, to be precise. It’s where my dad was born. And his mum. And her mum before her.
I was born in England, but I am not English. I have roots in London, but that is not the same thing. My dad’s family – his great-grandparents – arrived here as Jewish refugees in the 1880s, ending up as East enders on one side and West enders on the other. My heritage spans the breadth of the city in which the family whose name I bear has lived for a century before I was born. Like I said, I have roots in London.
And yet, in spite of my birthplace, in spite of that heritage, I didn’t grow up feeling British. I grew up feeling foreign. The reason for that is my mother is an immigrant. Worse, she’s a brown immigrant.
Let me give you a flavour of how that feels, because if you tick White British on your census form, you probably don’t know.
When I was little, I lived across the road from a park. It was great park, with pretty flower gardens, a bandstand and a large playground that I could see from my window. All we had to do was cross the road. Except, we didn’t do that, because my mother was scared. Scared because on a regular basis some ignorant xenophobe would call her a ‘Paki’ even though, dear reader, my mother is from the West Indies. It wasn’t that we lived in a rough area: we didn’t. It was quite nice actually. And to be honest the tone of the area doesn’t matter because, when we visited my grandparents in their adjoining and distinctly affluent North London suburb and I went to the park with my aunts, those taunts would come again “Go home, you Paki!” It wasn’t easy to feel welcome.
I was born in 1980. The start of a decade when people from backgrounds like mine were still being treated aggressively for standing out. There were parts of London I only heard of as a child because Afro-Caribbean people were aggressed and killed there. My family were terrified of those places and still, in diverse and gentrified 21st Century London, there are tube stations where I alight with a sudden involuntary stab of vulnerability.
To give you a bit of context, I look white. Ironically, people are always telling me what a lovely, English Rose complexion I have. In the bad old days, people used to tell me that, you know, I could pass for just white and should roll with that. It seems unbelievable, but that used to be an acceptable thing to say.
Is it a surprise, then, that I didn’t feel British for many years? That I grew up in a limbo, feeling the country I was born in somehow excluded me?
Before my mid-teens, London was my place of origin. I could be from London because I could observe people like me there. I knew I couldn’t be English, and I wasn’t sure I could be British either.
I’ve always felt European, though. Because while I wasn’t sure whether the land of cricket and cream teas included or tolerated people like me, being born in Europe conferred upon me the same rights and freedoms as everyone else.
In the 1990s, things got better. Britain became a more diverse and welcoming place. By the time I was 16, British was something I felt I could be. I was glad to be born in and part of a country that welcomed people from all over to join them. It’s one of the few nice things Tony Blair ever did for me, the opportunity to feel comfortable with that identity.
It feels like the end of something
Today, I feel excluded again. Because that 52% – the people we shouldn’t call ignorant or xenophobic or stupid or short-sighted because their views are as valid as ours even if they send all the country’s assets tumbling – doesn’t think people like me have a place in its future.
Well, the thing is, 52%, if you don’t want us in your future, then you can’t expect us to stick with you in the uncertain present. To bring our skills, education and knowledge to bear in support of your economy. To contribute our taxes to your coffers. If you voted Leave, are you aware of how many young people of working age in this country are like me and may not feel they want to be here anymore?
There are other kinds of otherness. Like the fact that for a lot of older people in this country, people who were alive in the 60s and 70s and remember pre-EU Britain, Europe is still just a collection of neighbouring states. It reveals a lack of empathy that they are unable to realise that for most of us born after 1975, Europe is a part of our identity. Whether we call ourselves British, English, Scottish, Welsh, we have always been Europeans too. You’re robbing us of our identity, you pricks!
Poor life choices are poor life choices
For the moment, I am going to exclude protest voters, who, I hope, are educating themselves on the difference between how a FPTP General Election works and how a UK Referendum works so that they never do something like that ever again.
If you’ve voted Leave, the likelihood is that you‘ve swallowed a pack of lies, manipulations and misinformation. I have heard lots of well-reasoned, well thought-out, fact based arguments to Remain (I have heard some porkies too). For the most part, what I have heard from anyone who voted Leave has been inaccurate, preposterous or incredible. I’ve heard the occasional valid reason, too, but they were so niche that I don’t think we should kid ourselves that those are the reasons 52% of those who went to the polls voted the way they did.
Admittedly, here in London it’s quite hard to locate a Leave voter, but here are some of the reasons I’ve come across:
- I’ve heard a woman I consider fairly well-educated and well-informed tell me that our poor little island can’t cope with more immigrants even though there is no evidence to support claims that the UK is overpopulated and the housing crisis is to do with government policy and development greed not a lack of physical space. Not to mention the fact that the numbers of immigrants aren’t enough to cause that problem.
- I’ve had a friend tell me about a colleague who voted Leave because they wanted it to be a close result.
- I’ve had a friend with three degrees tell me that he thinks we should leave because free movement of people in the EU is unfair, that it makes EU migrants feel they don’t have to “make an effort” and that EU migrants are mainly unskilled and don’t bother to learn English.
- I’ve heard a man tell me he is voting Leave because he is angry about events in another country’s relations with the EU. What the actual fuck?
- I’ve heard another woman tell me that she thinks things would be better for her son – whose main problem is being a stoner – if there weren’t immigrants taking all the jobs in the area where he lives – which has few immigrants. And probably few employers who want to hire someone who gets off their face every day.
- I’ve read someone from Plaid Cymru claiming that the Leave vote is about sticking it to the elite. Yet it only takes a few minutes thought to realise that the elite are unaffected by this. The elite have enough money to diversify their investments instead of putting it all in the UK basket. They have prospects and can move elsewhere if the UK goes tits up. If they decide to stay, they can afford private healthcare when the NHS goes tits up. If you voted Leave for this reason, you have ‘stuck it’ not to the elite, but to yourself. You’ve shot yourself in the bollocks, that’s what you’ve done.
Do you think these are valid concerns? Because they read like bullshit to me.
It’s OK to tell people they were wrong
24 hours after the fact, I found myself surrounded by people telling me that Leave voters aren’t racist or xenophobic and it’s wrong of me to refer to them in that way.
No, it isn’t. Racist and xenophobic aren’t slurs – they are ways of thinking and there is a strong correlation between those ways of thinking and the Leave vote:
- Immigration is the main battlefield on which this referendum campaign was fought. Anti-immigration sentiment has been a primary motivation factor for Leave voters from all social classes and educational backgrounds. Just look at the comments section of any UK paper.
- Within hours of the result being called, people around the country were being subjected to racist and xenophobic abuse which was not a part of their lives 24 hours before
- A Leave vote makes the position of every foreigner here uncertain, whether because of their status as an EU citizen or their status as a foreign national who may now be mistreated
- Any vote sends a message. Whether you want it that way or not, a Leave vote sends a message to EU citizens that they are not wanted here. It also sends a message to all the bigots in this country that allows them to believe they are in the majority and to feel safe abusing foreigners in the streets and online
It might shatter the cosy world view held dear by some, but xenophobia is a significant reason why people voted leave, no matter how prettily they worded their concerns about immigration. Thinking foreigners are a drain, a negative influence, and that they should be shut out? That, my darlings, is xenophobia.
Why don’t people feel comfortable calling it out? It isn’t abusive or disrespectful to tell people they made the wrong decision when the result has been to send the country into financial disarray and to make huge swathes of the population feel they no longer belong.
I read recently the suggestion that Leave voters might be less likely to be open about their decision. To me, that says that deep down they know it is a poor one.
We need to stop making excuses for people when they get it wrong
The other thing I keep hearing is that it isn’t the Leave voters’ fault. That they were too tired/impoverished/ill-educated to look into the facts. That they didn’t understand how the voting system works. That they are just scared, and we shouldn’t judge people for their fears.
Hypocrites! You’re judging Donald Trump supporters for their fears. So you need to grow a spine and judge these people too. There was no excuse for not knowing how a referendum works – we had one just a few years ago. The media and Leave campaign bear some of the responsibility, but we cannot absolve the adults who made this decision.
For one thing, 52% of voters is too much for the ignorance argument to hold weight. The compassionate lefty middle classes are saying that because, yes, it’s devastating to think that people decided to vote irresponsibly based on emotion and hearsay when they could have obtained the facts.
But they did vote irresponsibly, and without doing proper research or even thinking logically about whether what they were being fed made sense.
As for those people who are too downtrodden to see straight, they are being given far less credit than they deserve. Let’s not lay this disaster at their feet. In most cases they probably did what 30% of the population did and didn’t vote.
As for me – I am a Londoner.
I am a European.
You can’t erase my identity, I will fight you tooth and nail to keep it.
This post previously had an addendum. It upset some people. I generally try to be nice and considerate, so I have moved it.