Recently I had a conversation about the EU referendum vote with the bloke (born English) and a mutual friend (born Scottish).
I was explaining why the vote had affected me so profoundly, not just because of the inflammatory rhetoric poisoning the conversation on migration, but because it was deeply depressing to wake up on a fateful Friday morning in June and discover that one of the things I had found most attractive about taking UK citizenship was about to be removed. Becoming British, I said, had meant becoming European.
“I don’t feel European,” said the bloke.
“No, I don’t either,” said our mutual friend.
It shocked me into silence to hear that British people, especially someone so close to me, held such different ideas about what UK citizenship meant. Neither of them had voted to leave the EU, mind you, and in the paragraphs below I don’t address that. I can understand voting to leave when you don’t feel European but I don’t entirely understand voting to remain when you don’t feel European.
When I moved here in 2004, I had a fairly idealistic vision of modern Britain. The government seemed to have reasonable provision for the least well off in society. The NHS is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. The British people I met seemed to be keen to shake off insularity and post-imperial malaise, to welcome the opportunities offered by open access to Europe for travel and for work. There were many cross-border romances and relationships. People seemed to celebrate the multitude of cultures that had contributed to form present-day British identity. I don’t think I was, or am, a slavish Anglophile, but I did see a country and a people who were forward-thinking and progressive, who genuinely valued the potential in people regardless of skin colour, who were providing opportunities (e.g. work visas under the original Highly Skilled Migrant/Tier 1 schemes) to people regardless of their countries of origin. As long as you were willing to accept tea when it was offered (never refuse the tea even if you don’t want it), be suitably self-deprecating, respect the rules of engagement on public transport, go to the pub after work, and remember that intense meaningful drunken conversations are never to be spoken of again in the cold light of day, you were in there.
By the time I was able to apply for British citizenship, I was definitely no longer wearing rose-tinted spectacles. Immigration rules were constantly becoming more stringent for both non-EU/EEA and EU migrants and the toxicity of the conversation about non-British workers and refugees was increasing. Multiculturalism had become a dirty word. I knew that at the start of my time here, I was mostly seeing London and extrapolating it to the rest of Britain. I still believed, though, with my incorrigible American optimism, that the qualities and attitudes I admired held sway. Receiving my British-EU passport was one of the happiest moments of my life. For me, it represented becoming an official part of the broader, more inclusive, open and tolerant society that the EU (with Britain as part of it) aimed toward achieving.
Brexit inflamed such passion because it was not just a practical vote, it was an ideological one. Membership of the European Union held such positive connotations for me because I believed that being British implicitly meant being European. That belief turned out to be anathema to many who see that membership as a forced conflation of British and European identities. I’m still very unsettled by that.