I slept well last night, surprisingly enough. In 2008 I struggled to sleep, wondering what was happening across the pond and whether I’d wake up in a world where the most powerful person on the planet was a man who approved of the death penalty but not contraception, opposes abortion but supports embryonic stem cell research, doesn’t believe my marriage will be valid before God, and thinks autism is caused by vaccines. A world of inconsistency, illogical reasoning, ignorance to facts and the imposition of beliefs on others. Thankfully, the morning brought a different result. My sleepless night had been for naught.
Last year I went to sleep on the night of the UK general election cautiously optimistic that I would wake to negotiations between the left-leaning parties with a view to forming a coalition government. I actually woke up to discover almost the opposite. A frighteningly high number of people had voted for a party with openly racist policies. A majority of this country had voted for a party which not only admits to but prides itself on prioritising economic value above all else, including the inherent value of human life. It would be irrational (and we know how I feel about irrationality!) to suggest that the result might have been different had I kept an anxious vigil. At least I was well-rested when I had to face the horrible truth.
Over the last year the consequences of that decision by this country, my country, Britain, a country and a people with whom I have had a very complicated relationship most of my life, have become starkly clear. I was still working in the NHS when the 2015 election results were published, and the mood in the hospital was grim. We could all see the writing on the wall: funding cuts, not just to the NHS but to the social care institutions that kept people out of hospital, benefit cuts to the already-struggling families trying to overcome generations of class discrimination and income inequality, an indefinite period in which we would be “all in this together” in much the same way that all animals are equal on Manor Farm. I was in shock. I really had thought that we had started to wake up to the fact that you can’t make decisions about people’s lives based on purely economic measures. I was wrong.
Yesterday I went to sleep believing that despite the fear-mongering, the inaccurate “facts”, the enthusiastic dividing of camps and the alarming rhetoric, the knowledge that we have more in common would win out. I thought about how much of the food in supermarkets comes from Spain, France and Portugal, and how EU export laws have made lower food prices possible. I’m in favour of buying locally, and personally I try to avoid produce that’s crossed oceans to reach my basket, but not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford that choice. Without the EU, food is going to cost more.
I fell asleep after an evening during which I read over the introductory chapter of my friend’s book, about feminism in Germany since the 1970s. She’s German, but she’s lived in this country for years and worked not only in academia but also in activism, striving for peace, unity and a fairer system which treats everyone with respect. She is just one of dozens of Europeans I know who live in the UK, work here, pay income tax and VAT and council tax and contribute to the British economy just as much as if they had been born here. They didn’t get to vote yesterday, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the vote they were excluded from was crucial to the structure of the lives. Britain leaves the EU and they may have to leave Britain.
You know the punchline already: I woke up and the fear had won. That vile serpent Niggle Farridge is all over the news, brandishing his passport and crowing about independence. I wonder what his German wife feels about that? The £350,000,000 that supposedly was being sucked into Brussels out of the desperate fingers of the NHS has evaporated into the puff of hot air it always was and I want to run into the street screaming “WE TOLD YOU IT WAS A LIE!” but I can’t bring myself to get dressed and face the day. Maybe if I stay inside, in my bedroom, with my blissfully-unaware cat purring happily on my lap, I can avoid having to fully accept what has happened.
I hate change. I hate uncertainty. Even if I strongly believed that remaining in the EU was a bad idea, I would have found a Leave vote difficult to deal with. The fear and anxiety is magnified a thousand-fold by the fact that the uncertain changes that we are facing are a consequence of thousands, millions, of people making a choice based on inaccurate figures, simplistic divisions and xenophobic prophesying. Not everyone who wants to leave the EU is motivated by racism, but a frighteningly high number of them are. There’s no way to parse “Britain first” that doesn’t imply that everyone else, all those Others, come last. The UK must “take care of its own”, an alarming concept for anyone who identifies with any group that hasn’t always been embraced as part of the family: people with mental health problems, people with disabilities, people of colour, queer people, poor people… anyone, in short, who is too different from those glorious patterns of Britishness, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and our dear friend Niggle. A Turkish-Swiss American, an adopted Scot who turned his back on the Labour party, and single-issue rich boy with a German wife, German ancestry and a spectacular ability to spin reality into a tissue of deceit.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what is going to happen and I don’t know how we can cope. Things are going to get worse, and I don’t know if they can get better. How have we reached this point, where people genuinely believe that arbitrary lines on a map have more bearing on people’s worth than anything else?
I’ve never been proud to be English. For a start, that would be a betrayal of my Scottish heritage which has shaped my identity a dozen ways. I think “English” and I see drunk football thugs throwing bottles, skinheads hurling abuse and talking about racial purity, red-coated aristocrats galloping across fields to slaughter animals for sport. But I did used to be proud to be British. I grew up in the north of England, where immigration is a decades-old tradition which has enriched the culture, boosted the economy and broadened the minds of generations. My best friends, the three women who were designated my bridesmaids long before I knew the name of the bride, are all the children of immigrants. I speak three European languages, understand a smattering of three more, have lived in and visited a dozen countries and can’t think of a single area of my life which hasn’t been improved by people making use of the freedom of movement. Now that is in jeopardy.
This is a rambling post and I don’t really know how to end it, because this is only the start. No one knows what is going to happen next, but I predict it won’t be a sudden upswing in the welfare and prospects of the British people. Whoever they are. It won’t be a better-funded NHS, lower unemployment, cheaper food, fewer terrorist threats. I’m scared.