If you ran the marketing department of a progressive organisation, which wanted to advertise its inclusiveness, how would you do it? My guess is that you would run down the checklist of identity politics and first make sure your advertising had a perfect gender balance. Showing men and women equally would not be enough, however. There would need to be racial balance: black and brown faces among the white. You would want to tick confessional boxes and feature a Muslim and a Sikh. Perhaps you would want to show a transgender man or woman, just to be on the safe side.
At the end of it all, you would sit back and think, ‘there I have covered every base, no one can object now’. The advert is aired and you are a hit by a complaint you never expected. ‘Where is the European minority?’
Until the Brexit referendum, there was no such thing. There were fellow EU citizens from the continent, who lived in Britain, just as there were Britons who lived in the rest of the EU. They were not separate from the rest of British society. The stereotype of the Romanian fruit picker, who comes for the summer and returns home when the harvest is in, hides more than it reveals. Countless EU citizens have made Britain their home. They have lived, worked and loved here. They never saw their status as a problem until Brexit. Nor did anyone else apart from a few thugs who look for any excuse to racially abuse a target. They knew who they were. And now their certainties have gone.
By this I don’t mean that the British government and the EU are still arguing about their legal status – important though the argument is. Rather that their secure sense of identity has gone. As has the equally confident mentality of Britons living in Europe, who must have noticed by now that there is no great anxiety about their future among pro-leave politicians, newspapers or voters. Little Englandism, it transpires, has as little concern for the English beyond England’s shores as it does for the future of Ireland or Gibraltar.
In an essay for the These Islands think tank, the French football commentator and musician Philippe Auclair looks at how he and so many others have come to feel like aliens in a land they took to be their home. I say Auclair is ‘French’ and he is. But you get an idea of the scale of the challenge Brexit has raised when you learn that he has lived in Britain for decades, and has a British wife and child. He writes in English better than half the journalists on the national press, quotes Larkin, and signed up to a lifetime of pain by electing to support the England cricket team.
In 2018, he is having conversations that would once have been unimaginable. ‘A British friend recently told me over dinner at our home “he hoped my British wife and I would be able to stay”, without being aware of how shocking his words were to us.’
What is he now? How does he fit into the silos Britain crams its population in to? There’s no ‘EU migrant’ box on bureaucrats’ form for him to tick. Apart from the odd Polish plumber, there is barely a British-European character on television or the stage. Indeed, if you took your view of Britain from the arts and television drama, you would conclude that there had been no migration from Europe in the last 40 years. On the streets, EU migrants don’t stand out as they are indistinguishable from the rest of the population.
Even our statistics conceal more than they reveal. We speak of 3 million EU migrants, and forget about their British partners and children. The 3 million figure is itself an estimate. In Hammersmith & Fulham, where Auclair lives, 21.5 percent of residents are registered as EU nationals with the local authority. That apparently precise figure takes no account of bi-nationals such as Auclair’s daughter.
You begin to sense the scale of the problem. If you add in families, you are talking about 4 or 5 million people in a country of 65 million, who feel as if their roots have been wrenched from the ground. Maybe more. I would go further. There was no great pro-European feeling in Britain before the referendum. Very few remainers believed in the utopian project of a United States of Europe. If we thought about the matter at all, we thought Britain already had a ‘bespoke’ deal with our opt-outs and rebates. The extremism of the pro-Brexit camp, its decision to turn EU withdrawal into a culture war, has created a pro-European sentiment where none existed before. Many millions of native-born British citizens have had their belief that Britain was a sensible, empirical nation, which did not engage in wanton acts of self-harm, shaken. They too are losing their bearings. Their sense of who they are and their previously secure national identity are wavering. Auclair notices the same process among what I suppose we will soon start calling ‘British Europeans’ (however absurd the label is). Brexit has made them care more deeply about the EU than they did before.
I feel like ending on a chirpy note, and saying that at some point after 2019 the country must come together. But then I remember that Theresa May’s government is the first since Margaret Thatcher’s to reject even the rhetoric of a one-nation Britain. It has gone along with the language of ‘enemies of the people,’ ‘citizens of nowhere’ and ‘saboteurs’; it has offered no compromise to the 48 per cent of the population who voted ‘Remain,’ and nor when you get into the detail has the Labour opposition. Maybe Mrs May wants a compromise but the right of the Tory party won’t let her make it. Who knows? Who even cares, when the fact remains that Britain is a neurotic and divided country, and those divisions are hardening by the day.
This article first appeared on 12 February 2018 on blogs.spectator.co.uk