Keep the blue flag flying here

Brexit is done. Its implications, beyond those impacts we already understand, will now unfold before us. 

The Government and the Leave media are triumphant, and Remainers are taking to social media to rebrand themselves as ‘Rejoiners’. One side thinks the issue of Europe settled; the other thinks not. A country as divided as ever it was. 

Whatever the rights and wrongs of where we are now, there remains a deficit of understanding between the two sides, not just on issues like the economy and immigration, but more importantly at the deeper, cultural level. I’ve read a lot of analysis about why people voted Leave, but not much about why people voted Remain. 

Who are these people? Why do they cling obstinately to their pro-EU creed when the battle has been so comprehensively lost? 

Let me try and help. I’m one of them. I don’t like the term ‘Remainer’, which is peculiar to the 2016 Referendum: I’m a ‘British European’. A person who is British, who owes her or his primary loyalty to this country, but who treasures the European heritage in which the UK is embedded. 

I also prefer that term to ‘metropolitan elite’, because there wasn’t a lot of ‘metropolitan’ going on in South Devon where I grew up, and also not a lot of ‘elite’ at the (excellent) comprehensive school where I was educated. 

What is the mentality of people like me? Why do we still feel so strongly about this subject, even though the die is cast? I can only tell you my story, but I’m confident there will be echoes in the stories of many other British Europeans. 

It begins with my father. Born and raised in the industrial north, starting work at 14 in the steel industry, he also wasn’t a member of the ‘metropolitan elite’. He returned from his wartime service, including three years overseas, hoping that Europe would never again descend into war the way it had in 1914-18 (when his father, my grandfather, fought on the Western Front) and 1939-45. 

Stan Hutton, third from left back row, on deployment in India.

There was a profound urge among many of his generation to break the pattern. For him, the idea of an economically interdependent Europe, massively disincentivised to resolve disagreements through conflict, made complete sense. It shaped his politics, but also his personal sensibilities. He went out of his way to offer friendship to Europeans he chanced upon, and some of those friendships became intergenerational. 

A lot of this rubbed off onto me. Still a teenager, but intensely interested in politics, I wrote a letter to the local newspaper critiquing someone else’s anti-Common Market (as it was then) letter from the week before. I went on a school exchange to Southern Germany, still a connection 45 years on. As an undergraduate, I studied Physics with European Studies, a course specifically designed to exploit the new opportunities presented by the European project, and spent an academic year in Germany, not only learning the language and culture, but also seeing my own country from beyond the confines of its own borders. Later, I completed my PhD at the European Union’s postgraduate institute in Italy, studying alongside students from across and beyond the EU. 

Some on the Leave side might see this as ‘brainwashing’ – I’ve seen such comments on social media. It says something about where we are now that a process of opening my mind and broadening my horizons could be described in such terms. I was always, and remain, clear-eyed about the successes and failings of the European project. 

Giving Europe an unprecedented period of peace is clearly the greatest success (and no, NATO, for all its merits, didn’t achieve that alone, given its primarily outward-facing, Article 5-centred role). 

The EU’s failings? To my mind, the inclusion of the Southern European nations in the Eurozone, and the austerity that followed. Its sometimes cumbersome bureaucracy (but aren’t all bureaucracies cumbersome?). Oh, and the organisation’s inability to communicate its worth to the average European citizen. 

So no, not brainwashing. Just the opportunity to take a wider view, better to understand and co-operate with our close neighbours and, well, to enrich my life through the European experience. I’ve written in previous blogs about the importance of narrative. My own personal narrative has been fundamentally shaped by the EU. To have that severed is painful. Something has been taken away from me, and from all those who share this worldview. 

I know there are some who say we’re still European, just not part of the EU, but that doesn’t hold water. And not just because of ill-feeling caused through the Brexit process, but also because leaving has signalled very clearly that we’re not prepared to share in a collective endeavour with our nearest neighbours at a time of unprecedented challenges. It’s not a good look. 

Maybe as an island nation we will always be beset by these divisions. But I don’t think it’s simply a difference between those who look inwards and those who look outwards. My pro-EU perspective has always been driven by a sense of what’s best for my country. I’ve always been driven by patriotism – not, though, by nationalism. 

At the same time, I’m not one of those who thinks the UK should rejoin the EU at the earliest opportunity. I think we need to reinvent ourselves as a nation before we put in that future application. We need to move beyond being the introverted, nostalgic, prickly polity we’ve become, and fundamentally address the issues that have driven us apart. The struggle many ordinary people face in their day-to-day lives needs to be uppermost in that endeavour. 

Europe will in any event re-emerge organically as an issue because young people will want to re-inherit their birthright. That alone means that the issue is far from settled in the longer-term. 

Despite all the emotion, I’d like to think that I’m still open to rational, well-evidenced arguments justifying our departure from the EU. I’m open to persuasion that post-Brexit Britain will prosper economically, though none of the data currently point that way. I’m open to persuasion on any other benefits beyond the blue passport, though these haven’t yet been defined. I’m open to persuasion on how sovereignty gained compensates for power and influence lost. I’m open to persuasion that the post-Brexit approach to immigration will finally draw a line under this long-running and contentious issue. Let’s see how these benefits are articulated, and measured, in the months and years to come. 

But I cannot change the fact that a profound connection has been cut, and that it hurts. I’m not expecting Leaver sympathy, but on the other hand exhortations to ‘suck it up’ or ‘get over it’ don’t really help. 

Not least because I have my father in my mind’s eye, the man who thought we’d moved irreversibly beyond petty and destructive division when we joined what was to become the EU. Were he alive today, I have no doubt that he would be proud to call himself a British European. 

As am I. 

8 thoughts on “Keep the blue flag flying here

  1. Nigel Farage has just declared that the war is over. Typically that’s when the war crimes trials start. This issue isn’t settled; it will be with us for decades. I agree that there is no imminent possibility of an immediate re-join. However, the slow march of demographics will ensure that our more europhile youth will be in a majority of the electorate eventually. The economic devastation of COVID will mask the self-inflicted wound of BREXIT. Making the financial case for re-joining will be impossible in the short to medium term. Besides, I doubt our European cousins will want us back any time soon. My passport needs renewing in just under 10 years. With any luck I won’t need a blue one.

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  2. I empathise with all you’ve said. I just want to make three comments: (1) Second World War – I entirely understand your father’s perspective (it was my father’s also). The Brexiters are also driven by World War II in a way, though, and in particular nostalgia for the UK as a great power that can manage its affairs without assistance/interference from foreigners. In no other European country, I think, do you still have political narrative driven by this sort of nostalgia, and in no other European country is the war part of every day conversation (articles in the media, TV series, films) as it is here. Mrs.Thatcher often used WWII narratives to underpin her own politics, and that tendency has persisted (which I suppose might have something to do with the age of the more prominent Brexiters). (2) To my mind, another issue is the UK’s confrontational model of politics and the drive by central government for, well, ever greater centralisation. Westminster (Whitehall?) can’t abide constraints on its power, hence the progressive disenfranchisement of local government over most of my lifetime. To this mindset, the EU was a problem because it meant that Westminster had to take other people’s opinions into account when formulating policy – quite unlike the winner takes all approach we’re used to. This dynamic also affected the Brexit negotiations – the UK saw it as a battle (when the EU disagreed with us, that was often characterised as “bullying”); whereas the EU, where national governments are often formed by coalitions adept at seeking political compromises, saw it as a search for common ground where each side would make sensible judgments about where its best interests lay. And (3) rejoining. I said in 2016, and have continued to believe since, that we would begin with a very hard Brexit, but that we would then progressively start to rejoin elements of the European project as we came to realise where our true interests lay – perhaps, after a period of years, including the single market and customs union. This will be a slow process, and probably a painful one for the Brexit True Believers. Will we ever rejoin the EU itself? Perhaps, but I suspect not in my lifetime.

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    1. Thanks, Richard. You make a very good point about World War II, and I touch on this by mentioning the word ‘nostalgia’ towards the end of the blog. I guess you’re suggesting there’s a danger that British Europeans get caught up in the same nostalgia vortex as Leavers. I agree absolutely on the confrontational model of politics which, allied to the archaic constitutional and governance structures under which we labour, have made it very difficult for British politicians to see eye-to-eye with their European counterparts. And you may well be right on ‘rejoining’ being a gradual thing. Given that future membership would necessarily involve the Euro and Schengen, as well as the other acquis, we really do need to be a different kind of country before full membership becomes a possibility. I hope very much that that will be within our lifetimes, but ‘hope’, rather than ‘expectation’, is the operative word.

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