I’m English, always have been, always will be. I’m European, always have been, always will be. I love the thought that I live in an island that has three countries, all different and all unique. I also totally sympathise with the desire of so many Scots to become independent, cut free from the inward-looking, self-serving and cruel politics of Westminster. Me too, mate, me too. But how can England gain independence from itself?
As you edge closer to independence think of us, trapped in a country which is somehow not ours anymore. All those who want to remain in the EU – and we are the majority – fell into a slough of despond when Boris Johnson’s government took over. Grief and depression hit us all. I wrote the article below for all those I stood beside in Dorset; for all those I marched with; for all those Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English people I met and embraced, and the Europeans who thanked us for campaigning.
I wrote it to remind us all of the love we discovered we had for the EU, a love that will give us the courage to carry on, to go on fighting for a future that is far better than any fall off a cliff with Boris and his cronies. And I wanted to share it with you. After all, this island belongs to all of us, no matter what borders there might be (although the one border I really want is a ‘Trump wall’ around Westminster and Downing Street!)
Who are we, now that Brexit has severed our links?
I belong to England, but that England is not the self-important, arrogant and ill-informed England of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, the European Research Group or Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League. It is not the England ‘owned’ by the rich, nor is it the England of those people who believe we are somehow exceptional, and superior. It is the England of little people getting on with their little lives.
It is the small green fields of my childhood, the trees full of wonder and the streams full of sticklebacks. It is the small farms with their milk-herds of 10 or 20 cows. It is the narrow lanes, domestic and wild animals, wild flowers and butterflies to be chased after and identified. It is the small communities where everyone knew everyone.
It was where I felt safe and at home. It is where, physically and mentally, I still want to live. And before Brexit fans laugh and point their fingers at me for ‘living in the past’, can I remind them of the man who was labelled as being ‘seconded from the 18th Century’ –Jacob Rees Mogg? The man who, on becoming Leader of the House of Commons, insisted “that all non-titled males are given the suffix Esq – short for Esquire – and says words including “ongoing” and “hopefully” are banned.” His pro-Brexit colleagues appear to want a return to the heady days of Empire, without a thought to the damage the UK wrought on other countries, or the resources we had plundered. Those countries aren’t going to come rushing back into our fold.
Being in the EU, being a citizen of the EU, simply made my safe home larger, much larger. It meant having the freedom, not to just roast on a beach, but to explore other countries’ lanes and villages, bistros and tavernas, the back alleys of French, Italian, Spanish and Greek towns. It meant finding other histories, other cultures and other languages. It meant being made welcome by people who, because they loved their country, wanted you to love it too. Above all, it meant belonging.
To the horror and shame of those English who wanted, and still want, to stay with the EU, Brexit is solely an English project, and it was the English who delivered the Brexit vote. Scotland voted to remain. Northern Ireland voted to remain. Wales voted to leave, and people thought it was the Welsh farmers who swung that one but no, Oxford University research showed that it was all those English retirees living in Wales who voted to leave.
Nor, according to Professor Danny Dorling, was it the north of England that made England vote leave. That was another false belief, he said.
“The real support for Brexit, in terms of numbers of votes, was in places like Cornwall, which was 57% for leave, Hampshire, with 54%, Essex with 62% and Norfolk with 57%. It is those southern English voters that are dragging Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland unwillingly out of Europe. Everyone blames Wigan and Stoke for Brexit but we should really be blaming Cornwall and Devon.”
Cornwall seems an odd one. The county may be beautiful and therefore full of holiday homes. It is also very poor, recognised as one of the poorest areas, not just in the UK, but in Europe as a whole. It has been supported by and received funding from the EU for years. You would think the Cornish would be grateful for that. But, like Wales, Cornwall is also full of English retirees (please note: the Cornish are definitely Cornish, not English).
As the chaos and the incompetence of the government became apparent, as vitally important issues and threats to our stability popped up that had not been considered, let alone tackled (Northern Ireland and the Peace Agreement come to mind), a number of English constituencies that voted leave changed their minds, West Dorset being one of them. Several polls showed that across the UK people wanting to remain were now in the majority. They still are. Despite the Tories winning so many seats in last December’s election (due to the first-past-the-post system), the majority of actual votes were given to Remain-leaning parties.
Like so many other groups, West Dorset for the EU (WD4EU) campaigned tirelessly for a People’s Vote. If we couldn’t have a second, better-informed referendum, the public should at least have a Final Say on whatever agreement was negotiated. That seemed sensible, as people changed their minds and more young people became old enough to vote – on their future, which doesn’t look quite so good now.
With street stalls, leafleting and the ‘Brexitometer’ gathering the public’s opinions, we were endlessly patient and respectful as we listened to Leavers lecturing us on ‘sovereignty’, the awfulness of the EU, and the wonders of Britain (for which, read England) going it alone.
We had some good, friendly and thoughtful conversations with Leave voters, but too many times we were deluged by ‘facts’ that weren’t facts, false figures, beliefs built on ‘something I heard’, or got shouted at for saying we were European as well as English. Despite explaining that the 2016 referendum was an ‘advisory’ referendum, that people were changing their minds, that there were many young people demanding a say in their future, that in a democracy the people should have the right to vote on whatever deal was negotiated, time and again we were told, “We’ve had the referendum.”
End of any discussion. But one well-spoken lady got it horribly wrong. “Just remember,” she said to me, “17.4 billion people voted to leave!”
“Er… I think you mean million,” I said. “No, billion!” she said. “No”, said my colleagues, “it was 17.4 million.” And she lost the plot, and marched off through the Saturday shoppers, shouting “Billion, billion, billion!” How does one even begin to connect with a mind so steadfastly wed to a wrong number?
But we also met people who had changed their minds; Europeans in tears because they no longer felt welcome here; EU citizens trying to cope with Leavers’ verbal abuse; visiting Europeans who promised to take back home the message that so many of us did not want to leave. We had conversations about how to reform our own political system. We had laughter and funny stories. And we had a lot of support.
Then we had another election… and I lost the plot.
I received an email about a petition to the president of the EU, saying ‘Sorry to leave the EU.’ The anger that had been bubbling inside me for so long boiled over and I emailed back:
“Sorry” isn’t the word I’d use – not after street campaigning for over 3 years, watching ‘Brexit’ voters change their minds, listening to rubbish from other Brexit supporters while maintaining politeness, listening to their reasons for wanting to leave when NONE of them wanted to know why I and my colleagues wanted to remain, listening to an intelligent, well-educated 15 year-old schoolboy telling me ‘we survived the war’. What does he know about ‘the war’? What does his father know about it? I’m just about old enough to remember the ration cards, the clothing coupons, the Anderson shelter my grandfather built in our garden, the Home Guard gas mask hanging among the coats in the hall (fondly known as the ‘google-eyed bugger with the tit’, although it was years before I understood that). I’m angry at some lousy, ignorant and self-important politicians, despairing about what it is going to do to the island of Britain, and dreading the results.
But all the campaigning we did was done out of love for the EU, love for our fellow EU citizens, love for our own country. Because of that love we will carry on promoting the EU and the UK’s need to be connected to it. That love is still there. So I asked WD4EU folk what they loved about the EU. Here was one ‘political’ answer:
As the world becomes more interconnected it is even more important that we have a democratic body working across many different countries to tackle the big global challenges we all face.
Another had this simple message:
I will always miss and love EU.
Thank you for all that you’ve given us.
We still love being European.
A somewhat longer answer was this:
I love Europe. I love the diverse cultures, from ancient Rome, to tidy Luxembourg, from Hungary steeped in Germanic culture, to Holland seen from its lakes and canals. I love the people who endured, fought and survived a terrible political regime, the old storytellers, most now long gone, of unimaginable bravery hiding and helping people including our own nationals. Most of all I love those people who had the foresight and vision to launch a United Europe to keep peace. I love that Europe, it breaks my heart to be forced apart and although I won’t see our return to its vision, I hope my grandchild will.
Another one quoting peace as the reason said:
Thank EU for being such a champion of European peace and democracy, and a symbol we have so much more in common than ever divides us.
Two people had a whole list of things they loved about the EU. Among them was this gem:
The EU funds which encourage joint working and sharing on common problems including nature conservation, such as the LIFE programme which has helped fund conservation of the Dorset Heaths. And the EU structural funds which through the LEADER programme encourage local responses to tackle pockets of disadvantage and discrimination throughout the UK including here in Dorset. Examples from the FLAG programme: the only fisherman in Kimmeridge got 80% of the cost of upgrading his boat, the sea food festivals in Weymouth and Lyme Regis and provision of huts for fishermen’s gear in Lulworth Cove. Would our own Government ever think of adopting such a detailed approach?
Well, no. And facts and details are certainly what have been missing from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, when they issue statements about the way ahead. The lack of good governance, the lies and false claims, the feeling that all that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the ERG wanted was to leave the EU, with no idea of what should really happen after that goal was achieved, has bitterly divided the country. Johnson’s promise to ‘bring the country together’ was a false one. The ‘red lines’ being set by him are there to please the hard-line, no-deal Brexiteers. The rest of us can go hang.
We know that the EU is in need of reform, and many of us hoped to be part of that reformation. And we won’t stop loving the EU. We are grateful for the peace it has brought us after centuries of war and conflict. We are grateful for the protections we had for our workers, our environment, and our society. We are grateful that the largest trading block in the world could think small when it came to the little people and their needs. We won’t stop looking forward to a time when we may find our way back. But right now, we are frightened of what might happen, and despairing over what has.
And as one West Dorset person put it:
‘Dear EU, I am heartbroken to be leaving you.’