I can’t remember the first time. I was too young. I think it was Majorca. Wherever it was, I know I fell out of bed. Thinking I’d been kidnapped, my mother created a near international incident. Instead, I was quietly sleeping on what was probably a cool tiled floor, likely the sliding French windows were open, doubtless a slightly sweet, warm Mediterranean air was wrapping my body.
The earliest trip I can recall was to Rhodes. I remember being disappointed our hotel room was at the back of the hotel, overlooking parched barren hillsides, the sort of hillside I’d never seen, rather than at the hotel front where rooms featured expansive views of a sparkling azure blue Mediterranean. From those rooms, you would have seen surfers, water skiers, those unusual ‘furry’ beach umbrellas. The food of course was another whole story. New flavors, textures and powerful aromas, always served by jovial wait staff in their customary slightly stained white shirts and threadbare bow ties, worn by days and years of relentless heat.
These foreign lands were exactly that, in every sense. Only a few hours flying time from the cold, damp grey of northern England, these lands were like a different universe for a seven-year-old in the mid-eighties. These foreign lands were, of course, Europe, whose iconic stars would one day adorn my driving license, my passport, my identity and shape my cultural, political and philosophical beliefs.
Growing up in the 1980’s United Kingdom, I was a “child of Maggie”. It was a time of economic boom, a time when many could believe in better, a time of soaring, unbridled ambition in the U.K. and for its place on the global stage. Margaret Thatcher once famously said, “this lady is not for turning back”, it was her philosophy for governing as the country moved on from the chaos and strife of the 1970’s. Her Conservative government gradually (often bitterly) pursued European integration culminating in the Maastricht treaty during the sunset of Thatcher’s administration.
With a passionate interest in politics and international relations from a young age I watched U.K. and European politics with fevered fascination. My school, a particularly liberal, progressive institution taught “European Studies” as part of its core syllabus. At that time, there were only 12 E.U. countries, yet there I was in the early years of the European project, being taught how to be a European citizen. I was taught, so importantly, about the centuries long instabilities which had consistently shaken the European continent causing countless wars, including two World Wars. I watched the Berlin wall come down, an event of unprecedented magnitude. I learnt the ethos, principles and meaning of the European Union and importantly, what it meant to be European. The more I learned the more I liked, coming to truly believe in the European Union and everything it embodied.
Did this mean in any sense I was less loyal to England, to the United Kingdom? Did I feel European before I felt British, not for a moment. I was equally taught to be a patriot of my land, to be proud of its rich history, to be proud of a land that for centuries punched well above its weight spreading its influence across the globe. The line of our school hymn, “And was Jerusalem builded here, among those dark satanic mills” is a tattoo on my psyche.
During the 1980s times were changing, globalization was becoming a movement rather than just a word, and the U.K., in Europe, was part of a bloc that helped maintain its position as a global leader and G7 nation, still punching well above its weight.
Throughout my entire life, now almost forty years, the U.K. has had a complicated and difficult relationship with Europe. Over the decades many names have been used to illustrate the U.K./European relationship, none have ever been particularly complimentary. Europeans quickly grew to be wary and frustrated with the U.K. and it’s often isolationist “pick-and-mix” approach to European membership. Meanwhile very many U.K. citizens became even more frustrated with Europe, be it from the European direction on how bendy a banana should be (really) to far more substantive directives and acts of integration, such as the European Human Rights Act, the single currency and most importantly, open borders.
It was probably open borders, more than anything else, which denigrated U.K. citizen’s views of Europe, fueling a non-reversible sense of integration into a continent that across the water, separated, from our island. An island that many generations of ancestors had fought fearlessly to defend from invasion, fights which across the centuries hundreds of thousands had fallen for defense of their country. A fights that in the context of time, remain recent memories. It is this memory, along with the myriad of directives, and the perceived and real loss of national sovereignty, that fueled the movement for the U.K. to quit the European Union and go it alone.
In writing this piece I begin to question whether the path to Brexit actually started in the 1980’s, when the right wing of the Conservative party, and then John Majors “bastards” continually fought hard against further integration, and the very principle of Europe. I wonder whether Thatcher’s relentless pursuit of international influence and globalization sowed the seeds for where we are today, I think it did.
The bitter 2016 referendum campaign remains present, wounds are still open and raw. Rather than healing it all too often seems these wounds are becoming septic, the concept of a “weeping wound” never seems more apt as the country prepares to leave the European Union. Many are quite literally weeping and fearful for the future. The massive sense of the unknown and uncertainty weighs heavy.
So how do I feel about Brexit? First and foremost, and critically, I respect the opinion and position of those who voted leave. I am a staunch “remainer” and supporter of the European project, but there are many millions feel otherwise. For the country to achieve a successful Brexit, one that is in the best interest of the country, all sides need to come together, reconcile and rise back up together. Without that unification, the country cannot collectively charter the choppy waters of the years ahead. Furthermore, the U.K. is a civilized society with a strong sense of the respect and the rule of law. Respect for that civility needs to be shown by all sides, particularly the “remainers”. Rather than apportion blame, there needs to be an understanding of why the “leavers” took the decision they did. Gaining that understanding is critical to the rebuilding process and healing that “weeping wound”.
I want to be optimistic for the future of the U.K., like I was about the development of Europe and being a European citizen. Time, measured in decades and years will tell what the Brexit unknown means. I sincerely hope it is a significant chapter in our country’s long history that has a successful conclusion.
What I do know is that I’m very saddened the U.K. is leaving. It feels like those early childhood memories of those foreign lands that so enriched my childhood memories are, once again foreign lands.