Watching the results come in from last Thursday’s referendum on membership of the European Union was strange. Early indications were not good and as I moved fitfully between websites the incremental advantage for the leave side grew. By four o’clock the result was being confidently called by the BBC and I tried to sleep. It was no good. A dumb sickness was growing in my gut as I tried to come to terms with this moment. Maybe the nausea was from low frequency sound waves propagated by tectonic plates grinding and shifting as the British Isles sheared away from continental Europe? I had managed to leave home without going out the door of the house.
I immediately thought of my no vote in the Scottish Independence referendum: how I had justified my decision by thinking of our intricate economic ties and our intimate emotional kinship with Britain, with England. Now we are on the brink of destroying something even bigger- disrupting the global relationships that have fuelled our prosperity and made us safer for a generation. The sense that we will all be diminished and impoverished, economically, politically and culturally, was strong. Disbelief was hardening into a desire to embrace division, to define myself through estrangement. I was not ready to simply accept this and move on.
In the last week I have been drawn to Shakespeare’s language in order to try and find something allusive and resonant- the funeral speeches in Julius Caesar said something about how populist politics is a fickle creature:
“O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts
And men have lost their reason.”
The Prince’s final words indicating the grey stillness of a tragic aftermath and the forewarning of justice to follow in Romeo and Juliet seemed morose and portentous enough
“A glooming peace this morning with it brings
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head”
Hamlet’s trauma and angst caught my my mood of sullen despair.
“It is not and it cannot come to good”
All had something to say but it was the sneering nihilism of seventies punk that won the day
“There is no future
In England’s dreaming.”
No future because the dream of many, of far too many, is my nightmare. (The irony of a Scottish man who carries an Irish name using the words of an Englishman writing about Italy and Denmark only provokes a bitter smirk at this moment.)
There will be good people who have voted to leave, there will be people of honest heart and integrity who hold a different vision of what this country is, or perhaps more relevantly, was. And then there are those who allowed fear and loathing of immigrants to motivate them. The pot of tar and the brush are standing ready but I will walk on by.
I was someone who believed in Britain. I even gave some thought to what the Britain I believed in was. Growing up in a small village with a small Catholic population near Glasgow made me aware of the flag-waving propensities of both sides of the sectarian divide. Ultimately, I became wary of flags.
The allegiance required to Celtic Football Club and its explicit championing of Irish Identity was needed to assimilate in school, so it left a mark.The grim scars of sectarianism were also carved by the opposition- the union flag corrupted by the bullies who made the streets uneasy places to walk. My neighbour’s son screamed that I was a Fenian bastard straight into my face. This and many other humiliations left their mark. I know what it is like to feel like an outsider in the streets of your home.
However, the childhood fascination with the myths of Britishness channelled through Commando Comics, Victor and Warlord also left a layer of sediment. At age ten I would rather have cuddled an Airfix model than have hugged my mother: I cried real tears when I broke an Airfix Hurricane that I left under the covers. Putting on Scout uniform and pledging an oath of honour to God and to the Queen was a secret, guilty pleasure: an outdated militaristic and imperialist pantomime and definitely not on trend.- even in the late seventies.
When Thatcher came in and cemented her electoral win with a fluke victory in the Falklands for the remnants of our faded forces from the old empire I was even more troubled. Was this a glorious adventure or bloodletting over “a little patch of land that hath in it no profit but the name”? (I had read Hamlet for the first time in that year)
We voted labour by reflex in our house: I was starting to ask why. Two years later, watching her politicise the police and send them in against the miners made me ask which side I was on: I would never be voting Tory.
It took years for me to think about my identity, the complexity of it, and in 2014 the British component of it. I arrived at something surprising, something made from my education, from the things I had learned and the people I knew but also from a rediscovery of people that had been half-forgotten and long-buried. A piece of writing about a memory of my grandfather’s medals that I began as a model for Higher students in personal writing started to take a deeper significance. I thought of what they had been through in the second world war. I tried to take the memory of their war out of the toy-box and the kid’s comic. Both of them served five years, one on the battleship HMS Ramillies and the other as a gunner attached to the Highland Light Infantry. One died in his late fifties, the other in his early sixties- the first to cancer the second to heart disease. Why worry about smoking untipped senior service or drinking cask strength grain spirit that had mysteriously found its way home from the distillery you worked in when you had been through a whole war?
I realised that they were a part of that great upswell of opinion, a quiet and confident assurance that things had to change, that led to the creation of the welfare state and the inception of a period of consensus in British politics that lasted until 1978. The landslide election victory of Labour in 1945 was driven by the votes of men not unlike them. This was the great achievement of my grandparents- ordinary people being taken seriously and the wealth of the nation flowing into health, education and housing. Everyone believed in it- even the Tories. Harold MacMillan, would boast that he created more council houses in the UK than any Labour minister ever did. So what did my grandfathers think about this? How can I pretend to know? One was a Tory and one was Labour but they were strikingly similar. I know this because my own father, a labour voter born of a labour voter, who believes in the ordinary working man, told me of his undying respect and affection for this good man- his father-in-law, the Tory.
I thought that this consensus could be recovered. I thought that Britain was more than the nationalisms within it. I was wrong.
Like many, I wanted a better yesterday. My dream of a benign progressive consensus was fit for purpose twenty years before I was born in the mid 1960’s but was extinguished under the twin attacks by the divisions of Thatcher and the deceptions of Blair.
The scant comfort I will give myself about the wrongness of my dream is that it is more benign, more inclusive and more human than the return to imperial bluster that the other side appear to cherish. When we have built our wall around these islands and sally forth on commercial and military feats of daring we will surely be happier. We will re-engage with the Commonwealth, “Look! Your old imperial masters are back! Did you miss us?”
The sad fact is that my failed dream, my broken notion of Britain is just as much a delusion as this reinvention of imperial fantasy is.
It is necessary to face the fact the referendum vote will entail the rupture of union between England and Scotland. Home has become a different country: it is no longer Britain. Once it would have broken my heart to think such a thing but my eyes are clearer now.