“I feel that part of my identity has been taken away,” said one of our members in a local Liberal Democrat meeting last week. The local party, in a cosmopolitan part of London that voted 75% Remain, has grown its membership by 50% since the referendum result. I have never known members to be more motivated. Shock is turning to anger, though not yet to coherent action.
It turns out that party members are not alone, at least here in London. Psychotherapist Susie Orbach describes in the Guardian how her patients (mostly Remainers) will talk of little other than Brexit. Many had not been politically engaged, and hadn’t thought they were particularly worked up about the issue, but now find themselves in profound psychological shock. Interestingly this does not present itself as anger at the majority of Brexit voters, understood as being as those left behind by globalisation. I found that at our members’ meeting too.
This depth of feeling is surprising. I have been told many times that Britons had not accepted European-ness as part of their identity. Unlike those from other countries, they viewed the EU as a transaction which they weighed up in cold pragmatic terms. This has never been true of me personally, but I supposed that I was in a tiny minority. Us British-Europeans are still in a minority – but not as tiny as previously thought. For me feeling European was something to do with the stultifying claustrophobia of Englishness, and a strong feeling of not being American. For others, perhaps many years of foreign travel, and of European work colleagues and neighbours, have crept up on them without their realising it. Their horizons have just been narrowed. Freedom of movement, at the heart of Leave voters’ concerns, is closely linked to Remain supporters’ sense of who they are.
So there’s a gulf of understanding between us and that part of the political and economic elite that supports Brexit. This was evident from Sunday morning’s Point of View on Radio 4, by philosopher John Gray. He told Remainers to get over it and move on. To him the EU is a failing international project that Britain is well out of, and that Britain would be the first country to exit of many. He differed from many commentators in not seeing the British as exceptional from other Europeans, but he still saw the EU as essentially transactional – a power play by a shadowy group of politicians and bureaucrats. He was quite perceptive in many ways, though I think he made some factual errors. It is not right to call the EU strongly protectionist against countries outside it, except in agricultural products, where it has plenty of company, such as the USA and most emerging markets. The European expansion was not an exercise by the European elite to grow and deepen the EU, but something of a plot by Eurosceptics to make deepening impossible. The imposition of austerity policies on many European countries is not those same elites desperately trying to keep the union together – but a number of better off countries in the Union putting boundaries on its powers to deploy their taxpayers’ funds. These errors reveal a lack of understanding, though they do not directly undermine his conclusion.
But what Mr Gray has missed is how bound up the EU has become in people’s sense of identity. This happens in the same way as identity has become bound up with the nation-state. Why on Earth should the English feel a sense of belonging to the British state after all? We just do, and it grew over a 1,000 years; in 1066 the English state was controlled by alien Normans. On the way Englishness and Britishness have become entangled. Many English Brexit voters, incidentally, seem only loosely tied to the idea of Britishness, never mind European-ness. Identification with the EU varies from country to country, and is genuinely weaker in England (and Wales and Cornwall and Unionist Ulster) than in most other European countries. I sense it is also weak in Austria, for example, but strong in Germany and France. Identification should not be confused with satisfaction. The English are dissatisfied with the British state, but they don’t want to leave it so set their own governments in Yorkshire, Somerset or wherever. The sense of identity of so many of its citizens gives the EU a much better chance of surviving than Mr Gray thinks. He is far from the first of Britain’s intellectual elite to underestimate the EU’s capacity for progress and survival. I remember being assured by most of the Britons I met in the 1990s that European monetary union was utterly impossible. In the mid 1950s British thought the idea on the union laughable.
So, much as the Brexit leaders tell us Remainers to get over it, we won’t; there is a complete gulf of comprehension. Much like opponents of EU membership could not get over the last referendum, in 1975. As a nation we are utterly divided.
But us Europeans will have to move on, even if we cannot accept the result in our souls. The referendum result could be reversed – but only after a prolonged period of disillusionment and failure to get a satisfactory new way of being – and even then it would be hard. Our project to return to the European family could take another 40 years. It will happen as people’s outlook becomes more cosmopolitan; as the current 20-somethings move into their retirement; and as the bedrock of anti-European identity literally dies out. The central demand will be to restore the freedom to move, work and settle.
Meanwhile we must take on other political projects, to help create a less divided Britain and a less divided Europe. That means taking the Brexit slogan of “Take Control” seriously. The Brexit leaders have no intention of implementing this idea beyond the Westminster political establishment, and perhaps in boardrooms. We must look at the communities who voted to leave, and ask ourselves how to make the people living there less powerless. We may regard the Brexit leaders as traitors, but the bulk of people that voted for them are our sisters and brothers.