A shameful conquest of itself

I just checked my passport to see when it expires. On the front it says ‘European Union’ and ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. Inside it says ‘British Citizen’.

After the referendum that the winners believe ‘took our country back’, the chances are that by the time I come to renew it none of these things will be true.

My citizenship of the European Union, giving me the right to live and work in any of the other 27 member states, will be gone. The United Kingdom and Great Britain, political constructs of centuries of history on these islands, will more than likely be gone too.

Great Britain, the union of England and Wales with Scotland, could soon cease to exist: the Scots may have voted No to independence but after voting to Remain in the EU on Thursday even unionists are coming out for a second referendum.

Northern Ireland, which also voted Remain, could see itself transformed. The majority of people may be proud to be British but they also know that Brexit could wreck the Good Friday Agreement and end freedom of movement between North and South.

Even the future of Gibraltar, for so long the rock at the heart of the British Empire, looks uncertain following its 96 per cent vote to Remain.

So by 2020 I could be a citizen (or subject) of a very different country. Whether we call it England, England and Wales or Rump UK, the constitutional clock will be turned back more than 400 years.

I will be an inhabitant rather than a citizen of Europe, the cultural clock turned back more than 40 years to the days when we used to call the land mass across the English Channel ‘The Continent’.

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with patriotism, let alone nationalism, distrusting anything that claims superiority over other peoples, wary of the dark side of Britain’s history and of the baggage that goes with supporting England’s football team.

But Danny Boyle seemed to reinvent the meaning of Great Britain and the United Kingdom in his opening ceremony to the London Olympics in 2012. He celebrated a country of four different nations, one that gave up an empire and celebrated diversity, one with a history not just of war and conquest but of the NHS and welfare state, of great inventions and human rights.

Four years on I’ll be cheering on the athletes, swimmers, cyclists and all the other members of Team GB at the Rio Olympics.

But now there is unlikely to be a British team in Tokyo in 2020. Every time I see an Outer waving the Union Jack or a newspaper article claiming that Brexit will be great ‘for Britain’ I feel a sense of loss I didn’t really know was there. Perhaps it takes someone else ‘taking back’ your country to make you realise what it is. The Leavers celebrating with the Union Jack are waving the flag of a country they are about to kill.

But that’s nothing compared to how millions of other people must be feeling. The three million EU citizens living here are still waiting for any kind of official reassurance about their future status from the UK Government. The country they thought they were working and paying taxes in changed overnight last week.

Likewise the 1.3 million UK citizens living in the EU must be worried sick what it will mean for their homes, jobs, pensions and healthcare.

The leaders of Vote Leave say they welcome the contribution that immigrants make to the country and that leaving the EU is just about controlling the numbers. But their success in the referendum has already led to a surge in hate crime and casual racism and created the political space for outright fascists to call to ‘Send them Home’.

A Polish cultural centre built by the exiles who fought for Britain in the Second World War is daubed with graffiti saying ‘Go Home’. A BBC reporter is astonished to find herself racially abused in her home town for the first time since the 1980s.

Somehow a country that prides itself on its tolerance and civility, on its history of welcoming refugees and its record of fighting fascism is allowing something else to rise to the surface. The country that played a leading role in creating the European Convention on Human Rights and looked outward to the world rather than inward at itself now counts Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen as its friends.

The shame – and the blame – for this is shared equally between a prime minister who put party before country and a would-be prime minister who cynically put personal ambition before everything else.

David Cameron had the chance to build a new Britain when he won his gamble on the Scottish Referendum. Instead he cynically set the Scots against the English to win the 2015 election then called a referendum that he knew risked reopening the Scottish question.

Boris Johnson hesitated until the last minute before choosing to join the Leave campaign. Now the ex-journalist who made his name making up stories about Brussels seems embarrassed, even horrified, that his side won.

Within 24 hours of the vote the lies told by the Leave campaign had begun to unravel and the lack of any kind of plan for what should follow became glaringly obvious. Never mind post-truth politics, we almost seem to be in an era of post-Government politics too.

The consensus that seems to be emerging between Boris Johnson and George Osborne is of the Norway-style option of leaving the EU but staying in the single market. That will mean paying the same as now (no mythical £350m to spend on the NHS), accepting free movement (no control over immigration) and giving up any say over EU decisions (no veto over future Turkish membership).

And even that assumes that the other EU member states agree that we can have our cake and choke on it. If not, Article 50 allows them to determine our fate for us and we have no say on the terms of leaving.

But we also seem to be intent on blaming each other in our Divided Kingdom, split down the middle not just by Leave or Remain, but by nation, age, wealth and education too. The young blame the old for voting to Leave, the old blame the young for failing to vote. Graduates sneer at the poor for being stupid while the poor stick two fingers up to them. London demands independence and blames the rest of England while everywhere else blames London. We blame ‘the elite’ while swapping one Old Etonian and Bullingdon Club member for another. Just at the time when the country is crying out for leadership Labour rediscovers its genius for blaming itself.

Britain is becoming little more than an England celebrating its own sense of self-importance with Wales as its poor relation. Great Britain will become Little Britain, turned in on itself and watching endless repeats of Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.

Outers may believe that they are reclaiming Shakespeare’s ‘blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’, but I skip straight to the end of that speech by John of Gaunt in Richard II:

‘That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.’


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