Brexit: a personal reflection

(Fremont, CA) I’m saddened by Brexit for personal reasons that I’ll relate below. But first I should offer three caveats.

First, Brexit is not about me. It will affect the residents of the UK and EU; my feelings don’t really matter.

Second, the “remain” side is not self-evidently right, either ethically or practically. There are democratic arguments in favor of withdrawing from the EU. “Leavers” are not simply bigoted or victimized by propaganda. Both of the biggest parties have been divided by the issue. The EU has served some Britons better than others.

And third, the UK election is about much more than Brexit. Austerity is the main policy that has won.

Having said all that, I’ve had a deep, lifelong commitment to European integration–and to a Europe that has Britain in it. My family spent almost half of my first 15 years in London. My primary school, Prior Weston, was situated immediately next to a weedy lot that was still empty because of the bombs of 1940. That was a powerful reminder of the cost of European division.

Britain had entered the European Economic Community by then, and my Christian-Socialist-oriented state primary school embraced the ideal of the EEC. We studied the culture of each EEC member country in turn. I recall the teachers making some prejudiced remarks. Germans ostensibly had no sense of humor, for example. (This is false.) But the overall message was one of interconnection and shared fate.

London was a global city, anyway–a great entrepot. We knew many, many immigrants. The largest share had come from former colonies in the Global South, but many were Europeans. What made London great was its cosmopolitanism, and that has been true since the medieval days of Lombard bankers and Flemish weavers.

When I was a young teenager, now attending a much more conservative independent secondary school, most of my English friends would have denied that they were European. The continent was a foreign place to them, and basically inferior, in their eyes. My English friends would have identified more with the global Anglophone sphere created by British imperialism, and especially with the white-majority countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

But I wasn’t British, or European–I was an American in London. And from my perspective, the UK clearly belonged to Europe. Although the little islands had been spared from invasion since 1066 because of a narrow strait, they had participated in all the cultural, economic, diplomatic, technological, sociological and even biophysical developments of the continent as a whole. Even then, I thought it was basically ignorant to distinguish between Britain and Europe.

Years later, sitting by a summer ice cream stand outside of Oslo and watching school children on a field trip, I felt palpably how much the whole scene resembled my childhood in London: the ice cream novelties, the buildings and the park’s layout, the way the kids interacted. If you travel from London to, say, Tuscany, you have changed your milieu. But from London to Oslo or Rotterdam is no distance, culturally.

To build one Europe has always seemed to me a humane and creative project (even though we should acknowledge the barriers around the EU’s perimeter and the often technocratic tendencies in Brussels). Britain–and specifically, England–belongs in the project. It has been more open, more sophisticated, and more humane because it’s been part of “Europe.” And it has shared its own worthy ideals with its European partners.

After today, the EU will go on, but it will be somewhat worse without Britain in it. It’s also hard to imagine the United Kingdom staying united for long. I find this very sad.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.