Thursday, 13 October 2016

At Sea

Some scribblings from the middle of the North Sea. We are on the Hull-Zeebrugge night ferry. The wind is in the east and there is a swell running; not uncomfortable but enough of a lilt to remind you where you are. Laurens Van der Post recalled from his childhood at sea, that when you are aboard a ship, it's as if you feel the fingers of God moving beneath you. 

Being seaborne, "between lands", has added symbolism at the moment. This week, the news is once again dominated by Brexit: what kind of deal our country is likely to secure when it leaves the European Union, what it will cost, how our political relationships with the rest of our continent will be configured, whether or not Parliament will be actively involved in shaping this unknown future. 

The UK is still part of the Union. We haven't said farewell just yet. But somehow it feels different from just a few months ago. At that time, most of us Remainers believed we would win the referendum vote - not necessarily overwhelmingly, but convincingly enough (though if you follow this blog you'll know that I became rather less sanguine in the days just before the vote). But it didn't take long for the Brexit decision to register. Within hours, the pound had plummeted. David Cameron announced that he would resign (what is it with politicians who won't stay on long enough to live with their misjudgments - which this referendum was, I believe, from the outset - and see through the consequences?). 

When it came to the EU leaders' summit in Bratislava, the UK wasn't there with the twenty seven at precisely the time when we should have been cultivating goodwill among our (for the time being) partners. We should have been explaining ourselves to a baffled continent. Increasingly the atmosphere has changed from fraternal collegiality (not without its tensions at times to be sure) to a clear sense of estrangement where the talk is of "us and them". The rhetoric on both sides is becoming more hawkish, less open to negotiation and compromise. The UK can expect a hard time - that's the message from Brussels and Strasbourg. We've made our bed. We must lie on it. 

So here I am, a Europhile at sea in both a literal and a figurative sense. This is my first blog on the EU since just after the referendum, and I have to say that I have yet to come to terms with the outcome. Others have written about the Brexit decision in terms of grieving, and that's my experience too. I keep coming back to what we have lost - or rather, not lost because it was taken away from us but thrown away of our own free will. The stages of grief are not a linear process. You can feel angry and empty and lost, and you can search, and you can want to come to terms and negotiate, and you can be tearful and resigned all at once or in rapid succession, and then find that you're going through the cycle all over again as if experiencing it afresh. 

And what uncannily mimics bereavement caused by a death is that the landscape ahead is truly unknown. No-one knew what they were voting for when they opted to leave the EU in June even if they think they did, or politicians and the media tell them they did. We are still no nearer to knowing, though it looks as though a "hard" Brexit is on the cards and "softer" options are being ruled out. Everything is expressed as negativity: we (I speak collectively of the nation) have decided only on what we do not want without having any idea about what we do. This is an alarming place to be: like the North Sea at night, there are no landmarks and no lights, just the sea churning restlessly beneath our feet and the hope that the voyage will lead is to a good destination. 

This is our first trip to "the Continent" since June. We don't know what will have changed in our relationship with neighbours and friends in the little Burgundian village where we go. Quite possibly nothing at all: the best human relationships are bigger than our political changes and chances, and friendship is not going to founder on these shoals. But I expect a certain degree of bemusement: we Brits have always been an enigma to the French, and Brexit may simply strengthen their belief that we are a pretty crazy nation. Some will recall de Gaulle's "Non!" when the UK first applied to join the Common Market and mutter that the EU is better off without us. Who's to say they are not right? - Britain was never the EU's most passionate champion of the European vision. There may even be a few who follow Marine Le Pen and think it's high time the French did the same and left the Union. 

But something has shifted in me and I find it disconcerting. My German ancestry has given me a profound sense of attachment to Europe. I've been proud to carry the words "European Union" on my passport and think of myself as a citizen an entire continent. I belong. But all that seems more provisional now. I feel myself being pulled back into an island mentality, less sure about my identity, less confident about stepping on to a shore that may appear more "foreign". It's a question of shades and hues, not strongly delineated structures or shapes. It's subtle and elusive, this repositioning process. It's happening over time, and the fugitive pieces may not settle into a clear picture for months or years to come. 

I've been reading a little book called How to be an Exile in England. It's by a Hungarian who has been living in London and writes humorously about how foreigners need to understand and navigate our odd national traits. I picked it up not just for the sake of being amused but because the title resonated. For while I am pulled back into an island mentality as I've said, I've also felt myself to be more alienated within my own country. There's so much that I simply don't recognise as British: the xenophobia, the populist contempt for migrant workers, the self-interest that is now driving politics, the eclipse of a liberal, generous and inclusive vision of society, the insularity of outlook in relation to the global crises that threaten humanity.... I could go on. We've all seen how the referendum has spawned a dark side of the British character that has taken us by surprise. To me the book's theme of being an exile in England feels oddly accurate. 

And deeply disturbing. Here on this North Sea ferry, I'm "between lands". And that's what Brexit is making of us who believe that we are making the biggest collective mistake we have witnessed in our lifetimes. It may take a generation for the nation to find its new identity and role in the world and establish itself in it. I probably won't live to see it. But faith helps me to see that even in adversity we must not give in to despondency. We must commit to the journeys we find ourselves making and invest in them as best we can for the sake of a good future for us all. So we keep our hope alive for our continent, our nation and ourselves. Good can come out of this even if we can't yet glimpse it. Brexit could mean a desperate narrowing of our horizons. But if it were to lead to serious reflection on our destiny as a nation, the reinvention of ourselves as a force for good in a turbulent world, that would be something to welcome. 


  1. I appreciate this greatly. I take issue with one thing "a dark side of the British character". No that is not British at all. It is English. Being British is to know you are one part of a larger whole. Whole members of the British national family voted to stay in Europe so Scotland. What Britishness achieved historically was an Empire that allowed its citizens of all creeds and colours to call themselves Brits. It was that originally engineered by white men which directly led to the Rainbow Nation of the World that Britain is. The current dark side has nothing to do with Britishness and everything to do with its repudiation and a drawing of the boundary around one segment of Britain (the one that happens to have the most population). The problem is as you suggest at heart the fear of the other. There is nothing in the history that created Great Britain which came about through fear of the other. We would have stayed in our island fastness if that had been the case.

  2. The situation in the UK is complicated by the rise of Nationalism in each country of the Union. Aspirations are changing and people have changed with them. Self government is a serious issue for the home nations, and independence for Scotland is the agenda of the SNP, in or out of Europe.

    Our priority needs to be for the future of the Union of GB and NI - Europe now, is in my view, a secondary issue, despite all of the implications of our leaving. That we will leave is certain, how we leave will a measure of our nation hood, not of our British idenity, or even, English Identity, I question, whether that exists in our multi-cultural society.

    I see divisions on race, status, rich, poor, regionally (north v. south) and even locally between competing counties and authorities in the South East. City Mayors have changed the whole dynamic, where we see the Mayor of London, forging alliances with Mrs Sturgeon in Scotland.

    Nichola Sturgeon is currently on BBC Breakfast, talking about the Brexit language as destroying the cohesion of the UK - ignoring the fact that her extreme Nationalism is one of the factors damaging that cohesion.

    Your comment that it will take a generation to discover who and what we are as a country, whether the UK or just a loose cooperation of the home countries it accurate. Change is coming to the global communities, old alliances are being resurrected, Russia-China for instance. While new ones are being forged (the expansion of NATO) and the cooperation between countries in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sommalia, etc.

    I hope that the UN will take a greater lead role in international security, this has to be the way forward, Nations coming together to work for peace and security of all of it's members.