I left Britain in 1987 to marry a Canadian and settle in Toronto, and have lived here ever since. However, I still return to London twice a year, my closest friends are still in England and I have never genuinely cut my emotional and intellectual ties with the place. But has the country of my birth, education, upbringing and the first half of my life changed since the referendum on the European Union? It’s easy to fall into those phrases made clichés since the Brexit vote: Britain has lost its way, extremism has been enabled and Little England is triumphant. But the truth is, as always, so much more complex than that.
I write this from London, where the stores are still full, the streets vibrant and the crowds eager. Prime ministers come and go, of course, but in truth that’s always been more relevant to journalists and the chattering classes than the public at large. From every measurable level Brexit has made hardly any difference at all, at least for the time being; and there are informed commentators arguing that it could take almost four years for all of the laws to be changed. The pound may be weaker but the economy is just as strong, and economic and political fears are more for the long-term future than the present. Frankly, nobody knows what will happen.
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For now, it’s self-perception that’s really at the heart of all this. What does it mean to be British now and — just as significant — how do the British regard others? Even that very statement has to be unpacked, because while Wales voted with England to leave the European Union, Scotland and Northern Ireland — the former overwhelmingly — opted to remain. The Northern Irish decision is, however, largely irrelevant: Catholics generally voted to stay, Protestants to leave. It was all about links to the Irish Republic in opposition to the notion of British loyalty. The place has always been divided and there won’t be independence any time soon.
Having said that, I met a senior publisher at a lunch party who told me that her Protestant husband had claimed his Irish passport. This is extremely unusual and would typically be regarded by some hardliners as positively treasonous. We’re told that the Irish embassy in London ran out of application forms for passports, because so many Brits of tenuous Irish heritage wanted to retain European status.
Scotland is different, with nationalists eager to use any excuse to hold another referendum. Think Quebec in a kilt. It might happen — and it might succeed — but I doubt it.
At a deeper level, what I see and hear now is that people feel that their resentment at a lack of control, an absence of autonomy, has at last been remedied. While the idea that Brussels ran their lives was not true, people still felt that way and feelings, alas, often matter more than facts in popular votes.
As for racism, we have to be careful with accusations. Many who voted Brexit were black and brown, and Englishness now embraces a broader definition. An old university friend whose parents came from Jamaica decades ago told me his mother voted Brexit. He was incredulous when he found out, and asked her why. “Because,” she explained, “we waited years for our council house (subsidized housing) and people come here now and get help as soon as they’re off the boat.” It’s still racist, of course, but the culprit doesn’t quite fit the usual description, and that further confuses the situation.
But almost universally the more educated, wealthy and well-travelled people I meet voted to remain and are angry and hurt at the decision. They just don’t understand why anybody could have voted to leave. This is partly why it all happened in the first place, in that those who voted to separate constantly explain that their voices were being ignored. Within elitism exists its own demise.
It’s also been reported that there has been a rise in racist and xenophobic attacks since the vote, but it’s difficult to know if this is entirely accurate, and to think of this country as Louisiana on a bad day is laughable. London is startlingly multicultural compared to most other cities, and that will not change. Outside London, however, the climate is a little different.
One of our daughters lives in France and Britain and just last week while walking along a street in Kent was told, “Get out of the way, you fucking foreigner.” She has a Canadian accent and is a racial composite, but the point is that it’s never, ever happened to her before.
Post-Brexit Britain is still being unpacked and it’s going to take a while before we know the full extent of the change. As the touching wartime song had it, “There’ll always be an England.” There will, but I’m not quite sure what it will be like.
Coren’s new book is Epiphany: A Christian’s Change of Heart and Mind over Same-Sex Marriage.