A reflection on Brexit, and my reasons for leaving the UK this Summer...
As I am writing this, we are yet another day the UK was supposed to be leaving but didn’t. This extension does nothing to resolve the insecurity and deeper existential issues that EU citizens like me have faced since June 2016.
To recall: we went from being scapegoats (during the Referendum campaign) to bargaining chips (straight after) to human shields (so-called to protect the British in Europe), to our lives being on the negotiating table, with important issues such as as family reunion rights and stays abroad to take care of elderly family being haggled over: how much of a diminishment of our rights is OK? And finally, we were simply forgotten, as discussions about the backstop and the Irish border took centre stage. I’m not sure which is worse: being haggled over, or being forgotten. We were both.
Whatever will come of it, I will be leaving the UK this summer, to take up a full professorship (an endowed chair) at a university in the United States.
People have asked me to what extent the decision was Brexit-related. This is a tough question to answer, because what I’ve been offered is a wonderful position that I would have accepted even if there were no Brexit. But if it weren’t for Brexit, I might not have applied (for context, as someone who is mid-career, I’ve had several “feelers” for senior positions, in Ireland, Australia, Norway, and the US. Until recently, I held off, for various reasons.)
Applying for the position and accepting it wasn’t an easy decision, but it feels like the right one. When I look at the news in the morning, my stomach is no longer clenched with dread. The settled status app is still on my phone — I’m relieved I don’t need to apply to this hastily implemented scheme. I will delete it soon.
I first came to the UK in 2011 to take up a postdoc position at the University of Oxford, and instantly fell in love with the country and the city, with its weather, food, countryside, the NHS.
However, over the years I witnessed how slowly but surely, austerity was disintegrating the social fabric in this country. Local meeting centres, such as libraries, children’s centres, and young people’s clubs, were threatened with closure. And to my amazement, it was we, EU citizens in the UK, who were increasingly blamed for it. The greatest British con was to make the population believe that adults, coming to the UK to work, often with education paid for in their countries of origin, would be a burden on public services (e.g., NHS) and on the benefits system.
In the months leading up to Referendum campaign the xenophobia was full swing. It wasn’t just the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. For example, in June 2016, the Times ran the headline, “EU ‘makes us keep killers and rapists’” and the Daily Telegraph claimed that “EU rules stopped Britain deporting murderers, rapists and violent criminals”.
I hoped for a Remain vote, but at the same time, I wondered, will this genie ever go back into its bottle, even if they vote Remain? The attitude of anti-EU sentiment runs deep and is part of the establishment. Even though the UK still had, at its height, moderate levels of immigration especially compared to the US, Australia, or Canada, Cameron asked for “emergency brakes” on EU net migration, as if all the extra taxes and skills coming into this country were an emergency to be dealt with.
And as it turned out, they did vote Leave. My husband predicted it after he saw a BBC feature on “record levels” of immigration from the EU. My colleague who lives in Birmingham and commutes into Oxford predicted it months in advance “They’re really angry; they’re going to vote out”. What frustrates me is that people have the right to be angry of course, but their ire is directed at the wrong people. I could not even vote for the government that went full steam ahead with austerity. The only thing I could do was watch in horror, with a feeling of powerlessness, how the Brexit mess unfolded. I felt a total rupture in trust, not only in the UK government but also in people; I wondered which way people (neighbours, co-workers, parents of my children’s friends) voted, and felt terrible for making assumptions and guessing.
In a sense, Brexit is an unmasking of what has been going on, as Yasmin Ali writes:
“For one thing, Brexit has stripped away the curtains that once hid the truth about Britain after 40 years of Thatcherism. We see clearly now the damage done by that ideology to our institutions, to our economy, to the social fabric, to our capacity for competent government. For now, many people remain too Brexit-addled to accept that truth, but that delusion cannot long endure. And there must be a reckoning on all this, if only to rebuilt the basic capacity of the state sufficiently to totter on into the uncertain, shadowy future.”
This talk of reckoning reminds me of theological accounts of satisfaction. In Eleonore Stump’s account of satisfaction, which draws on the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, to provide satisfaction is to “make amends as one can to those who have suffered from the wrong done and to repair as one can what the wrong has injured in the world” — this includes blotting out the bad effects on the wrongdoer, as well as the repairing the damaged relationships as a result of the wrongdoing.
If trust and relationships are damaged, repairing them is a requirement for reconciliation. It’s what everyone who talks about “bringing the country together” always forget. Before we can heal the divisions, we must try to repair the harm done to communities, we must expose the lies, and make amends for the scapegoating of people who came here in good faith to exercise their freedom of movement rights.
I won’t be there when and if this happens. I’ll go to the US, which is also beset by tensions and rifts, intensified and exposed in the past few years. And globally, deep challenges such as climate change, Islamophobia, and increasing inequality beset us. I am aware of the challenges ahead, and of course, I will be an immigrant on a work visa.
In some dark moments, I feel like May is right and I’m a citizen of nowhere, even though I really do want to be rooted and belong, and I hope and will do my best in the US to belong.
But in my more hopeful moments, I feel like May is wrong and I’m a citizen of the world, and in Francis Bacon’s words, that is someone “whose heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them.” Brexit is big, but ultimately it detracts from the challenges that affect us all and that ultimately will require a joining of efforts that surmount borders; I’m excited as someone who works in a university context (particularly, a Jesuit university which prizes efforts for justice) to be able to do that.🔷
Liked this story?
Found it useful?
Here’s what you can do next:
(This piece was originally published on Medium. | The author writes in a personal capacity.)