I don’t post political things. Not because I’m 26 and apathetic like much of my generation, but because most political shit I see is virtue-signalling rather than actual discussion, and I don’t want to contribute to that.
I’m making an exception today.
I’m British and I voted for the UK to stay in the EU. This wasn’t a difficult decision for me; while I do agree with some of the arguments about the problems of the EU, I don’t think that leaving the EU solves any of those problems. Thing is, though, this vote was never really about EU membership. It’s a domestic British revolution expressed through the wrong international forum.
It’s a strange experience to watch this develop from somewhere else. I live in the Netherlands, where everything is continuing as normal and I can’t get a sense of what the atmosphere in the UK is like. I’ve had a few pro-EU friends from home say things like “this fucking country, I’m so jealous you get to miss out on this” or “I bet you’re glad you’re outside the UK right now!”.
I’m not. I might be the kind of middle-class multilingual metropolitan lefty liberal prick that the anger of a lot of Brexit voters is directed against, but the UK is still my country, my culture, my people, and I hate seeing it tearing itself apart. I wish I was back there now. I think that people who say “I don’t like X, I’m moving to Y”, whether it’s Brits upping sticks because of Brexit, or Americans moving to Canada because of Trump, is sort of cowardly.
And funnily enough, this is something that living in the Netherlands for three years has taught me.
British people are fucking weird about being British. Vast swaths of the country are embarrassed about being British, and English doubly so. It’s not new either. George Orwell wrote about it in the 1940s:
England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.
The longer I spend in the Netherlands, the more I realise how ridiculous this is. I’ve seen a lot of people writing a lot of things recently about how patriotism leads to division, how flying the British flag is the start of a slippery slope that leads to white people shouting at brown people to fuck off home. Three years ago, I’d have agreed, but it’s arse about face and it’s taken me moving to the Netherlands to see that.
We need small acts of patriotism, of banal nationalism, because it’s the small overt acts of patriotism that allow a country to positively define itself. More than that, the small communal acts of patriotism are actually tools for integration and inclusivity, not against; it’s a signal that says “hey, this is who we are, this is what we do, and taking part will make you welcomed and accepted”.
The Dutch get this. They’re a country comfortable in their own skin, or at least, far more so than the UK. On Koningsdag, the Dutch dress up in orange, sell second-hand shit in parks, and get drunk in an overt celebration of Dutchness in its boozy, thrifty, orange glory. Through British lenses, this should naturally develop into Dutch people laying out markers of what isn’t Dutch and excluding anybody who doesn’t fit, but it’s not, it doesn’t work like that. Small acts of patriotism through which Dutch identity and nationality is positively expressed allows people to integrate better. I stick on my two-stripe 1974 shirt and get drunk with Dutch people, and in doing so, this is me, an immigrant on benefits who doesn’t speak the language that well, taking the chance to show that I want to be part of this place, and in doing so, this is the Dutch accepting me. That’s not to say the Dutch don’t have their problems… but I’ve never seen a British Het land van.
Without this, how can an immigrant – especially an immigrant from a much more culturally distant background – integrate into the UK if we’re too embarrassed to show what being British actually means? If you’ve moved to a different country, you’re probably there because you want to be. Without a template for integration, a forum for showing your enthusiasm to be here, these tensions feel inevitable.
And it’s more than immigration. This atmosphere, this feeling, this communal gezelligheid of Dutchness, creates an atmosphere where Dutch people care about Dutch people more. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Netherlands has some of the lowest economic inequality in Europe. Meanwhile, think of the message that this embarrassment sends to a lot of British people whose lives are pretty shit – not only are we doing nothing to address your problems, we’re telling you that your national identity, which is pretty much all you have to hold on to, is something to be ashamed of.
I have a horrible feeling that we’re going to waste this crisis. Because it’s not just a crisis, it’s an opportunity, an opportunity for the real, far-reaching reform that we so desperately need. Many people who voted to leave the EU say that this is a fundamental issue of democracy. Brilliant. Let’s take that enthusiasm and establish a 21st century proportional voting system (fuck, I’d settle for a 20th century voting system, it’s still more up to date), and let’s get rid of the House of Lords. Watching everything unfold after this referendum, the fact that four million people voted UKIP last year and got one MP was a deafening sign of things to come. Many people who voted to leave the EU say that this is about reinvestment in our own people rather than supporting other countries. Not sure I agree, but fine, let’s fucking do that, let’s take this imaginary £350m a week and renationalise public services, build affordable council housing, extend the NHS, support British industry, and decentralise everything from London so that the rest of the country actually has stuff to do.
This is Caroline Lucas’ time. If she can run with the Green party’s current policies and acknowledge and celebrate British (and especially English) patriotism, then we might just make something of this.
Sadly, nothing will happen if we can’t work out who we are. And if we don’t, then the UK really won’t be anything to be proud of.