I don’t know the country I grew up in anymore. Not just because I’ve been in Japan for so long, but because I don’t recognize how Brexit happened. I don’t recognize how the politics I thought I knew turned into the bile I see and hear coming from the mouths of British people.
Or perhaps more realistically, I simply failed to notice that what has transpired now was always around at the time I lived there.
As children, many of us are shielded from politics. Or we, the white, middle class, like to think so. We might get a passing interest in the political by absorbing the views of our parents, but it isn’t until we ‘grow up’ that we understand the political process and of course can vote. Our politics as children are the politics of the playground and we might believe that adults rise above these to do the serious work of serious people.
Others aren’t so fortunate (is it fortunate?) and live in a world where politics is a major part of their lives. The personal is, after all, political. The lack of money of parents mean that the children go hungry. Parent(s) work several jobs so aren’t there to help with the homework set at school. The strikes organized by unions mean that children see their parents not working and understand on some level why that is.
I grew up in the 1980s in the North of England where coal mining used to be one of the main industries. I remember well the hostility held by those with fathers on strike toward those who crossed the picket line or members of the police. I was young, and my memories are recreated—as are all memories—from my own and collective experiences. I remember the graffiti of the National Front and other racist groups. I remember how children in the playground expressed the views of these groups, the parents, the racists. My children’s mind couldn’t process the political forces at work, but I remember the hate.
But what shocked me most about the Brexit decision was that it seemed to come so suddenly. It didn’t feel (as someone not living there) that Britain gradually leant one way and tilted into that decision. I didn’t think (as someone not living there) that the British people hated ’Europe’ so much.
When I did live there, doing my degree, I took units on the European Union. We learnt something of the economics at work. We saw how much EU money was used in local areas. I felt truly European. I had been privileged as a child to travel in Europe—this marked me out already as different to other children—and, although I never travelled to Brussels, at university I learned more about the Europe that I loved. I had never known not being European.
But now of course I recognize that privilege. And how others could come to other views about the EU. How those xenophobic views bubbled under the surface all the time. How easily people can be distracted from one cause of their struggles to an ‘other’.
The reasons for the Brexit referendum and the result are complex, too complex for me to fully understand, but I can write about my experience of it living in Japan. And my experience of that result was crushing. As the results came in I was sat in a large meeting of our International Committee. We were discussing as usual the agreements we had with universities in other countries, including those in Europe. The meeting agenda and materials were open on everyone’s laptops, but I could see one professor sat across and in front of me had the Brexit results coming in live on his laptop. As the meeting progressed the results became clearer and clearer. The idea of Brexit was not going to be thrown out with force, instead it was close, and then it was decided. I must have been in actual shock as I couldn’t focus at all on the meeting and had tears well in my eyes. The air became thick to breathe. The world as I thought I knew it was gone. The complicated relationship that I had with the country of my birth was changed; it was no longer simply complicated, it was an unrecognizable country. It was a waking nightmare.