Referendums, Reflections & Reassessing Identity

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Compared to others, I had a somewhat nomadic childhood. Born in the UK with a British mother and a Canadian father, we moved to the United States to live in Florida when I was around two, and I spent much of my childhood there. After starting kindergarten, I quickly lost my English accent in favour of an American one, but I never found a real sense of belonging. Even as young as I was then, I never felt quite like Florida was the right fit for me.  Whether it was the town we were in or the way I was raised or simply that it just wasn’t meant to be, I don’t know.  I remember being one of only two children in a large class who did not raise their hands when asked if they belonged to a church. My mum let me try it, but it wasn’t for me.  Something in me always felt like I was on the outside, looking in, that I was only ever really a visitor, a spectator, never a participant.

When my mother finally decided to return the UK when I was around ten years old, I wasn’t sad. It was difficult to say goodbye to friends, of course, but there was a new adventure and a new home on the horizon that was calling to us, and I never regretted having to leave. I looked out at the patchwork quilt of farmland and towns stretched out before us as our plane descended, and knew that I was home.  I felt British as soon as we landed, in spite of later being baffled by cheap Sprite being called ‘lemonade’ and being given sweet popcorn instead of buttered. My English accent returned albeit with a mild but nonetheless detectable American twang, and as I grew up and as we travelled, I treasured my home and how privileged I was to always get to return there.

When I was older and began to comprehend politics and ethical issues, I came to appreciate how progressive and liberal and open-minded my nation was, at least compared to many others. I felt safe, secure, and extremely lucky to live here, with our NHS and our reproductive rights, and I was proud of our multicultural cities and diverse populations that many foreigners (often with a stereotypical image of the UK as double decker buses and red phone booths and white gentlemen and ladies saying: “God save the Queen”) didn’t even know existed. My mother raised me as a traveller, an explorer, and filled my heart with wanderlust and a desire to see everything, everywhere. She raised me to respect what else was out there, and to understand that others may be different, but that this was no bad thing. I visited other countries, other continents. I studied German and briefly French at school, and with an aptitude for language and a desire to try something new, I was accepted into university studying Japanese.

I moved cities to study, and then countries when my year abroad came around. I lived in an international dorm with students from all over the world – the US, Canada, France, Germany, China, Hong Kong, Australia, the Philippines and more – and my accent morphed again, my hint of North American growing stronger while my speech became a bizarre and apparently implacable idiolect, a melting pot of Norfolk, Manchester, Canadian and American. We learned about each other and our home countries, and Japan became a second home, in spite of home sickness and longing for my own culture, my beloved countryside and my accepting and diverse population. Being in as homogenous a nation as Japan for as long as I was had left me appreciative and proud of how far the UK had come and where I had come from.

I returned from my year abroad changed – evolved, I suppose, into a better, stronger, wiser person. I didn’t ‘find myself’ in East Asia, but I thought then that I had solidified my identity, that I was a traveller and a citizen of planet Earth, but that ultimately the UK was still part of me and part of my soul. Wherever I ended up, it was where I would always want to bring my suitcases back to; it was my home and I was British.

Over the years after my return, that feeling began to fade. Our nation voted again for a politician and a party that did not represent nor protect the working classes or our most vulnerable people or institutions, and I cried over an election result for the first time. I grew frustrated with how the nation was being mutated, how backwards steps were being taken and how our population had willingly voted, overwhelmingly, for a party that was gutting organisations that we treasured and attempting to turn higher education back into the realm of the elite. The the media painted new staunchly liberal and idealistic Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, with his pacifism, social justice and truly for-the-people politics, as some kind of vile, villainous man and either polluted his name or simply didn’t cover important stories about him, and this frightened me.  This government no longer represented me, and I started to feel less like this was where I needed to be.

In and amongst the dodgy political moves and biased media coverage, the cuts to nursing education bursaries and the unrest and low morale beaten into our doctors, the international terrorism scares and airplane hijackings and the refugee crisis in Europe and the migrants desperately seeking a better life here with us repeatedly flashed before our nation’s eyes, and it changed. I was not naïve; I knew that racism and xenophobia were alive and well, that Muslims, people of colour and people of Eastern European descent in particular were often subject to abuse and harassment.  I knew that we had as much of an intolerance problem when it came to minority groups as anywhere else. I knew that we were far, far from perfect.

I didn’t know, however, just how much hate had been bubbling away just below the surface, waiting to erupt like a dormant volcano that had been sleeping quietly since long before my generation was even born. When immigration became the scapegoat, the thing that the government could point to in order to divert blame for hospital waiting times and the housing crisis and rental prices and traffic jams and unemployment and high taxes and any and all other problems that were chipping away at our quality of life or our happiness or our livelihoods, it finally happened.

We were all discontent, and so-called uncontrolled immigration and the European Union’s influence on our borders and its apparent lack of democracy had been nicely lined up for the firing squad.

As much as I had prepared myself for the worst, I had somehow subconsciously still reassured myself that the British public would never vote in favour of leaving the EU. Surely we wouldn’t vote for something that would not only be such a dramatic change, but something that would shake and divide our country to its core, plunge us into uncertainty and paint us as unwelcoming nationalists?

 I read the news that the votes had almost all been counted and that the UK was set to vote Leave in shock at about half four in the morning, and it didn’t truly register for another twenty minutes or so. I cried, quietly, every so often for much of the morning and again on the drive home. My mum and I texted each other – my mum, who gave me my love of the wider world, and who had also enjoyed the benefits of the European Union, who loved free movement and her foreign friends and what immigrants to our country had contributed to it – and she later told me that she had stared in disbelief at the news for a moment before bursting into tears.

I used to feel British, to identify with ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ (in spite of its clichéd over-use), to enjoy our stereotypical and self-deprecating sense of humour and to appreciate what it meant to be British and have so-called British values.

But if this is what it means to be British now, then I am not British.

If to be British is to isolate yourself, to turn your back on your neighbours and to quite clearly say that you do not want any more ‘others’ crossing your borders, then I am not British. If to be British is to place your own selfish wants above unity and togetherness and the needs of those struggling in other countries, then I am not British. If to be British is to walk away in the face of a problem instead of using your voice and fighting it head on, then I am not British.  If to be British is to disregard logic and expertise and the pleas of not just our fellow European nations but non-EU countries too, and to instead swallow up far-right propaganda like Farage swallows pints with a gloating smirk, then I am not British. If to be British is to, in spite of the problems within the European Union and valid reasons for challenging them, willingly align yourself with manipulative, right-wing fascists and racists and give them your support whether you agree with their xenophobia or not, then I am not British.  If to be British is to make those who do not speak with a British accent and do not fit into the stereotypical caricature of our country that does not and never has existed cry tears of sadness and fear and feel like they and everything they have done for us are unwanted, then I am not British.

I no longer feel that same tie to this nation that I did years ago. Yes, it’s home for now, but it doesn’t have to be. It isn’t a valuable piece of my heart anymore. I have let go; I no longer need to be here, for this to be the place I always come back to. ‘British’ no longer represents me. This country no longer represents me, one of the many young voters who had a vision of togetherness, of working with Europe and helping those in need, of becoming a bigger, brighter, more skilled, more educated, more open-minded nation with the help of our neighbours. I had hoped one day, even if perhaps decades and decades into the future, for a borderless Europe and an EU that had resolved its many issues and shortcomings through member states standing side-by-side and fighting together for a better Union and a better world.

Enjoying, utilising and valuing our global connection with the rest of the planet through the internet and the expansive world it opened up to us, our generation voted to stay together and be as connected in physical world politics and economics as we were online, and we were silenced.  Instead, the UK voted to walk away from that unified future and made it clear that we did not desire it. We laughed and joked about the audacity and ridiculousness of American Presidential nominee Donald Trump to want to build a wall between the States and Mexico, and then on the 23rd June we put it to a vote, and as far as the rest of the world is concerned, as good as said that we wanted that for us too.

Only we don’t need to build a wall; we’re already an island.

Many of us are beginning to question ourselves and just what our identity is now that the majority, apparently, has spoken and our own voices have been drowned out.  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all had a complicated, brutal history with ‘Great Britain’ and its identity being oppressively thrust upon them, but there are those who, in their hearts, did feel British until the vote.  Not anymore.  British and Britishness no longer apply to them. This is not who they are, what they voted for.  What meaning the word and the identity had for them, for me, has been corrupted, tainted. We are all struggling to come to terms with what this means for us, and who we are on both a personal level and on an international scale. Who are we now? What are we? Where does this leave us?

Even after years of being back in the UK after living in Japan, I have never lost my strange accent and unusual idiolect. It is my passport; a mark of the people and places that are a part of me, of who I am. It is a mishmash of identities and experiences and societies. I am European, Canadian, a gaijin, an Earthling, an inhabitant of a vast and incomprehensible universe of which our entire, unlikely world is only a tiny part.

I refuse to simply be British anymore.


  1. This is so well written and really resonates with me. I'm British and I've always lived in England, but I'm also unable to identify with these so called British values. The fact that nearly half voted differently gives me hope, but the narrow majority that won the referendum still scares me.

    1. Thank you. ♥ At least we can take comfort in knowing just how close it was that it's barely a majority really (especially when you count the 30 odd percent who didn't actually vote).

  2. This is such a wonderful reflection of the past few days written reasonable and without degrading those who opposed remaining. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. Great post hun, very well put together. It will be interesting to see what the UK is going to do now. I'm from Scotland and a lot of people are all wanting another referendum to vote independence. Guess we will have to wait and see what the future will bring us. Lets not give up hope on our country just yet xxx

    1. Thanks so much! I'm not surprised, it isn't fair at all for Scotland to be dragged out when the majority there was so in favour of staying. We'll just have to wait and see what happens now.

  4. This is a great post Steph! Such a great read - it really makes me feel the emotions that you're feeling right now.

    Kayleigh x

  5. Beautifully written, Steph, and very moving. I've lived in either England or Wales my whole life but I have to say I don't feel at all British right now, what with everything that's been going on xx


  6. Beautiful post, I really enjoyed reading this. I'm devastated about the referendum results and about all the horrific comments and tweets of racism that have emerged since. I thought the UK was majority an advocate for tolerance, integration and immigration but it turns out racism and xenophobia is still so prevalent.

    1. Thank you! Me too, as I said I knew we weren't perfect but it's like a veil has been lifted and all of the things we thought weren't major issues here have been revealed and magnified tenfold. If nothing else, hopefully this will be a learning experience and encourage others to tackle racism and intolerance more directly.

  7. I loved reading this, such a well thought out post!

    We seem to have had similar experiences and I too spent my formative years in the us and can remember coming 'home' and discovering the liberal, multicultural land that is the UK and feeling truly blessed. I grew up in the midst of this progress and it's had such a huge impact on who I am. I'm absolutely gutted that that could change.

    Thanks for writing this, and offering up the idea that we can be more than just British, and in doing so be better than just British, regardless of what the majority of the population may think.

    A fellow citizen of the world! Hannah

    1. Thank you, it's really wonderful to hear about someone having such similar experiences and feelings!

      Brilliantly put, thanks so much for reading. ♥


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