Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s the British identity I’d constructed was made possible by two factors: first, that I could be black and British; second, by Britain’s cultural and political proximity to Europe. The former enabled me to believe that I was part of this country’s future; that the shadows of Britain’s racist, imperial past were receding and we were on our way to embracing a new multicultural millennium.
The latter suggested that I wasn’t marooned on this island with bad weather and pollution – a country of stained St George’s flags waving from pebbledash terraced houses. I was, even if only symbolically, somehow linked to the French Riviera, to Bavaria, to Stockholm’s archipelago. I was also connected to other countries similarly grappling with the legacy of European colonialism, for my Europe is a continent of Dutch Surinamese communities, Swedish Ethiopians, French Malians and Portuguese Cape Verdeans.
Like many people I was devastated by the result of the referendum, not only because it unleashed the latent forces of nationalism and racism that have always been simmering under the surface, but also because of the obnoxious, classist attitudes of clueless pro-EU middle-class London friends. The type that would have, in the 2000s, used words such as “chav” to describe many of the people I grew up with. The fractures were across unusual lines; many of my Labour-supporting northern friends – black and white – chose to vote Leave. “What has the EU ever done for black people?” was a common refrain, though of course the same could be asked about Britain. The idea here, fuelled by politicians such as Priti Patel, is that Britain will now welcome (and exploit) more workers from the Commonwealth than eastern Europe. Even if this were true it is short-term thinking that plays into a system that keeps rich people at the top and poor people at the bottom, to be used as scapegoats at will.
In some ways I now feel Brexit Britain needed to happen. The bolshy magical thinking of Brexiteers has been reduced to a whimper; we’ve limped out of Europe, “got our country back” – a country of high streets lined with betting shops and charity stores, with serious discrepancies in income and life opportunities between a wealthy south and an impoverished north. Whoop-de-doo.
And you know what? I feel less British and more European than ever before. Those of us who still feel connected to the continent will stay connected. I’m not going to let Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson dictate the terms under which I forge my sense of self. I still find my identity where I always found it; in cultural connection beyond nationalism, outside officialdom.
Johny Pitts is the author of “Afropean: Notes from Black Europe” (Allen Lane)