These Are The Times

Ever since Brexit, and probably during the build-up to it, I kept thinking, “this is what it’s like to live in history”. To live in a time when such monumental shifts are happening they will appear on a curriculum somewhere in the future, and people will be writing theses on 2016 in the way that they might write one now on 1066, 1918 or 1939.

Like most of the 48% of people who didn’t vote for Britain to leave the EU, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’ve been living in a bubble (London – the biggest bubble of all). Seventeen million people in the UK didn’t think the same way as me or my friends. I’d already had an inkling that this might be the case during the election that brought our current Conservative government to power, but Brexit was still a mighty blow and wake-up call.

As we approach Remembrance Day, I think about how the World Wars defined my family. I know about my great uncles Joe and William who both died fighting in France. I think about how being born in 1918 and serving in the Second World War defined my father – even his memoir was called ‘Between the Fires‘. He told stories to me when I was a child of how shells whistled over his head in the North African desert, and I treasure the little book of photographs he brought back with him, showing him with his army friends.

My mother was a teenager during the Second World War and told me stories of the American GIs in town, taking a gas mask to school, and the sound of bombs hitting Liverpool, across the River Dee. She told me how she used to hide under the dinner table when the air raids were on. These were the stories my parents told when they were asked about themselves. I thought they were all rather romantic and slightly wished I’d experienced them too.

For my generation, and for others, I think our story starts now. I don’t think we’ve experienced anything that has forced us to identify our place in the world until now. Yes, we’ve had the miners’ strike, yes we had to deal with the threat of nuclear war in the Reagan-Thatcher era, yes we’ve had the Falklands and Gulf Wars. But nothing, in my view, has made us look at ourselves and the person standing next to us until now.

There is a tidal wave of right-wing aggression sweeping world politics right now. Political popularity is being built on a rising tide of xenophobia and misogyny and I think we’re right to draw comparisons with the 1930s, and right to wonder how the hell this is happening again.

For a few years now, I’ve been bumbling along in a bubble of left-wing liberalism, finding my feminist voice and shouting about things I feel strongly about on social media. Even so, I’ve never really felt able to completely define what I stand for, beyond feminism, because I’ve bought into an amorphous cluster of already defined liberal ideas: I stand against racism, sexism and homophobia, and support human rights, freedom of speech and international co-operation, ‘just like everyone else’.

Except not everyone else does.

These are the times when I have to recalibrate where I stand in the world. This is not just a case of retweeting a few statements I agree with, or sharing a meme on Facebook that makes me feel like I’m standing up for my values. What are my values? What is my story? How am I going to live it? What is the real-life action I’m going to take?

I keep looking for silver linings, in this ridiculous, Trumped-up world we find ourselves in. One is that so many of us are finding our political identity for the first time and the confidence to show it to the world. There is no doubt in my mind that Brexit and the Trump win are part of a backlash against the liberal values I stand for. As Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti tweeted:

Tonight is what backlash looks like – to women’s rights, to racial progress, to a cultural shift that doesn’t center white men.

I had no idea that the groundswell of support behind the ideas put forward by Trump, Farage and Johnson was so great. That the Daily Mail extremism of a Katie Hopkins or a Milo Yiannopoulos would actually be a populist view taken seriously by millions of people.

But it is. They are.

It’s naïve of us to think that we’re not at the centre of a huge historical moment right now. All we need to do is join the dots. These are the times when I am going to wake up and define myself within it. I have to. There isn’t a choice any more. There isn’t a comfy armchair to sit in and watch the world go by.

I’m very very scared by the US election result. They have elected someone who bears all the hallmarks of a fascist dictator – one who might overturn a woman’s right to abortion, who might build a wall to keep ‘foreigners’ out. So how wonderful is it that in a supreme case of role reversal, the German chancellor is the one to fire a warning shot across his bows:

Germany and America are connected by common values: democracy, freedom, respect for the law and for human dignity irrespective of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political conviction. On the basis of these values, I offer the future president of America, Donald Trump, a close working relationship.

So here I am, Mum, Dad. Witnessing something colossal on the world stage, in the week where we remember events we thought could never be repeated. For the first time in my life I believe that they genuinely could. And for the first time in my life I feel compelled to define who I am, and witness my friends doing the same.

These are the times.

A Tale of Two Countries

I usually studiously avoid political commentary (outside feminism) on this blog, but like many, I am moved to write about what I’m thinking in a post-EU-referendum world.

From my privileged London position, I’m thinking ‘let’s stop victim-blaming those that voted against my wishes and start blaming those who caused it.’ I can rail all I like against Welsh people who, in my opinion, scored a huge own goal against their own future by voting Leave, but there are reasons why they did so and they all point back towards Westminster and those who control the tabloid media.

Outside Scotland and Northern Ireland, the pattern of Remain voting was so starkly based in the UK cities, with Leeds, York, Liverpool, Cardiff and Manchester all voting IN with London, against the wishes of a majority vote in the rest of the country. There couldn’t be more of a statement about privilege versus need, about those who have, and those who have not, and we have to listen to that.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I grew up in North Wales and in the ’80s, things were grim. Mass unemployment, people living hand-to-mouth, no money for life’s extras. I experienced an epiphany in 1989 and knew I had to move out and live my life elsewhere. I moved to London to go to uni at twenty-two and although at the time it was like ripping a limb off, I knew it had been the right decision for me. I am now relatively well-off.

I wonder back then how I would’ve voted in the EU Referendum. We were a Sun-reading household so the message would have firmly been OUT. Enoch Powell and his ‘rivers of blood’ speech had been mentioned in my family home during the seventies so I knew what the score was in my Conservative-voting family, even though they’d enjoyed the privilege of living in an East African British colony for ten years. Oh the irony.

I remember, when I was a senior ballet student and teacher in North Wales during my late teens and having members of the only black family in the area attending classes. I remember someone shouting the ‘N’ word through our changing-room window and the friend they were targeting looking humiliated and ashamed, and how much shame I felt at what had happened. I didn’t agree with it, but it was all around me, latent. And I didn’t say anything. (I remember seeing a glimpse of my friend’s art sketch book one evening – it was full of pictures of black activists like Malcolm X.)

It’s completely wrong to think these views and incidents only exist outside cities and they’re only happening now – they’re everywhere, they always have been, and now they’re being validated by the campaigns waged by pro-Brexit campaigners, that focused on demonising immigrants, and more specifically, Muslim immigrants. Time and time again we hear about Leave voters telling us they’re ok with European immigrants (ok, except maybe Polish people) – they only voted to keep Turkish or Iraqi people out. Let’s just say what they actually meant – Muslim people.

Many of the Leave voters I know have spouses or partners that are immigrants, yet they seem painfully unaware of the irony of their vote. The important point is that they are ‘Christian’ immigrants, the ‘right’ sort of immigrants. What they really mean is they want to keep Muslims out.

Islamophobia is a fear that is sweeping the world and leading to a rise in fascism on both sides of the Atlantic. In an historic moment that feels like 1930s Europe on the brink of Naziism, we’ve got hate figures like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen congratulating us on ‘getting our country back’. ISIS are delighted that Europe is fracturing.

It makes me sick. Physically sick.

I have a handful of friends who are Brexiteers who are able to tell me why they voted, and there is no trace of racism in their answers. I want to understand their reasoning, and I think there are very valid points being raised about a non-Brussels administration that I need to know more about, and that I wish we’d all known more about.

It’s very clear that both sides in the referendum are only now finding out what the real outcomes are of Brexit. The Leave campaign are already admitting that the central elements of their argument are on shaky ground, mainly that the NHS won’t receive £350 million and that immigration won’t be reduced. Wales and Cornwall are surprised to find that their former EU subsidies might not be supported by a Leave administration.

I feel that we’ve all been royally shafted by a load of public schoolboys in Westminster, fighting for supremacy. There has been no clarity around the realities of what we’re facing and both sides have led campaigns that have fed on people’s fears of the unknown. It’s an act of such astonishing irresponsibility that it puts the banking crisis into the shade.

I still can’t quite believe that Cameron gambled an entire country’s future in a game of political Russian Roulette with his own party and the Brexiteers. Clearly not one of them expected Leave to win. That they have left the country with no clear leadership back-up plan in the last forty-eight hours is breathtaking.

Let’s not forget who created the ‘austerity Britain’ that the protest voters came out in force against. It wasn’t the Polish immigrant living next door to us or the Muslim we work alongside (or fear turning up on our doorsteps). It was this government, with its focus on privatisation. As I say, I’m going to stop blaming Brexit voters for this crisis and start pointing the finger at those who are truly in the wrong.

At times like this, I find it’s useful to remember that people are only human, with sets of hopes and fears that sometimes dovetail, sometimes they don’t. I spoke to a woman around my age who runs a local cafe about it all, on the devastating Day After. She brightly said that it was the first time she’d voted and that she’d watched some of the debates and felt she had to vote for her children’s sake. Vote out, that is.

I have to live with the fact that hers, and other people’s opinions are different to mine (whilst wondering how the hell a middle-aged woman has never got round to voting because she didn’t know how…). I am going to try and continue to live my life as I was living it before – trying to be as open-minded and inclusive as possible, campaigning against Islamophobia and the rise of right-wing fascism.

If anything, this crisis has galvanised me into wanting to be my best self and to look harder for the humanity in others. If people voted Leave and didn’t realise it would actually happen, then I have to realise that these are people who are used to their voices not being heard. And now my voice is one of them and I don’t like it.

Whatever happens with Article 50s, petitions, general elections, or further referenda, I’m going to be engaged with politics like never before.

I think we’ll survive this, but we won’t be the same again.

Good luck, Britain.