I was alone on a bench in south west London as 11pm approached on 31 January. With the UK about to officially leave the EU I could not stay at home, nor did I want to meet anyone dressed up as an old English king – or chanting – as was likely happening nearer the centre of the city.
For many this historical moment is the beginning of a new, strong, patriotic era – the return to the “independent” country, a truly global Britain, with shades of the imperial age. Yet, for my closest British friends and, of course, for the majority of us, EU citizens living in the UK, it is not a great day. For us, another year of uncertainty is just beginning.
I teach modern and contemporary European history and study right-wing nationalism – and Euroscepticism obviously has a long history in Britain. Although many people prefer to believe they still live in an old and established democracy and business should run as usual as nothing happened, I personally I feel it is worth looking back before we concentrate on looking forward.
Indeed, for the first time in my life, I have become a immigrant without the security blanket of our place in the EU – and I feel so. Only pro-Leave pundits can claim how “In Brexit Britain, we are positively happy”. This is far from of the emotional states of those rejecting the Leave vote, and from foreigners who made the UK their home. Our feelings are mixed, from a sense of betrayal to a mere sadness.
Britain gave me the opportunity to become an academic, a professional scholar, and to live in the a cosmopolitan bubble of London. It has helped me shape my voice and I will never forget this. There was something “cool” and romantic about this little island – where freedom and opportunity ran together. But my own academic research on nationalism and xenophobia highlighted to me that something was perhaps about crumbling. Conservatives were drifting further right, the noise against both EU and non-EU migrants growing louder. Euroscepticism went hand by hand with this anti-immigration rhetoric particularly hitting people more vulnerable than highly-educated professionals.
Out of that came the fear of Bulgarians and Romanians flooding Britain, the “Go home” car vans, the “hostile environment”. Senior ministers suggesting how large waves of immigration “can cause unrest”. Foreigners and the EU became the targets. And I learned that people like me were apparently stealing jobs, exploiting social housing, health care and school places, and benefiting from “health tourism”. The EU was paradoxically responsible for globalisation, deindustrialisation, social marginalisation, unemployment and apparently the dysfunctional educational system in Britain.
David Cameron and others essentially started following an agenda dictated by Nigel Farage’s party - whether that was UKIP or the later Brexit Party - thanks to their own party heading rightwards on the matter. They aimed at an immigration system that put "Britain first”. The language around the issue got harsher and harsher . In November 2014, an editorial by The Independent brightly warned about such move: “This could set us on the road to road to road to disaster, with the British public voting to sever ties with Europe and put up a sign saying that foreigners are not welcome here.” Could all this end up well?
No, if scapegoating and exclusion are becoming the norm whatever the thoughts about British "exceptionalism". Brexit is (almost) “done” but with no signs of improvement in the mood. Boris Johnson has talked about a national renewal. Throughout history the ideas of “renewal”, “rebirth” and “regeneration” have also taken some unfortunate and unexpected paths. After Donald Trump in America, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and illiberal “democracies” in Eastern Europe, is Brexit Britain going to represent a “liberal” nationalist state, trapped in imperial fantasies, with culturally and ethnically homogeneous ambitions? That would indeed be exceptionalism.
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