I never thought I could be English. Now I am not sure if I want to be

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, the English are sliding away from subtle differentiations and towards simplistic identities. I have found they are easier to join—and all the more awful for it
December 8, 2019

I have only met Dominic Cummings once, but the meeting had a profound impact on my identity. It took place in a pub near the Islington home of the Leave campaign mastermind, some months after the Brexit referendum and many before he arrived in Downing Street with Boris Johnson.

It was a casual meeting, not an interview, and I wasn’t taking notes. But I hope I’m not betraying anyone’s trust when I relate being stunned that—when looking back at the referendum campaign—Cummings used the phrase “the problem for people like you is…” From the context, it was clear that by “people like you” he meant a new category of the English electorate called “Remainers,” a type of Englishness that he was identifying me with. And this was stunning because it was the first time I had ever been identified as any part of the English people.

I’m a first-generation immigrant with a blatantly non-Anglo surname; I have no relatives in England aside from my utterly un-English mother; I’ve lived at least half of my life in what you people call “abroad.” I’ve sometimes exercised my right to vote, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to associate suffrage with identity. I voted for practical concerns in places where I pay my taxes, the same as I would have voted in any country where I might reside.

At first, I thought Cummings’s identification of me an accident. But when I travelled across the country to cover the 2017 elections I heard the same sentiment: “it must be hard for people like you,” I was told; “Brexit is all the fault of people like you.” And while Brexiteers saw me as the other part of the English people, so Remainers embraced me. As a Cornish friend who works at a multinational organisation told me: “there are many English people who are like you, and you can join us.”

Something fundamental has shifted in the possibility of becoming English. For the first time I have the option to join this once-exclusive club. On the one hand this seems convenient, as my British passport is the only one that I have. But what does it say about the English that they suddenly want to invite me in? And why, when I stand at the edge of this half-open door, do I find myself pausing?

A nation in gradation

As far back as I can remember, I never thought I could be English. Or to be more precise, the only way I thought I could be accepted by the English was to insist I wasn’t one of them. Let me explain. I grew up in the 1980s. As a child I worked out that the English were obsessed with difference, with the micro-gradations of class and postcode, accent, county and school. This deification of differentiation was even expressed in small details of urban design, in those park benches with little dividers between every seat. It was expressed more dramatically in relationships. When I transitioned between state and private schools at the age of seven, a friend’s parents told my mother that we could no longer play together as we were now “in different classes.” My Soviet-raised mother was horrified: what were these arbitrary distinctions?

Through my early childhood what felt like utterly unnatural class definers, distinctions that had nothing to do with me, were shaping everything around me. It felt as if some alien set of selves, with centuries of brooding hatreds, was being imposed onto mine. If this was what being English meant, I wanted none of it. Thankfully that wasn’t the deal on offer anyway.

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“Do you feel Russian or English?” my classmates’ parents would constantly ask me. I quickly worked out it was something of a trick question. It wouldn’t do to become English too fast, a sure sign you hadn’t grasped the differentiation game. The most English thing I could possibly do, I realised, was to insist on notbeing English. So, even though I’d only spent the first nine months of my life in the USSR, I identified myself as “Russian.” In many ways this was absurd. Though I spoke Russian at home my family was from Ukraine. But saying I was Ukrainian, when I didn’t even know anyone who spoke the language, seemed dishonest too. What was I meant to say: that I was Soviet? That was ridiculous: my family had run away from that regime. In any case Russia, Ukraine, the USSR—all these were abstractions to me. There was no sizeable Russian émigré community in London that I could be part of. “Russia” was shorthand for our family of three, a secret language we could speak in the street and no one understood, a texture of sound so much more boisterous than the breeziness of English. Russia and Ukraine were vast splodges upon the map that hung in our kitchen, part of the bigger splodge of the USSR, splattered with coffee, wine and cooking oil, a territory I could only populate with books that I had read. Is that where I came from—books?

I was only “Russian” in the sense that it was a way of being non-English in a very English way. This half-in, half-out identity had advantages. On the one hand I could enjoy the many pleasures of being in England, learn only the way someone living here can the stubborn sense of self-worth that even the poorest here possess, which is so striking if you know cultures where even the super-rich are mental serfs. But it also meant that I could avoid being pulled into the disheartening English class distinctions. As a “Russian” I didn’t have a class, I was just foreign. I didn’t have to carry around all the class guilt and loathing.

The only trouble I had with my very English Russianness was that my spoken English was a little too good. “Your English is so perfect, one would never suspect you are a Russian,” I would be told, and would feel my speech was somehow deceptive (what should I do—fake a Russian accent to be more genuine?).

The language proficiency became a bigger problem when, as a student, I found myself in Scotland. In Edinburgh I would be constantly mistaken for an English person, with all the national resentments that comes with. It could take a while to explain, sometimes not in the most friendly situation, that, despite my speech, I wasn’t English.

Edinburgh may not have been English either, but it was a concentration of all the identity disasters that I had always done my damndest to avoid. Class differences were represented geographically: the upper and upper-middle classes on the higher hills of New Town; the middle classes on the flat plains of Bruntsfield; the working classes on the lower slopes of Leith. And then there were the tensions between the English and the Scots. If it had ever occurred to me to think of myself as “British,” Scotland made me realise how fraught that identity is too. Becoming “English” meant having to take on the ghastly games of class identity; becoming “British” meant having to take on the mutual loathing of two nations stuck in an ancient and often abusive marriage.

I left the UK straight after university, and returned a decade later with three small children and an actually Russian wife in tow. Much had changed in the intervening decade. Russian was no longer a secret language on London’s streets. While I had been one of the few non-English kids in school, my children were in classes where over half, sometimes more like 90 per cent, could be some sort of immigrant. My children still weren’t English and would describe themselves as Russian, but it was much less of a big deal for them to be non-English.

And then came the referendum and that chat with Cummings—and my fragile constructions of being non-English English seemed suddenly irrelevant. Here seemed a project for a new English identity, loosely referred to as “Remainers,” where my foreign origins helped qualify me to join.

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New worlds, old hatreds

Here, however, is my first problem with becoming an “English Remainer”—I’m European. Not “European” in some abstract, cultural sense, but in the much narrower meaning of the political European project, the EU. As a teenager, in between my London childhood and Scottish student years, I lived in Munich, where I attended a special “European School,” one of a dozen or so such educational institutions created by the founders of the EEC and EU to create young people “in mind European” (Boris Johnson briefly attended one as well). The “European” idea nurtured in the school was not about imposing a supra-identity. We didn’t hail the European flag or sing “Ode to Joy” in the mornings. The educational innovation was to have you study history and geography in another language and from another point of view. So I was in the English section of the school, and studied History and Geography in French. Someone in the Dutch sections could have studied them in German. The Germans, from a French point of view, and so on.

While your distinct connection to your nation of origin was maintained (you still followed the broader curriculum of your own country), you were being simultaneously taught to be able to understand the point of view of others. In many ways this reflected the EU’s own logic, a project whose aim is not some woolly cosmopolitanism, but a way of squaring the circle of nationalism and the need for co-operation on a crowded continent. “European” is a way of doing things, a constant effort to understand others and compromise, to smooth polarisation.

The “Remainer” versus “Brexiteer” divide which now cleaves right through English identity operates with the polar opposite of such a logic. It’s all about constructing in-out groups. It’s a crass divide engineered by propagandists. Moreover, I’m not convinced the “Remain” versus “Leave” identities are all that stable or whole. Below the surface, I see the old class and national divisions I’ve always veered away from. Leave-Remain has quickly become a new way of talking about old Anglo-Scottish tensions. Meanwhile, among English political elites, what is purportedly a row about “Europe” is also an older dance of class ambition.

It is the story of up-and-coming middle class men like Cummings, Michael Gove or Dominic Raab, men from relatively humble families, strivers who went to slightly the wrong schools and wouldn’t have made the right societies at Oxford, challenging the smug, upper-middle class and lower-upper class aristos who ruled the country, and the Conservative Party. These up-and-coming men formed an alliance with reactionary grandees such as Lord Salisbury—a former power-broker in parliament’s upper house and the great-great grandson of the gloomy, bewhiskered Victorian premier. The power of such men goes back centuries, but their influence had seemed on the wane. Together these two groups ganged up against the urbane Osbornes and Camerons of this world.

“Europe” is just a proxy for this game. In another dynamic a Cummings or Gove might have been pro-Europe, if that was the anti-status quo pose that would have allowed them to stab the arrogant class above them. In this Edwardian play Johnson is the rakish opportunist, ready to transform himself to suit the zeitgeist, a humorous symbol of a society that has lost its sense of order and propriety. There would also be walk-on parts for ardent Catholic Leavers like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith, so desperate to prove they belong with the high Anglican elite they became the most furious advocates of English anti-Europeanism.

“The Brexit referendum asked the country ‘who are you?’—a question so explosive it is rarely asked directly”

“The irony is that for generations,” the Catholic journalist Kate Maltby told me, “it has been a core tenet of conservative thought in this country—especially amongst conservative Catholics and Anglo-Catholics—to stress our cultural debt to Rome, in both the classical and religious senses. TS Eliot, when he said that ‘there is no such thing as an English classic,’ asserted the cultural supremacy of pan-Europeanism. This used to be the orthodox position. So when you see senior Catholic Conservatives like Duncan Smith or Rees-Mogg laud Brexit as some kind of new English Reformation, it represents a huge disconnect from that English Roman Catholic tradition. Or perhaps, a rejection of it.”

Rather than fostering stable new selves, the Brexit debate has surfaced and sharpened old complexes and hatreds. If anything, the debate has become more class obsessed. Posh boys have long dominated English politics, but Brexit has been contemporaneous with a heightened public loathing for Etonians and accusations of how the boarding school system has created an elite that has led the country into ruin—feelings that must have been stirring underneath for quite a while.

And then there’s the anti-semitism debate. While focused on a justified critique of a Labour Party leadership that appears to have missed how some of its domestic fans and international “friends” are text-book anti-semites, what’s interesting is that this question has surfaced now, in the spasms of identity unrest around Brexit. Just as the country is questioning the assumptions about who it is, so English Jews are wondering whether they have been truly accepted.

The Brexit referendum asked the country “who are you?” a question so explosive it is rarely asked directly, and in the shock of scrambling for an answer every latent hatred, insecurity, hidden resentment and unresolved discomfort has been dredged up. And so, three decades after being constantly asked “what nationality is it you feel?” I find the roles reversed. It’s now the English who need to answer the question of who they are. But is there a way to do this that is less self-destructive, that gets us talking productively to each other, and about ourselves?

Cracking mirrors

Psychoanalysts are a bit suspicious of the word ‘identity,’” Josh Cohen told me, when I called to ask him whether there were any insights his profession could grant us into how to talk about who we are. “Identity in the strict sense is what never differs from itself, whereas psychoanalysis tends to think of selfhood as a fragile patchwork of different identifications—parents in the first instance, but then teachers, group leaders, rock stars, the list could and does go on. The French psychoanalyst Lacan speaks of the ‘mirror stage,’ the moment in early childhood when we see ourselves in the mirror and mistake ourselves for a cohesive, integral being, rather than the diffuse and contradictory creatures we actually are. In our effort to shore up this artificially complete version of ourselves, which we call our ‘identity,’ we are liable to become aggressive.”

And so amid a disturbing discussion about identity, Cohen suggested, psychoanalysts might suggest “getting people to think about identification as a process” and talking “through the different patterns and paths that lead us to adopt an identity.” Because, Cohen explained, “it’s amazing, once you start to think about it, the sheer number of identifications—personal relationships and cultural influences and value systems and so on—that go into the transmission and making of a self.”

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National identities don’t necessarily operate in the same way as an individual’s psyche, but there is a useful parallel to make here with Brexit. In response to the impossible question of “who are you?” implicit in the referendum—a sort of enforced glance into a national mirror—we have both retreated and been pushed into a series of binary identities which, when you prod them, fall apart, and by the very dint of their fragility become ever more aggressively defended. “Many psychoanalysts have noted how it’s impossible to have a nuanced, ambivalent discussion about Brexit,” Cohen told me. “You have to be for or against.” Recent social research echoes this. At King’s College Bobby Duffy has showed how British people tend to agree about many salient issues—minority rights, say, or how to govern the economy—but this long-established ability to find common ground in many fields of policy runs counter to strong emotional polarisation: something, or someone, is pushing us apart.

To think how we can move beyond the nasty in-out groupings that have come to dominate our discourse, it’s worth gaining perspective from other countries. Ever since the collapse of the USSR, my birth country of Ukraine has been going through one long period of turbulence around its national identity. Propagandists, foreign and domestic, have worked to split the country into a supposedly solid pro-European, anti-Soviet, Ukrainian-speaking West Ukraine, and a supposedly pro-Russian, pro-Soviet, Russian-speaking East Ukraine. However, when my small research initiative at the LSE conducted polling and focus groups across the country, we found such binaries were far too crude to do justice to diverse values and aspirations, and even attitudes to history in Ukraine, on both sides of the supposed divide. Parts of society which had been defined in different categories due to geography and language had much in common with one another. Others that had been clumped together had more in common with groups that had been defined as their adversaries. We now work with local Ukrainian media to explore stories that move beyond the east-west divide, that widen the aperture of possible experiences Ukrainians define themselves through.

Here in England, there is a panoply of unarticulated experiences that need to be explored. As the journalist Ben Judah once told me, the Jewish English experience has barely been covered in our culture. We lack the most basic family-saga novels that track the generational journey from Brick Lane to Hampstead Garden Suburb, and all the games around acceptance along the way. Judah has advocated for a British museum of immigration, that could compare and cross-relate the experiences of different immigrant groups over the centuries.

Perhaps one of the newer experiences covered could be of people like me, the more recent non-English English. Why do we come to England? Why do we stay? Once he’d fled the Soviet Union my father could have chosen to be a refugee in any number of western countries. He chose England because he wanted to work at the BBC World Service, and there is much to make sense of how the World Service has made possible identifications with this country.

And why did I bring my kids back to be brought up here? It wasn’t simply because of the language—any international school would have been fine for that. Nor was it because overpriced London is such a world city—there are others. No, it was because I wanted them to go through the same self-reflections about not being English that I did. Partly so we would have that in common, but more importantly because I think the way the English don’t accept you is a powerful way of thinking about who you really are. I was always faintly horrified by how my émigré Soviet relatives would become American in moments after they moved to the US, like seeing someone disappearing under quicksand. How can you, as an immigrant, start working out who you are if you are co-opted so quickly? The difference now is that the English, too, are sliding away from subtle differentiations and towards simplistic identities which are easy to join and all the more awful for it. In my insistence to avoid them, am I the last English person left?