How I learned to love the United Kingdom—and all its imperfections

No, "Brexit Britain" isn't perfect—but neither is the Netherlands. Our task is to foster an inclusive dialogue, not turn our backs

October 11, 2017
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In a recent piece in Prospect, Joris Luyendijk reflects on his personal experiences before and during the unfolding saga that is Brexit. Having spent considerable time in the London, Britain’s cosmopolitan capital, Luyendijk uses his experiences to draw conclusions about English culture and society. He is very to the point in highlighting what he views as some of England’s social ills: he concludes that the English are ignorant of the EU, the English do not understand compromise, England is not a serious country and that middle-class Englanders need to straighten themselves out. Like Luyendijk, I am a Dutch national and came to Britain considerable time ago. Similar, again. to Luyendijk, I found the events of Brexit—which prompted me to ask some serious questions about the various dimensions of my identity—upsetting. Unlike Luyendijk, however, I do not think that ‘England’ needs to be given alone-time so as to “sort itself out.” Instead, we need a far more nuanced and contextualised understanding of the events that led to Brexit—rather than a smug and self-righteous turning of backs. Britain’s internal diversity—both socially and economically—is a puzzling factor, especially to those coming from elsewhere. When I came to Britain over twelve years ago I had no idea about the vast cultural differences and diverse economic histories of the United Kingdom’s constituent parts. Since 2005, however, I have lived in Ceredigion (Wales), Oxfordshire and South Yorkshire and over time I came to understand that vibrant, cosmopolitan London is a world apart from the poorer areas in south Wales, on the outskirts of Edinburgh or in east Sheffield. One of the city of London’s greatest achievements is its diversity and multiculturalism. Difference is an integral part of the way of life in the city. Whether you are Dutch, Danish, Bangladeshi, Lithuanian, Jamaican or of any other background, you are part of London and London can be a part of you.

Read Joris Lyendijk's piece on how he learned to loathe England.

Importantly, as Luyendijk points out, many of Britain’s poorer areas arguably voted against their own interests when voting Leave. When it comes to voting, however, such contradictory actions are nothing new and Britain is certainly not the only country facing this issue. For example, parallels with the United States and the Trump campaign can be drawn quite easily. Nonetheless, Luyendijk’s admission that he feels sorry for the poor “who had no idea that by supporting Brexit they were voting to become poorer” misses an important point expertly made clear by Will Davies of the Political Economy Research Centre: while the EU supported many of Britain’s deprived areas financially, it could not give what “Brexit-voters perhaps crave most: the dignity of being self-sufficient … in a communal, familial and fraternal sense.” In other words, pro-EU liberals - whether hailing from Britain or the European mainland—never connected with or listened to the people of say, east Lincolnshire or Blaenau Gwent. Luyendijk forgoes this crucial issue of recognition entirely. The problem with his message is not that he is wrong. He makes some very important points about press ownership, for example. However, the fact that the £350 million trope has been manipulated in a way that betrayed nothing but contempt for those in need should inspire compassion, rather than simply derision. It is true that the in-fighting, the ulterior agendas, and the silence of those you wish to hear from are irritating enough to those who follow the Brexit debate through the papers and TV. But for millions of people—and especially for those who have multiple ties to various communities which are all important—Brexit is above all painful; it hurts. It is painful because for so many it is not part of a future they wished to see. It is upsetting and difficult, because it messes with the sense of identity of many a Briton and EU citizen. Gary Younge captured this sense of trauma well in relation to Britain when he wrote that “rather than inoculating the Conservatives from infighting, [the referendum] spread it like a virus across the country, exposing and expanding the rifts between town and country, children and parents, Scotland and England.” Instead, Luyendijk’s piece conveys a deep sense of superiority. Whilst England is portrayed as a country that is ignorant of the EU and has somewhat lost its way, the Netherlands by contrast—because presumably this must be at the back of the author’s mind?—is a serious European country. The Dutch are knowledgeable of the workings of the EU and do understand the notion of compromise.

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The £350m vote leave bus. Photo: PA In fact, the Netherlands has its own problems in this respect. Did the recent (inconsequential) Dutch referendum vote about the EU association agreement with the Ukraine, for example, betray a lack of understanding of the actual workings of the EU on the account of the Dutch citizenry? Or did the event highlight the complexity and sheer difficulty of negotiating democratic solutions in context of the European framework? What is more, in the Netherlands, the country’s largely white male elite has its own ways of reproducing itself. The UK actually ranks 23 places higher on the Global Gender Gap index than the Netherlands where the female/male ratio in the managerial sector (which includes “legislators, senior officials and managers”) is a mere 26:74. This is but one example regarding gender inequality. Book-lengths have been written about equality and the position of minorities. The point is, it is only in the Dutch self-image that the Netherlands is an egalitarian utopia, free from a cultural and economic elite that runs the country in its own interest. Cosmopolitan order has never come easily. Its highest achievements, such as the legal architecture of post-war international order and the European Union, were the result of hard work and compromise, as well as the tragic legacy of decades of bloodshed. The sense of a shared European identity that many Dutch enjoy—Luyendijk and I included—was never the result of some preordained harmony or European disposition. Brexit is a bitter blow to these values, but we must not turn our backs at this moment. We must resist simplistic one-dimensional representations of others that only lead to further polarisation when dialogue is so desperately needed, within and outside Europe. In other words, we must understand and embrace Brexit Britain. If we fail to do that, then the European project is truly lost.