As a third generation Indian immigrant, I was always proud to be British. Now, the country I thought I knew is unrecognisableby Harjeet Johal / August 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
A friend once called me the Fatima Whitbread of flag-waving – sturdy at the hips and record breaking.I am a third generation Indian immigrant, but when it came to supporting Britain, no one could match me for enthusiasm or effort. I would scoff at other third-generation immigrants who had not yet fully declared their allegiance to the country in which they were born.They harboured romantic notions for another place, a land they couldn’t define, and I belittled them for it.
Britain, for me, was a wildly international place.A country who had replaced its once infamous drawbridge with a fixed, well-lit highway out to the world. It understood that we had to be part of something bigger than ourselves and that participation, in turn, made us greater still.It also signed up to the European version of liberalism, and because of that, our acceptance of difference was driven up, to a higher place – so-much-so that we became (perhaps unknowingly) a world leader in it.We were a net-exporter of tolerance.
But then Brexit happened.Brexit was a rejection of my notion of Britain.The place I defended so vigorously fell away from beneath my feet. I still can’t decide whether Britain was changed on that night or whether it revealed itself, ripping off a mask which had itched for the last forty years, inflaming and irritating the true skin beneath.Either way, I felt a gut punch and I’m still struggling to breathe.
Over a year has passed and I live in a swirl of mourning, reminiscence and rage, but I can’t find enough people to mourn with.I am thirty-eight years old, others of my age group look at me with confusion: “get over it”, they say. The keep-calm-and-carry-on has kicked in, yet it shouldn’t have. I can’t be calm; I don’t want to be. I now realise that the 48% are not all like me, in fact very few are like me.I’m in a minority of a minority.
The Britain of old is now the new Britain, but I don’t really know that country. Maybe my immigrant heritage means that I look more into the future for Britain’s definition than into its past:a forever-young nation, beautifully morphing and changing as era gives way to era.I have no elders telling me about the war and how we beat the Luftwaffe or how they survived on an ounce of butter a week.I love Britain for the here-and-now, not the then-and-was. The Britain of seventy years ago would not have accepted me the way the Britain of today does, so I can’t obsess over a history that I don’t really fit into. I deeply respect, and at times draw inspiration from, the story of the nation, but perhaps this isn’t enough.The problem is, it is all I am willing to do. My union flag flutters with promise not nostalgia.
The Brexit debate was a slanging match between camps of white people in the media and politics, shouting about what Britishness meant.But what about us?Surely we should have been allowed influence in defining Britishness, not just because we live here but because we have contributed so much.We have been crucial in the success of modern Britain.From the sweat of the foundries in the fifties through to the boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies of today, our ceaseless enterprise has helped build Britain. But we were ignored.
So, I find myself without a nation.It’s time to become an immigrant in the country I was born.
My grandparents are dead.I had little to do with them while they were alive.They were totems to which we occasionally paid homage.But I now find myself wanting to know them – not their successes (we are over schooled in those) but their emotions. I want to know how they coped with being somewhere they didn’t truly belong.I saw how they existed in a state of limbo.Britain was where they lived, but they weren’t emotionally wedded to it, but nor were they to India – they never properly moved back.It was an existence that I found unsettling, but one that I have to be prepared for. The difference is that they left India voluntarily.The country that I held dear has rejected me.I do feel, however, that I can finally look my granddad in the eye as I now know what it is to be forever wandering while standing still.
The future of Britain will be written by Boris Johnson, David Davies and Liam Fox. An axis of denial whose vision for Britain is diametrically opposed to mine. There is no real effective counterweight to them, neither politically nor socially.The Labour Party is complicit, the Lib Dems are irrelevant and the people have, in the main, moved on.So, what they write will pretty much happen.
I can’t wrap myself in the flag I love, grab a bottle of gin and be sure that it will all be ok in the end.The country is settled (even if begrudgingly) with its new self and it will cope with whatever comes its way.I can be found instead looking wistfully into the past and into my lost homeland, remembering the good times and swapping stories of the old country with those few other exiles like me (perhaps I should take up dominos; I always imagine emigres playing dominos).
It’s time for to fold away my beloved red-white-and-blue and pack it away somewhere safe.But I will always call on that one, precious commodity we immigrants have in abundance: hope.