I have always been disproportionately proud of my UK passport, as if it meant something important about me, that I had this exclusive secondary ticket to another life that wasn’t afforded to most of my friends. It didn’t particularly occur to me that the passport was representative of choices made by my parents, and by their parents; or that considering myself special by dint of association with a country not my own was really just an expression of the otherness I felt as a teenager who didn’t fit in well. I just liked it. I liked the colour of it, and the way it stood out from the pile of black passports when we took trips away. I liked the possibility of it.
I’ve lived in London for the last eight years, and they have been hard years for the UK. I’ll never pretend to be any kind of qualified political commentator, but I’ve watched the UK change. There is much more homelessness in London than there was when I arrived, at least in the central locations where I have worked. Conservatism is more entrenched, the likelihood of liberal majority getting further away with every election.
And then there is Brexit, this looming slow dreadful tidal wave. The degree of cliche that I represent (privileged, a homeowner purely on the back of parental generosity) was never better represented than the way I received the news of how the vote had fallen: muddy, sequinned, wandering blithely home from 4am Glastonbury festivities. I felt shock, and disappointment, and then I felt pure disdain for the voters who had pushed this exclusionary, backwards agenda over the line. I sat around, covered in glitter, with my clever white friends, and celebrated the fact that for the next four days at least, we could resist impending doom in a liberal bubble, sipping gin, eating loaded fries, feeling superior. I felt so certain that we were bastions of good, educated decision-making, standing strong in the face of ignorance and deceit.
The last three years were glacial, Brexit-wise. It began to feel like a farce, a cosmic Conservative joke on all of us. But even glaciers move, and the worst part of all of it was the inevitability of the way it eventually, painfully got done. I protested; I didn’t doorstop. I donated, but I didn’t lobby. I was the classic hand-wringer, pale-faced and watchful but uncertain. There was no one to stand behind. I have largely been a Labour voter, and I have been a Corbyn supporter, and it felt like the emptiest and most miserable betrayal to have no one to stand behind, or look to. We all knew it was bad; felt in our bones the loss. So why was there no one directing our formless, apathetic grief?
I was home at 11pm on January 31st. I’ve been sick for days, a lurgy that’s filled all the spaces in my face with mucus and left me with a cough that shakes my chest like a haunted house. I was in bed when I heard the fireworks go off, in my Labour-voting neighbourhood. They felt like flares, not celebrations.
But at least I’ve had my face pulled free of my London bubble, my Twitter echo chamber. There’s no denying that something is broken, and that we all had a hand in breaking it, when every clip of every Brexit-voter in Parliament Square featured someone a bit short, a bit old, celebrating how this move represented taking back our borders and our courts from some faceless, menacing entity who is, in their minds, responsible for every taste of poverty and every opportunity lost. The problem, I think, is that the menace is far closer. It lies in the north/south divide and the inequality that becomes harder and harder to deny. But it’s easier to blame a stranger than a neighbour.
No one can put their finger on what they’ve lost, other than the essential otherness that being European gave us. We associate Europe with exciting alien tastes and adventures; sunlight on cobbled streets and dark wines late at night. Europe is warm seas and close growths of greenery; vineyards and mountains that taper off into the sky. To be European is to be someone who closes their mouth around fish caught that day at midnight among friends, whose glassware is thin and brilliant and whose laugh echoes around a courtyard. Europe was sex and warmth and interesting strangers. Europe was the possibility that you might also be sexy and warm and interesting, rather than someone with blisters and unused potential and an overdraft.
It makes sense that Brexit took place in January, the longest, coldest, saddest month. In February we are self-made castaways on a proud, grey island. And it’s horrible to admit that the venture proving successful would be a terrible outcome. What if, economic certainty, better trade deals, more local industry? What if, lower unemployment rates, better weather, happier people? What if Boris gets to face down world-wide doubters through the lens, and tell them that they were wrong, and he was right? We were, after all, part of Europe pre-1973, pre-EU. There were holidays to Spain then, there were Spanish tomatoes in our Greek salads served on Holloway Road. If it comes to pass, then will we, this lost liberal crew keening for our maroon passports, find it in ourselves to forgive past wrongs, paper over those historical undemocratic machinations, embrace being British, and admit that if an economic partnership was so essential to our sense of self then perhaps there was something flawed about that sense of self?
New Zealanders are sometimes mocked for being too patriotic. There’s something slightly too easy to parody about our powerful passion for the things we’re good at, our innate certainty that our tenacious geographic isolation makes us unique. Kiwi battlers. Underdogs. Antipodean Davids brandishing fists at a whole world of Goliaths. The opposite has happened in the UK, where it’s been thrown into sharp relief that (at least among the Remainer camp) pride lay in our associations with others, rather than what it means to be British. Left now with the Union Jack, the blue and gold flag no longer flying, the tenets of Britishness have begun to look like a celebration of division.
Brexit is done. The glacier has melted into the sea. The aftermath has arrived. And I get to face the fact that my passport is no longer so special. Upon arriving in Spain, or France, or Italy, I will join my fellow Kiwis in the Other queue. I’m not different. I’m exactly as Kiwi, or British; interesting or boring; educated or ignorant; engaged or apathetic as I ever was. The change is around me – possibly in who I get to meet, where I get to go, what I get to eat, how much I get to earn – rather than within me. But it’s interesting how much it feels like both.