Yet again I find myself in a minority in a national vote. It was hard to take in the past – 1992, 2010, 2015 – but with those there was always the hope for the future. Now it is hard to see where. This is a backward step that cannot be reversed. This vote was always about more than EU membership. It was a vote about what kind of UK the people wanted. An open, inclusive, tolerant nation that saw itself as part of a wider world; or a closed one which saw divisions and barriers which it wanted hardened. 17.5 million people have voted for the latter. Some of those people may claim that they saw the vote as means of achieving the former, and I look forward to hearing from the left-exit voters and leaders how they will go about that. It seems clear, as it always appeared, that this has simply handed further power to the right.
For the past year I’ve had a divided life between home in Coventry – near University of Warwick – and a rented flat in London, in the borough of Lambeth, which is close to where my wife works. Coventry voted to leave; Lambeth had one of the strongest remain votes. When the votes came in for Newcastle and Sunderland it was clear which way things were going. As someone who used to live in the northeast when I taught at Durham University it is devastating to see that the huge problems of that region are blamed on the EU and migration rather than domestic politics. Other places I’ve previously lived such as York and Bath voted to remain. The town I was born in, Ipswich, and the town where I grew up, Colchester, voted to leave. It is a divided country, by class, geography, age and other factors which may take some time to disentangle. 16 million people voted to remain. That at least gives some hope. But this was a one-off vote, the process begun cannot be reversed. Worse is to come. While the parties may have short term joy, the UK Independence Party and the bulk of the Conservative and Unionist party may have destroyed both the UK and the Union.
As an English European, an identity I saw as mutually reinforcing, rather than as an either/or, I feel that a part of that is being taken away. The EU was far from perfect, and there were serious problems with its democracy, its economic policies, its migration attitude and more. But it was a shared project to say that Europe in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond could be better, not just compared to the first half of the twentieth century but the centuries that came before. As a historian, a political theorist, a political geographer, those issues are very much in my mind. I have worked on two main topics in my research and teaching career – European thought and the question of territory. I will doubtless find ways to engage with the future politics and geography of the European continent, a continent of which the UK is and will remain a part, even though its future lies outside of the EU.
I worry for my non-British European PhD students, my European colleagues and friends who have made a life in the UK. I worry for my nieces and nephews, and the country they will grow up in. I worry for the future life of migrants, and the welcome they will, or will not, receive. I am married to a migrant, a US citizen who came here when we got married, took jobs in the UK, took citizenship and now works for the UK government on international development. What will be the future of that part of the UK’s role in the world? I worry for the future of the European project, which both includes and exceeds the EU. This is a dark day. Perhaps something good will come of this, but at the moment it is hard to see quite how.