I’ve had an international notion of identity baked into me my whole life, due to a combination of good fortune and timing.
I grew up in Hong Kong, the UK and Italy. I was too young to actively remember being in Hong Kong but it feels like the experience actively imprinted on my young brain regardless. When I lived in Rome as a pre-teen I went to an international school; nearly every child in my class was from a different country. Even at 13 it was evident that there was more connecting us than dividing us.
When I was 15, and back in the UK, we got relatively early access to the internet. This was the mid-90s, when the internet was awkward and slow and disabled your entire phone line while you were connected. At the same time I was obsessed with the science fiction television show Babylon 5 (itself a story about multiple cultures learning to co-exist and work together, which I only just recognised while writing this article…), the main result being that I gravitated towards Usenet — in some ways the social media of the time — to find discussion and community. This was back when debate and argument on the intenet was civilised and respectful, which feels like a different time.
As an adult I worked at a tech startup which operated internationally. Its primary customer base was in America, despite the company initially being run by half a dozen people in Norwich, England. I helped to create a vibrant global community around the product of passionate filmmakers, again drawing on different cultures and nationalities to create an exciting melting pot.
In 2018 I went to a wedding in Hamburg. There must have been at least ten different European nationalities attending, all of whom had travelled easily to be there. It was the most natural thing in the world.
I’m very aware that all of this is a story of significant privilege. As William Gibson said, the future is already here — It’s just not very evenly distributed.
These experiences reinforced a couple of concepts in my young mind:
- The notion of national borders seemed increasingly absurd and irrelvant in an age where I could talk to someone on the other side of the planet in real-time, and travel to anywhere on the planet in under 24 hours. That humans go to war with the teams based on nothing more than arbitrary country borders is nuts.
- I regarded myself as a ‘global’ citizen. Having moved around a bit as a child, and then encountering the internet in its infancy, the idea of limiting my identity to a tiny island off the coast of France seemed unnecessarily reductive. This wasn’t something I actively declared, as the concept of national identity didn’t seem important — but I never described myself as being ‘British’, and certainly not ‘English’. They both felt like historical terms.
In 2016 the UK went mad and embarked on a policy of extreme self-harm.
The unexpected side-effect of this Tory-powered path of willing self-destruction is that it’s forced everyone to consider their notion of identity. The natural internationalism of the first three decades of my life meant that I had never needed to actively assert any kind of allegiance to a flag or specific culture.
The Brexit process changed that. It made me realise that I had to understand my geographical identity, at least in a loose sense, because otherwise it would be defined for me by people I seethingly dislike.
I’m not English. I’m not British. Those are coincidental quirks of my birth. The only possible way I can self-identify is as a European. That broader notion better reflects my views and outlook on life, my understanding of culture and science and cooperation.
As a country to live in, Britain is fantastic. Generally tolerant, progressive and full of opportunity. Not for all, of course, which is part of the Brexit puzzle and tragedy — that uneven distribution I mentioned up top. The rot is not in the British people, but at the highest levels; a trickle-down cynicism and lack of imagination that has led to a national diminishing; a delusion of grandeur which has resulted only in the country becoming small and inconsequential.
The irony of Brexit is that the Leavers will never be satisfied, while the Europeans are galvanised: our sense of place and belonging has become clear. Too late, perhaps, but we know who we are and how we want the world to be. We’ve been woken from the passive slumber of our unconscious privilege.
My rights and legal sense of residency are being torn away by thieves and charlatans, but who I am remains the same. I’m a European, and one day history will tip back towards the future and the promise of a global humanity that I knew as a child. Perhaps next time we can more evenly distribute it.