Fury, disgust, fear, dismay — the intensity of my reactions to Britain’s vote to leave the EU surprised me. Why should I care so much?
By Alistair Lyon
The EU referendum result struck me with a sickening jolt when I woke up last Friday. My mental universe had lurched all of a sudden. The shift seemed dangerous, uncontrollable and, at least for the immediate future, irrevocable.
I felt furious at David Cameron for his recklessness in promising the vote on a woefully trivial political calculation. Disgusted by the lies of the campaign peddled mostly, but not only, by the Leave advocates, and astonished that so many of my compatriots swallowed them.
Fearful for the future of a dis-United Kingdom, where indignant millions in England and Wales used their ballots to vent grievances against arrogant politicians, austerity, disruptive globalization, Eurocrats and above all migrants. They ignored the urgings of mainstream parties and a plethora of reasoned opinion, notably from economists and foreign politicians.
Only the likes of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen applauded their choice.
I also felt dismayed by the newly empowered demons of racism and bigotry harrying foreigners and those, like the murdered member of Parliament Jo Cox, who defend them. Anxious about the impact of our folly on Europe and the rest of the world. And embarrassed by what we have gone and done.
Being British is more central to me than I had ever imagined.
The intensity of my own reactions surprised me. Why should I care so much?
I just turned 64 and have spent well over half my life abroad — a year in Israel/Palestine and Austria before university, seven as an English-language teacher in Yemen and Lebanon, and 33 as a journalist ranging the wider Middle East, with only two spells on the Reuters editorial desk in London.
I lived for a total of 14 years in Beirut and was married to a Lebanese for two decades. Both my daughters were born in Jordan, but hold only British passports. I worked outside Britain for one stretch of 27 years. I wasn’t even born there, but in the ex-Belgian Congo, where my parents spent three difficult years as Protestant missionaries. Now retired, I live in the foothills of the French Pyrenees with my German wife.
Being a foreign correspondent compelled me to appreciate the often conflicting concerns of many people as I tried to grasp the dynamics of their turbulent countries. I am grateful for that experience.
But all those years of exile deprived me of any solid sense of community or belonging in my “home” country. And at least if the surprises of the past week are any guide, long absence has also widened alarming gaps in my understanding of my own kith and kin.
Yet my emotional response to the referendum debacle has shown me that being British is more central to me than I had ever imagined or admitted. Even if it’s a somewhat blurry identity.
The EU is a repository of shared ideals.
I spent my formative years at school in Bristol and university in Cambridge, but sank no lasting roots in either. My father, an Edinburgh-born doctor, and my mother, a nurse from rural Somerset, bequeathed me a soft English accent and a hazy loyalty to Scotland, where I have never lived.
Still, a certain familiarity never goes away. There’s that flicker of homecoming when the plane touches down on British soil. The thrum and buzz of London. Scotland’s misty West Coast. The cultural moorings of books, films, music, sport, politics, pubs and language. The conviviality of shared references, although I sometimes fail to register the latest or those I have missed along the way.
Even if many of my most revelatory experiences occurred elsewhere, there remains an indefinable sense that Britain is my bedrock.
That bedrock now seems to be cracking. Ostensibly over the European Union, although a far nastier malaise has surfaced.
Yes, the EU is an infuriating and imperfect club, but it has produced benefits in the single market; labor, consumer and environmental protection; cooperation against crime and terrorism; and funds for research, infrastructure and struggling regions. I cherish most the freedom to live, work and travel in member states.
The EU is also a repository of shared ideals of democracy, freedom and human rights, even if its adhesion to these is flawed and on occasion, as in the refugee crisis, ignoble. Britain has already extracted more opt-outs from EU rules than any other partner, and we cannot keep cherry-picking if we want free trade with our neighbors.
It would be rash to assume Britain is immune from violence.
Alas, short of miracles, we can no longer help shape those rules.
Our willful act of self-harm, an affliction usually associated with troubled teens, threatens the territorial integrity, prosperity and global standing of the United Kingdom, which with all its faults had seemed to me a pretty stable, tolerant and decent place. Once it even prided itself on giving sanctuary to refugees.
It no longer looks very welcoming or appealing to foreigners of any kind. The vote has produced a political vacuum, turmoil in both main parties, clueless panic about what comes next and more than a whiff of demagoguery.
Now we all “want our country back”, but are at each other’s throats about what that means.
I have reported on conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere. One lesson I gleaned is that once the veneer of civility is stripped away and fearful communities turn in on themselves and against their neighbors, societies can unravel at frightening speed.
The same pathologies marked Europe’s Balkan wars of the 1990s after communism collapsed. We don’t readily associate prosperous Western democracies with sudden descent into savagery. But it would be rash to assume Britain is somehow immune from violence. Remember Northern Ireland.
You can take the boy out of Britain, but you can’t take Britain out of the boy.
Last month Cameron’s critics derided him for saying a British departure from the EU would imperil the peace Europe has enjoyed since World War Two. Yet we rarely acknowledge that the post-war foundations of the future EU were laid deliberately to lock old enemies France and Germany in peaceful cooperation that would make another war in the blood-soaked continent unthinkable.
Like many, I have been clutching at constitutional straws that might undo the referendum or mitigate its consequences. But it’s unwise to insult the electorate by ignoring its verdict, and I fear our exit is inevitable.
I hope we can contrive to stay in the single market, but that looks tough without implausible changes of heart among Britons hell-bent on ending free movement of people and EU leaders determined to preserve it. Irreconcilable differences presage a messy divorce.
Personally, I have learned you can take the boy out of Britain, but you can’t take Britain out of the boy, even though I do not relish its new direction. I voted in the referendum and will go on voting in British elections, or perhaps English or Scottish ones, in the 13 years remaining before our current rules disenfranchise me.
I will return for visits, but may never live permanently in those islands again. I had never imagined we would end up in a wonderfully obscure French hamlet, with a vegetable patch, fruit trees and mountains beckoning in the distance.
You can call it a bubble. It’s also a space where we can explore slower, perhaps more creative, ways of living. Cultivating our garden, the one outside and within.
I’d call it a refuge too, given the tumult back home.
Alistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.