The issue of identity is at the heart of Britain’s Brexit schism.
It almost certainly also fuels the Trump fissure across The Pond, and other social conflicts in Continental Europe and beyond.
‘Who am I?’, individually or collectively, has been the dominant motivating question driving homo sapiens forward for a quarter of a million years or so since ‘how can I survive?’ stopped monopolising our private and social bandwidth.
‘Who I am’ matters because our identity is at the core of our Story. And without our Story our lives are meaningless. And without meaning our lives are not human.
The British Isles have only been isles for 8,000 years or so. Barely any time at all.
‘Great Britain’ was a sociopolitical construct invented 400 years ago and, I suggest, has never imprinted itself on most of the psyches inhabiting the larger of the isles, in the way that ‘England’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Scotland’ have.
Many natives, ‘feel’ like we belong to smaller, more distinctive territories still. For example, I am a Londoner, and I have never felt English, nor particularly British. I have an acquired and deep affection for the Suffolk village in which I live and the county that includes it.
I am also proudly working-class, and, throughout my whole life, have been suspicious of the Establishment and its motives.
So, for me, the European Union works. I love going to France, Spain or Italy as a citizen not a guest. I have no God. I despise the absurd, unelected House of Lords and its 800 members, set to become a thousand.
I despise our ‘first-past-the post’ general elections that left the Tories as the biggest party with far less than a half of the 2017 vote, which itself represented only seven out of ten potential voters.
Likewise, I have no respect for the EU referendum outcome. Brexit was decided by barely more than a third of the full UK electorate. And perhaps 100,000 of those, net, have died since then.
Who am I? A Londoner, a European, a human being.
I am no economist, but I know enough to know — as does the superbly educated, privileged, clever, liberal, cosmopolitan, multilingual, New York born, despicably self-serving Boris Johnson — that no nation state (itself a relatively recent concept) with less than half a billion inhabitants (we can discuss Japan another time) can prosper in the modern world without acknowledging that borders — territorial, commercial and virtual — can only exist in our heads.
The UK can never ‘take back control’ because ‘control’, in 2017, is irrevocably at the mercy of external factors. Whatever the Brexit liars claim, Britain does not have, and never can have, a centre of gravity powerful enough to counter those forces.
The 500-million-strong, wealthy community that is the European Union, has shown that it does have a sociopolitical core strong enough to deal with the Soviet Union, the global financial crisis, the Euro’s travails and Greece’s social distress.
But millions of hard-pressed English and Welsh families do not feel the gravity of that Continental core, however much its people and institutions enhance their environments, whether through the labour forces of care homes, hospital wards, pubs and fruit farms, or through the Brussels cash flows injected into Cornwall and Wales. Yes I know it is ‘our money’ in the first place, Nigel. But, as I have already explained, I do not trust our Establishment nor our electoral system to send it back to our communities.
Millions of hard-pressed English and Welsh families did not and do not identify with the ‘bigger story’, and those leftish liberals who did not appreciate that (me included) are as responsible for Brexit as those who voted for it.
Better informed commentators than I have described this ‘them and us’ in different ways. I particularly like David Goodhart’s ‘somewheres or anywheres’ analogy. And at its centre is the question of identity.
The UK’s skewed system of charity-status private education, protected inheritances and sanctified home ownership — supported by an anachronistic voting system and grotesque governental structure — blocks millions of citizens from pursuing the personal stories that many of us enjoy: sometimes epic journeys leading to the acquisition of financial, cultural and social capital.
With those stories placed beyond their reach, other identities — of locality and common experience — fill the void. Membership of a fantastical, buccaneering, ‘independent’ island state fit the bill.
But this Story is an unachievable myth. And those who peddle it should be ashamed of themselves.