Stephen's story

Brexit testimony

I come from what I think was once known as a working-class background – my maternal grandfather was a butcher and my dad’s dad a French polisher by trade, my dad was a motor mechanic and my mum a stay-at-home parent after I was born – and I grew up on a variety of council estates in a west London suburb.

I was born in in 1958 and was fortunate enough to grow up in a household in which books were plentiful and education held in high esteem, so after going to state infant and junior schools (as they were called then) I was fortunate enough to go to a fee-paying school with the support of a Local Education Authority grant, which meant that my parents had to pay a nominal annual contribution and I enjoyed a public-school standard education. I had a talent for languages (which was just as well, because I was crap at maths and science), and eventually got a degree in French and German. Having met my soon-to-be first wife in Germany during my gap year at university, we returned to Germany after I graduated. 

I’ve lived and worked in Germany since 1980.

Although I haven’t actually taken German citizenship – as a citizen of an EU member state, I always told myself, why should I? – I feel completely at home and integrated in German life and culture. I speak near-native German (“Eigenlob stinkt”, as the German saying goes, but this is no place for false modesty). My wife and my offspring are German citizens (I am the only weirdo in our household in that I have a British passport as my sole means of identification). I am gainfully employed as an English teacher in adult education (with a fully legit freelance translation business besides).  I am a homeowner (or I would be if I had finished paying for it). I pay taxes (through the nose) in my adopted country, yet I have always maintained a considerable amount of pride in my native land, its people, its traditions, its sometimes infuriatingly insular quirkiness, its aura of continuity. If you’ve read ‘Notes From A Small Island’ or ‘The Road To Little Dribbling’ by Bill Bryson, you will get the general idea. Despite loving Germany and its attendant delights, I always felt that Britain was still there in the background, immutable and dependable, should I ever wish to go back.

Then came That Referendum.

I, of course, was denied a chance to vote because of my long residence outside the UK, but I said to myself: “Surely the Great British Public will not vote to leave the EU? Why should they? They’ve never had it so good!”, to quote another great believer in European unity, the now discredited Edward Heath.

Sadly, my prophetic powers soon proved to be woefully deficient, just as they had been in the run-up to the last presidential election in the USA, where I had cheerfully believed that no country in its right mind could possibly elect The Orange One in preference to Hilary Clinton.

If I was unprepared – perhaps naively – for the result in favour of Leave, I was even less prepared for the horrifying repercussions which followed the announcement that Brexit would become reality in the not-too-distant future. The disgraceful abuse, verbal and physical, of anyone who did not appear to comply with UKIP or the BNP’s idea of what a true Englishman should look or sound like; the scrawled invitations to Poles, Romanians and what have you to “Fuck off back where you came from” that were put through letterboxes or stuck behind windscreen wipers by the kind, considerate and tolerant neighbours of these unfortunates. The crowing that we (we? We??WE??!) had “Got our country back”. 

For me, this was the turning point. I was no longer proud to be British. How could I possibly defend a political system – I won’t say a nation, because I know there are plenty of shocked Remainers in Britain – that was at least complicit, if not actually instrumental, in legitimising long-harboured xenophobia, racism and ignorance? How could I look myself in the face in the mirror and feel anything but shame and horror at the treatment of fellow humans in much the same situation as myself – guests in a foreign country – by my fellow Britons? 

I could say “I’m all right, Jack – the Germans won’t/can’t chuck me out, I’ve been here too long, Germany is my adopted home, my family and life are centred here”, but that is not the point.

The point, for me, is that Brexit spells the end of more than 70 years of relative peace and stability in Europe, a continent seemingly divided by political borders and a diversity of languages and cultures, but united by a single market, shared prosperity through the EU, and shared common values of liberty, tolerance and common decency – not to mention freedom of movement for all European citizens. The petty dreams of grandeur dreamed by Little Englanders who do not realise that the sun really has set on the British Empire once and for all, and possess the arrogance to believe that Johnny Foreigner will come begging on his hands and knees to John Bull will, I fear, be nothing more than dreams.

At the moment, my overriding emotion at the prospect of Brexit is disbelief.

Disbelief at the bare-faced cheek of the political establishment and its sacrifice of the good of the country and its people to political expediency. 

Disbelief at the shameful, degrading and arrogant treatment meted out to EU citizens now living in the UK, at the uncertainty in which they, I and millions like us are now forced to live.

Disbelief at the headlong rush into cultural and economic isolation that will happen after Brexit.

Disbelief that I, who have lived among Germans for nearly 38 years and never – no, not once! – heard anything remotely like serious abuse of me personally, or my country generally, for being British, and have always felt welcome in this open, tolerant, sometimes infuriatingly bureaucratic, but always  friendly country, now feel alienated from and ashamed of my native land. My genetic and cultural roots are deeply embedded in English soil, but now I feel that it is time to pull them up and replant them elsewhere. 

I still hope against hope that the process will still be stopped and we will return to a semblance of sanity, but the damage has already been done.  Britain has lost all credibility, yet DExEU’s Midnight Runners still persist in their attempts to cut individual piecemeal deals with the EU member states when a perfectly good deal with all of them is already in place. Every new revelation at what doing X, Y or Z will cost after (or even before) Brexit feels like a dagger in the heart.

I think I will apply for German citizenship this year to be on the safe side. When my nice burgundy red European Union/UK passport expires in 2026, I think I may tell HM Passport Office where it can stick its blue replacement…


Ruth St John