I’m writing this sitting in the living room of the French Farmhouse where my sister, her husband and daughters live. It’s raining but warm and the doors and windows are open. The kids are through the house playing, we have all eaten bacon butties and my brother-in-law is cooking up lasagne – he makes wonderful lasagne. He has been playing a cheesy playlist all morning, ABBA, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Barry Manilow – my sister and I and her girls joining in to sing all the words to the pop music that leaves my husband with his Megadeth and Foo Fighters preferences rolling his eyes at us and my much younger children somewhat bemused.
It’s a lazy Sunday Morning, probably being replicated all over the place, well …. maybe without the Barry Manilow. I feel at home here. I feel at peace which is a valuable thing after the turmoil of the last week and a half. And yet there is something just a little fragile about it all. There is uncertainty when certainty once reigned. There is just a hint of fragility about all our lives and there is fury too.
My sister, my parents, many of those living here have a slightly shaky feeling about the future, what about pensions, what about driving licences, what about health care? Many live here and work in the UK paying UK taxes what about them? The bafflement over the attitude to immigrants in the UK is clear amongst those ex-pats who recognise themselves as immigrants. They ask us “What on earth were people thinking?” and we, we shrug our shoulders and have no answers
I’m English. Despite living in Scotland for almost 20 years I have remained English. Despite campaigning for Scottish Independence, being an Executive Member of Women for Independence and standing for selection as a potential SNP candidate for last year’s Holyrood Elections, I remained resolutely English. I was pleased that when campaigning and speaking publicly, people were surprised at the flat vowels and shortened words of my, now fading, Lancashire accent. I enjoyed countering the allegations that a YES vote for an Independent Scotland was somehow anti-English, somehow a hate filled, historical grudge fest based on Bannockburn and the clearances. How could I, a modern English woman, possibly hate England or the English. I love England and love the place I grew up, love the people who have so much in common with the Highlanders I know and love. My eldest sons are English, I am English – there is no hate here. The Independence Referendum didn’t change that fact, it didn’t change my relationship with the place of my birth. And yet somehow the EU referendum has done just that.
It seems overly dramatic to suggest that somehow I don’t feel quite as “English” as I did but it’s true. Driving the length of England is something that I have done many times but this year it felt like driving through a foreign country. I felt a sense of unease as I was setting off, like I don’t really know this place any more. It seems to have become a place where it’s not okay to be foreign, not okay to be an immigrant, where the rise in racial abuse since the referendum has been visible and terrifying. I warned about a leave vote helping to “make the worst voices in society speak louder” and I’m miserable and disappointed that I might end up being right. The video of some young people on an Oldham Tram, shouting racial abuse and threats at other passengers made me feel sick. I traveled that same journey many times and never heard anything like it. The last time, a year or so ago I found it was busy but easy, with all sorts of people chatting in different languages, the different skin tones not really noticed by anyone except the middle aged teuchter wifey fae Inverness who was simply observing how diverse people were and smiling inwardly at the sounds of her own accent reflected back at her.
I don’t believe that whole swathes of England are fundamentally racist. I know many people who voted leave for reasons that did not include immigration or closing the borders. For many however, immigration was top of the list and intelligent people, smart, clued up people allowed themselves to be taken in by lies and deceit. Add to that the many people, ignored, struggling to live a decent life, dealing with poverty, poor health, poor housing who were left behind as The Labour Party moved to the right. This left a void which in “little England” has been filled by the beer drinking, fake, back slapping, bonhomie of Nigel Farage and his ilk. Lies and half truths, sleekit voices with sinister suggestions whispered in their ears, words of division and hate spread across their tea room tables, wrapped around their fish and chips by the press, spilling their bile across front page after front page after front page.
People were lied to. They were told repeatedly that the reason they can’t get house/job/pay rise/quicker health care was because of the EU. They were told that immigrants who commit crimes, can’t be deported because of the EU whilst the government was systematically reducing the budget of the Borders Agency so they don’t have enough staff to do their job; they were told that EU immigration was putting a strain on the NHS whilst the government was privatising and squeezing the NHS to within an inch of its life; they were told that social housing is so scarce because the EU allows immigrants and asylum seekers to come here and take our housing whilst the Government brought in policies which made it easier to sell off and harder to build social housing; they were told immigrants push wages down, are responsible for job losses whilst the government encouraged zero hours contracts and told people that £7.20 was a “living wage”; they have been persuaded that immigrants make our country poorer whilst the government happily spends millions on tax cuts to the wealthiest and increases the number of unelected peers and the money given to the royal family. Poor people are sent off to food banks believing that other poor people are to blame for the fact they can’t live on fresh air after sanctions or benefit disallowances.
These people were pieces on a draught board, jumped over by the rich and the wealthy in a game that many of them were not aware was even being played. The articulate, privileged voices of old Etonians and Oxbridge graduates talked about “taking back control” to people who felt they had no control and who wanted change. Add to that a lack of understanding and familiarity with the EU and its processes and systems and you had a bunch of people voting to free themselves from unelected law makers whilst their Government increases the number of unelected law makers in the House of Lords.
And yet, although I recognise the way the people were manipulated and am angry on their behalf, I find that I feel I don’t belong there, to an England that voted to make itself smaller, closed off, narrow minded, tight lipped, isolated in its imagined superiority. The differences between Scotland and England have never been so stark. The Independence referendum was about becoming a larger voice in the world, an outward facing, modern democracy contributing in its own distinct way to the EU and wider conversations. The franchise for the vote in the Independence referendum was based on residency not on nationality like the EU referendum. The contrast is clear. I have watched the Scottish Government repeat again and again that EU nationals are welcome in Scotland with a pride that I am part of that, that I campaigned for that, voted for that. I am proud that the leaders of all Scottish Parties came together with one voice to counter the lies and insinuations from the Leave campaign. I have heard it said time and again that “We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns”. I have reassured friends from other countries that Scotland will be a place that fights for them and their rights. I have teased my friends here in France that they can come live with us if Scotland becomes Independent because they will be welcomed.
Jackie Kay’s poem “Threshold” from yesterday’s opening of The Scottish Parliament included the words “And this is my country…” She might have followed that up with “says the English wifie sitting in the French farmhouse pondering where she belongs now”. Because, despite the the sound of my own accent bringing a smile to my lips, despite the familiarity of Lancashire’s steep sided narrow valleys, something in me has shifted. Perhaps, for the first time, my Scottish identity, the one that has grown over 20 years, the one that is made up of my politics, my work, my children’s school, my community, my husband, my friends, is greater, stronger, more clear and focused than the Englishness that I never expected to lose, that I held onto proudly and that seems now on the verge of slipping into my own history. And so, I have been practicing “Je suis Ecossaise; Je suis Européenne” and you know what? It’s true.