Thoughts on …


Brexit and our present and future belonging                         10/2/20



Before, during and after the referendum, I suspect that one of the big factors in the Brexit debate has been the sense of “belonging”. For the purpose of this essay I prefer “belonging” to the word “identity” but acknowledge that both terms are connected to each other.


For reasons of survival and biology human beings have always belonged to a group of one sort of another, such as a gender group, ethnic group or family group. As society evolved to enable us to live, work and play together we came to belong to more groups, thousands of them in fact: on a large scale, tribes, nations and faith groups; on a smaller scale, but no less important, the group of people you work with, who support the same football team, who inhabit the same town or county, who belong to the same organisations, who live in a particular neighbourhood, or whose children go to the same school.


Since the EU referendum was announced the media, always eager to foment conflict, made much of the fact that, because the electorate could choose either to remain or leave, the country divided into two opposing camps and therefore people belonged to one or the other. Although I accept that two camps did exist we should also consider the strong possibility that at the start of the debate, at least, there was a third group made up of those who had no strong opinions about the EU either way.


Belonging to one of the two camps created more animosity than it should have done. All of us, myself included, need to learn how to disagree well by respecting different viewpoints and beliefs and by trying to understand our own emotional responses.1 I hope we can learn from the Brexit experience and listen to different viewpoints respectfully without making offensive or belittling comments about them.2


But why did many people appear to have sufficiently strong feelings about the EU that their own beliefs became so deeply entrenched and they became so intolerant of other viewpoints?3 Certainly economic arguments could be made about the advantages and disadvantages of free trade with Europe, or the benefits and drawbacks of free movement of labour, but I do not think it was taking sides on these issues that caused such bitterness among some. Nor was it, on the Remain side, the compulsion to prick the bubble of the political establishment even if, for some, this may have been a contributory factor.


It was belonging that caused the problem – belonging and the emotional attachment that accompanied this, plus the feeling of loss that would result from disrupting the attachment. It was a heart more than a head problem.


Amongst many Leave voters there was probably a strong feeling of belonging to the country in which they lived, had grown up in, or were somehow rooted in. Associated with this was a feeling of being proud to be British and a sense of patriotism. We cherish, and take pleasure in, our history, traditions, values, institutions and way of life – just as people in other countries do.

We are all familiar with the images that invariably contribute to the montage of what it means to be British. How relevant these images are to different people will vary according to their view of the world and their values – which will have been shaped by a mixture of influences.


A complicating factor when the notion of Britishness is discussed is the present reality that Britain consists of four countries each with their own characteristics and traditions to which people feel different degrees of attachment. It could well be the case that many people feel more English or more Welsh, for example, than they feel British.


I accept that the images I have selected for the montage which follows certainly have a bias towards Englishness but I think they nevertheless support the argument about many people feeling a sense of belonging. They are in no particular order of priority, and not necessarily unique to Britain.

Starting with food and drink many of us still like our fish and chips, our bacon and eggs and our Sunday roast; many of us still enjoy a cup of tea with milk; and many of us continue to drink real ale and cider. I recognise, of course, that many people also enjoy a curry, a Chinese, or a pizza, and a wide range of food and drink that could not be described as traditionally British, but because this non-British cuisine has been well assimilated into our eating habits we can probably feel emotionally attached to it as well.4 


We like our sport, both playing and watching: our football, cricket, rugby, bowls, golf, and a bit of jogging. Supporting one of our famous football league teams is something people do from primary school onwards as is supporting our national football teams in major tournaments. We enjoy cheering on our national teams in any sport and when it comes to the Olympics we cheer on team GB.


We like our culture, be it the popular or serious variety, and we like it especially with regard to music and literature. The sounds of the sixties, Bowie, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elgar appear in the montage as do Harry Potter, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and, probably, for some, Pam Ayres.


We derive pleasure from our surroundings: our big cities, such as London, Edinburgh and Manchester, with their excitement and bustle; our market towns; our villages with their splendid churches; our green fields, and hills and mountains; our incredible coast that gives us views of the sea as well as sandy beaches and high cliffs. We have an affinity with the natural world we find in our country – the blackbirds and badgers, the oak and ash trees, the bluebells and primroses. In our immediate surroundings many of us enjoy tending our gardens, walking our dogs and talking about the ever-present natural phenomenon of the British weather.


The montage includes our institutions of government, whether or not we find them satisfactory, our judicial system, and our National Health Service. For many there is a deep attachment to the monarchy, particularly the Queen. Like other countries we have our own language, or more accurately languages, and we have our own regional accents.


I am not sure whether there is a uniquely British sense of humour but we seem to be fond of sitcoms and satire.


I have not mentioned British values because I like to think those to which we aspire – kindness, fairness and tolerance – are universal. We can be proud that we inhabit a tolerant, diverse and multi-cultural society in which different faiths and different sorts of relationships are accepted by the vast majority of people. We can be proud, too, that although there is more to do, we endeavour to provide compassionate support for those with disabilities.


All these aspects of life in the UK, and many more, contribute to the montage of British identity. For those who wish to express their sense of belonging and patriotism, but not for me, there are also the emotional activities of quoting a line or two of “this sceptred isle”, singing Land of Hope and Glory and waving the Union Flag.


It should not be surprising that those with strong feelings of attachment to what makes up their personal montage should wish to preserve what they have and are apprehensive that what they are attached to might somehow be diluted or removed by remaining in the EU. I doubt if the sense of attachment and belonging felt by the British is very different from that which is felt by the inhabitants of other countries who have their own traditions, culture and landscapes to be proud of. These are, of course, the reason why like to travel abroad.


I think it is likely that those who voted to remain in the EU share a broadly similar sense of emotional attachment towards the aspects of British life referred to above but in addition feel something of an emotional attachment to Europe. I imagine there are good reasons for this. People may be living in a European country, or they may have family connections or origins in Europe. They may have worked there or still be working there. They may have a second property or enjoy holidays in their favourite continental locations.


They may also have an emotional attachment to the economic elements of the EU which they regard as having been crucial to our country’s prosperity and perhaps their own. The four freedoms may be important to them and they may be attracted to the idea of a supranational liberal democracy that can lead the way in the world. Personally I struggle with the idea that democracy is the correct term to use to describe the EU system of governance.


I have a suspicion there may be some truth in the notion that some of those who voted to remain in the EU might belong to a section of the population with a similar political mindset – one that sees itself as left-leaning, cosmopolitan and progressive. I would be reluctant to attempt to quantify how significant, in terms of voting intentions, this mindset really was, given that motives for human behaviour can be complex. It is perhaps safest to say that it should not be dismissed but nor should it be overstated.


Understandably there will be many who feel a different sort of emotional attachment to Europe, one that is present because their jobs and livelihoods have depended on trade with the continent that has been going on for many years. This goes beyond the academic attachments of economists and politicians and directly affects those who work in small, medium and large businesses trading with European countries. I understand their worries and concerns and hope that no one suffers as a result of Brexit.


So, what should we do about our belonging in the future? What hopes should we have?


Now we have left the EU there is no reason why people should not still feel attached to Europe in many different ways – having holidays in its great cities and alluring countryside,  enjoying its cuisine and its wines, absorbing its traditions and speaking its languages. We have been travelling to Europe, imbibing its culture and making friends with its residents long before we joined the EU. I hope all those who voted to remain will still feel attached to Europe and still feel an emotional belonging to it. And I hope all those who voted to leave will feel the same.


I hope, too, that all of us still feel the same sense of belonging to the many groups and communities that were mentioned previously. I hope we will continue to feel our greatest sense of belonging and attachment to perhaps the smallest group we belong to – our families and loved ones. This is by far the most important belonging we can have.


As for the larger grouping of people that make up a nation state we should consider what point has been reached in the evolution of the idea and whether it continues to be a useful entity for people to belong to. It is the way that different societies have evolved to organise themselves over the past few hundred years and it seems reasonable, in theory, that people came together as nations in order to share the benefits of living in a large group.


In practice, however, it needs to be said that throughout the world too many people have not shared these benefits.  Whilst acknowledging that ambition, opportunity and entrepreneurialism have generally increased the prosperity of the inhabitants of nation states they have also been built upon huge inequalities and the exploitation of our fellow humans. Moreover, aggression amongst nations has foolishly followed the pattern of group aggression that has existed since tribes and kingdoms were the norm.


But things are improving. With a combination of democracy, universal education, the rapid advance of consumerism since the Industrial Revolution, and its even more rapid advance brought about by technology, the nation state looks healthier and more able to deliver a good quality of life to its citizens than ever before. Provided a nation state acts to deliver the best possible well-being for all its citizens and provided it is not permitted to act aggressively against other nation states it seems an acceptable way for human beings to organise themselves in large groups. And when nation states cooperate with each other in a wide range of human activities it is simply not true to say they are inward looking.


We should use our departure from the EU to look closely and critically at what the future should hold for our own nation state – the one to which we belong and the one we should endeavour to make a good place for everyone to live in. We can be pleased with what we have done so far but there is room for considerable improvement. We can improve the way wealth is distributed and ensure we eliminate deprivation and disadvantage. We can improve our democracy, our education system and above all how we look after and care for each other collectively through the NHS and other instruments of the welfare state.5 


What I would like to see for our own country I would like to see for every country in the world but we are not yet ready for world government. What we are ready for, and what we must rapidly move towards, is much greater cooperation among nation states on global issues that affect everyone, such as inequality, climate change and fair trade.


We should recognise and celebrate the individual character of the countries of the world, we should encourage trade and commerce amongst them and at the same time we should encourage them to be more self-sufficient. We must also be unwavering in our efforts to support the well-being of our fellow humans in other countries by acting to prevent conflict, violence, hunger, poverty, exploitation, prejudice, gross inequalities and human suffering of any sort.


Taking effective action to deal with global problems, or the internal troubles of nation states, will mean we need to strengthen greatly the sense of belonging we all share, wherever we happen to live on the planet – the sense of belonging to the human race.


Instead of the ever closer union that is advocated for Europe I would like to see a different goal – an ever closer global union. One that preserves the legitimate sovereignty and character of different countries but which unites them in striving for the well-being of all human beings on the planet.


We can get there one day if, as caring and thoughtful individuals, we try hard to develop a profound sense of global belonging rooted in our common humanity.




1  This is why it is essential that critical thinking should be thoroughly taught in schools. See Good thinking.

2  I would like to see much greater use of referendums in our political system. See the governance section of the Quercus Manifesto.

3  Some of the tweets by Remainers were particularly visceral.

4  Fish and chip shops are still popular in my local area.

5  See the manifesto for some new ideas on how our country could go forward.