By: Nicolas Bicchi
23rd of June 2016. Sucre, Bolivia. Of all places. I, a Belgian-Italian young man who has lived in England most of his life, am awake at 4 am maniacally refreshing the BBC’s website. This is not overly unusual, I get pretty into elections. And tonight is the biggest of them all, the Brexit referendum.
To be honest, I’m not worried. I’ve met a lot of British young people on my South American travels, and they were all pro-Remain. I figure that between the youth vote, the pro-business lobby and, you know, anybody who’s been to Spain, the Remain campaign should pick up enough votes.
Weird and worrying results start to come in from the North East, I tell myself it must be an area-specific thing and manage to fall asleep.
The morning after I wake up to a catastrophe I hadn’t even envisaged having to deal with. At first comes the thirst for information, which parts of the Country voted for what etc. Then come the commiserations from and to the other British travelers in my hostel. Everybody’s shocked. But pretty soon, all that’s left is a feeling of anger and rejection that continues to this day.
I think some background is necessary. I moved to the UK from Italy when I was 12, knowing very little English and being catapulted into a culture that has very little in common with what I was used to. With a lot of blood, sweat and tears, I managed within a few years to completely adapt, to remove any vestige of Italian-ness I had in me. I listened to the Arctic Monkeys, I drank pints, I even learnt how to make fun of the Continent. A few days before the referendum I was going crazy as Daniel Sturridge scored that last minute winner against Wales.
Rightly or wrongly, this identity I had built for myself now feels shattered, as if the vote was a personal rejection. All of a sudden, I see only the negative sides of the UK and ignore the positive ones. England doesn’t represent Stephen Fry, Harry Potter and Freddy Mercury anymore, but rather Magaluf, football hooligans and those people who, when I was younger, used to tell me ‘It’s not you I have a problem with, but just all those Polish and Romanians that are coming over here’
For the rest of my South American trip, I avoid English people like the plague, rather sticking with the Dutch and the Scots, similar enough (sorry, Scots, but it’s true) to have some common interests and experiences, but not guilty of rejecting me. I have only been back to England for a total of a six days since. When I meet an English person, even if every single one I meet is very anti-Brexit (as well as of course, you know, a nice person), my visceral reaction is one of contempt. I actively have to stop myself from being mean to them. If you want to see me get angry, tell me I have an English accent and ask me where in England I’m from.
When I was younger, I thought I would never let politics affect my personal relationships, and yet here I am. Somehow, I have become just like the worst Brexit voters, scared and full of hate. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this, and have since met other people who had the same reaction. I also know Catalans and Spaniards who are experiencing very similar emotions given their current situation, as well as many Americans who have been feeling this way since Trump was elected.
We, the so-called progressives, the young, enlightened and educated pacifists have become just as bitter and jaded as those we are trying to fight, and that’s the real tragedy. Sure, we may have some kind of moral high ground. After all, as any good 12-year-old would say, they started it. But self-righteousness never solved anything. To eliminate their hate, we must first eliminate our own. Easier said than done, I’m sure you’ll agree.
On my part, some progress is being made. I have met and befriended many English men and women, as well as maintaining strong ties with those I already knew (that sentence is strikingly similar to the old ‘but I have many black friends’ adagio. I sicken myself). Of course, I’m doing it the easy way, all the Brits I know are staunch remainers, some even worryingly so (like the old uni friend who still manages to find ways to complain about it on Twitter three or four times per week). The next step would be to cross into enemy lines and go befriend some Brexiteers. I just hope one day I’ll be tolerant enough to do so.