You know the analogy about rats and sinking ships? I’ve always thought that it’s rather unfair on the rats – presumably they aren’t in charge of navigation and there’s a decent chance that most of the people on board have been trying to throw them over the side since the voyage began. Who can really judge them for leaving when things get tough? Sensible rats, I say.
I mention this because apparently, since the Brexit referendum (a mere four years ago, though it feels more like 400) migration to EU countries has increased by 30 per cent, according to a joint research project between the Oxford-in-Berlin partnership and the WZB Social Sciences Centre Berlin.
Anecdotally, this doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Zoom chats and socially distanced meet-ups with friends these days are often punctuated with talk of the lure of emigration – to one of those lovely forward-thinking countries, ideally with a female leader and a coronavirus death rate closer to the hundreds than the hundreds of thousands.
And as a still-devastated Remainer, I can’t blame anyone grappling with the question of whether to stay or go from a UK that feels far more like a foreign country than it ever did before. Since the shock of that referendum, things have gone from bad to worse – so much so that I look back on the knife-edge, glimmer-of-hope parliament of 2019 with a sort of nostalgic fondness compared to the gung-ho behemoth of 2020’s Tory majority version.
Even (or perhaps especially) with the distractions of Covid-19, it’s terrifying to think that we might be on the cusp of a Brexit that turns out to be every bit as hard and chaotic as our worst fears and that more generally, we face an age of racism and unchecked capitalism and a moral compass where due north points towards the right-wing press.
But what do you do when, as much as you loathe the idea of Brexit, you happen to love this grey and rainy little island?
What do you do when you love country pubs, and carefully tended front gardens and tea and most especially the ridiculous technicolour lushness of the countryside?
What do you do when your beloved nieces and nephews are here – when you know that this will be the backdrop against which they will grow up?
Because, as much as I hate the idea that the UK is shrinking inside some 1950s wrapper of nostalgia and misplaced superiority, I do love it here. And no matter the glorious weather and the open-minded inhabitants of any number of other countries, in my heart I would always feel an exile, dreaming of home...
Realistically what you do when you feel the way I do is – you stay. And, whilst I really can’t judge anyone for leaving, here’s why I hope at least some of the people contemplating departing for foreign climes, decide to stay too… (Not you, Tommy Robinson, you feel free to go for good.)
The thing is no country is inherently good or bad. The idea that the ideological direction or status of any geographical area is somehow fixed is an argument for the other side, not ours. And the way we make the UK into a country we recognise again is by sticking around and gritting our teeth and continuing to champion the values we believe in.
This is particularly true for those of us with the means to leave. Despite my reluctance, the truth is that I probably could emigrate if I had the will for it. Many of those who will be most damaged by the current political situation, the ones who are trapped “below deck” simply don’t have the option of voting with their feet. It’s worth at least acknowledging that “abandoning ship” in this particular scenario is only possible with a certain degree of privilege – and that this privilege of being able to leave often goes hand in hand with knowing we are also protected enough to stay.
There’s also an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to talk of “brain drains” and arguments that say the UK has become irredeemably small-minded and self-harming. This only becomes conclusively the case when all the people who are open-minded leave.
And it’s a point that applies to my feelings about Scottish independence too. I can’t blame Scotland, with its socialist policies and sensible leader, for wanting to break away but at the same time, I’m hanging onto its leg as it heads for the door, promising to do better if only it will give the rest of the country a second chance.
The truth is, part of it is stubbornness. If you’ll allow me to quote Theresa May for the first and last time – I’m just not ready to give up on the “country I love”. Just as British exceptionalism doesn’t make us magically exempt from coronavirus deaths, it doesn’t make us exempt from the twists and turns of fate and political direction either. We can swing back towards liberal outlooks and perspectives. We can move towards compassion and tolerance once more.
But please don’t leave me here with only Nigel Farage, Tim Martin and Dominic Cummings for company in the meantime.