3 Generations of Brits in Europe
By Tom Wells
‘I’m not European - I’m English’
Margret Milne (Gran, 1925)
“My relationship towards Europe is based on the fact that I've got my son there. As an institution, it means very little to me, and there is too much controversy with everyone. Way back in the 70s, when decimalisation came in and they changed our feet and inches, our whole way of life changed. My generation found it very difficult to cope with this in the beginning. We were the only ones that changed. As far as I see it, there wouldn't be a European Union if it hadn't been for what happened in my lifetime – the two world wars.
Those on the continent had always been at odds with each other and we in Britain always got drawn into the conflict. Since the war it became more peaceful, for donkey's years. I know my dad hated Europe, but he was in the thick of it in World War I, so you can’t blame him.
I personally do not consider myself European. To the question of whether there is a conflict between national and transnational identities, I suppose there is. I'm English. I don't speak French or German. I don't have anything in common with them. In my lifetime, France, Europe, Australia were lands beyond thinking. We had no chance to get involved, only through war.
Times have certainly changed, and we see this with the Brexit. I think it's because we haven't got a complete England any more. The majority of our citizens have emigrated because of strangers coming in. We used to be ‘a one-street community’ and we worked as a group.
Now, we're a country of strangers and we can't communicate with them. Our neighbours have gone, especially in the industrial north where people lived closer together than they did in the south. The Scottish were always moving around the world, searching for money or sunshine, whereas people in the north were in a trap of the Industrial Revolution.”
'I don’t only feel English. It is too narrow and doesn't represent who I am’
Julia Wells (Mum, 1957)
"To me, Europe is a peace project, a bigger voice for environmental issues and human rights. My early interactions with Europe in life came through visiting my brother and his Dutch partner in Holland from the age of 20. Forming relationships with my new Dutch family and friends made the continent seem closer, familiar, somewhere I started to feel at home in.
This feeling that the EU is a part of my identity has grown over time. I tend to trust collective EU decision-making more than I have trusted my own government’s, especially since the Iraq war, the rise of UKIP’s influence, and anti-EU sentiment in successive conservative governments. I think rich people, the businesses and the tabloids have undue influence in the UK and dilute these voices with perspectives from the mainland, that can only serve social and economic prosperity in the UK.
Although I was born in England, I always felt British - not English - growing up. With independence and devolution of what it means to be British over the course of my life, this identity disappeared, but it was replaced by European membership, which has become an important part of my identity. I do not only feel English. It is too narrow and doesn't represent who I am. My ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland, my children were born in Wales, my mother-in-law has a French background, I have family in Holland. I feel European. However, I do think that local decision-making and being part of a local community are important. I would prefer my layers of loyalties to be local, British and European in a way that they are not mutually exclusive.
For me, regarding the recent decision of my home country to Brexit, there is no simple answer. Brexit is the result of years of EU negativity in the newspapers (too much bureaucracy, not enough sovereignty), ignorance of how the EU benefits people and communities, overwhelming and rapid changes to the ethnic make-up in some communities (or fear of it happening in others). This often results in overcrowded schools, health services, and increased competition for jobs and housing, years of austerity, distrust of parliament, and an overall feeling of being voiceless.
Additionally, the Leave campaign was better funded, better prepared, backed by the tabloids and articulated by politicians who could convey simple messages with a common touch (“Take Back Control”). The reasons for staying were more complex, little understood and communicated by fear-mongers."
‘I have managed to find myself with a feeling that is more European than British’
Tom Wells (Son, 1993)
"On a personal level, the Union brings me freedom. The freedom to move and work in and around my continent. It encapsulates my hopes for a space beyond oppositional national identities, or at least a move away from them. Of course, there are the functional economic provisions such as free trade and product quality standards, but these tend to be a less tangible part of my European imagination.
In my memory, my earliest encounter the EU was approaching a community stand at a ‘car-boot fair’ (a kind of low-budget British flea market) around fifteen years ago; where they were organizing petitions against the introduction of the Euro into the United Kingdom. I remember being very moved by my perceived threat of this foreign influence on ‘my way of life’.
Over the course of my life, my attitude towards the EU has changed dramatically, from being more or less unaware up until the age of about 12, the magic of my national identity slowly began to wain and I found myself beginning to loathe where I was from. This came at a time when I was interacting with a far more international social group, and common images of ‘Britishness’ from the outside began to help me criticise where I was from.
- Click here for the accompanying image for the quote above
And as the flavour of my national identity became increasingly bitter, I naturally sought out to broaden that identity, and my freedom to move within Europe has without a doubt facilitated that.
Whilst it is nearly impossible to shake off the national identity entirely, I have managed to find myself with a feeling that is more European than British. For me it tends to be about when and where. When drinking in the UK with the lads, it is almost a gut reaction to lean on the more British axis of association, and when I find myself surrounded by Europeans there is a clear self-evident experience of Europe. There are really no borders to one involving oneself in a European identity only whilst there are literally no borders. I believe that, with a more critical approach towards the two, national and transnational identities do not or perhaps should not conflict."