Great Britain to Little England

For the last few months I’ve had a subscription to the Sunday edition of The New York Times. On Sunday when our schedule permits, I’ve enjoyed reading the paper with a cup of coffee. I often don’t make it through the whole paper on the day, but I at least scan it and mark the articles I want to read – finishing them up over the course of the week while at loose ends.

I don’t remember, specifically, what happened the week of Sunday the 19th, but for whatever reason I found the opinion section today still sitting, folded back, at a piece titled “From Great Britain to Little England.” [1] Written before the referendum vote, it was full of questions and speculation, but ended with the following:

“Isolation brings out the worst in Britain. And it never works. In the 1930s, a complacent Britain refused to help Spain fight fascism, appeased Hitler and Mussolini, and for too long turned away refugees fleeing persecution. As Czechoslovakia cried out for help, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain dismissed “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Will a British leader soon speak again about faraway Europe in the same tones? When Britain did admit that it belonged to Europe, after all, it was at the 11th hour. In 1940, isolation ended in a fight for survival, and complacency gave way to five years of grim determination. During those war years, the Continent was devastated and its nation-states discredited. Thanks to that harsh experience, the British after the war recognized their share of responsibility by supporting the vision of a united Europe. Must Britain learn that painful, costly lesson all over again?”

The answer, it seems, is a fairly resounding yes.

Since the vote I’ve spent a frankly unreasonable amount of time reading coverage and analysis of subsequent events, watching Parliamentary debates, and thinking about and discussing the situation with British colleagues here and friends in the UK.

For all the time I’ve spent, and the angst I’ve felt, you’d be reasonable to think I had some personal stake in the outcome.

I don’t, of course. I realized, in discussion with one of those friends, that I felt as if a friend whom I thought I’d known for decades had just acted in a way that made me realize they weren’t the person I thought they were. And left me wondering if I wanted to know the person they actually are.

Dawnise and I have traveled to the UK several times in the last twenty years. Sometimes me alone on business and sometimes together on holiday. While living in Luxembourg London was short flight away, and quickly became a comfortable and familiar bastion of spoken English. We have favorite spots, familiar routes and neighborhoods, and our friends one bedroom flat in London – a flat she was incredibly and repeatedly gracious in sharing with us – was probably the place we felt most at home outside our apartment.

We’ve traveled through Ireland, from Dublin to the Giants Causeway – the only indication you’d crossed the border betwixt countries being the two a sign indicating speed limits had changed from metric to Imperial. That border, it seems, may once again be a guarded frontier, restricting the flow of people and commerce.

We’ve spent very memorable time in Scotland – first on our own having driven our way up the island from the South, and more recently with fellow Luxembourg stationed expats on a whisky tasting tour of Speyside. I’m still reeling at the idea that the people of Scotland may find it necessary to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them to another for the past three hundred years.

Beyond all that, it’s hard not to see echo’s of America’s own political zeitgeist. Demagoguery, misinformation making fact hard to find, tempers flaring, the baser nature of scared and angry people rising to the fore. I wonder, as maybe only an American would, if somehow we’ve exported this social and political virus to the UK, or helped it grow.

Two weeks ago, London would have been high – perhaps first – on my list of places to repeat our expat experience. Now I find myself wondering if Amsterdam, or Dublin, or even Berlin might be better places, providing more access to the sorts of people and experiences we had that call us to come back. And that saddens me in a way I can’t quite put into words.