It is an isle, or an island, depending on who is speaking. It is in Europe and that is a fact. Yet some there think they are not European because Europe is a continent. It is that minority belief, which snowballed into a referendum, which, in turn, put the island on a cliffhanger of instability and despair.
Welcome to Britain or the United Kingdom. Then again call it Great Britain. Somehow, we managed to live there for 9 months. We managed to survive. We would love to go back. Why “survive” though?
#Brexit. It has created a black hole of sorts in the UK and in the EU. Neither is innocent. However, living there shows the extent of the cracks: for example, healthcare, lauded by many over the years, is about to lose a huge chunk of its budget (mostly from the EU). Proposals have been pouring in since June 2016. Still, there is a deadlock and no set budget, target, or future plan has been decided on to present at the negotiation table.
And so, unfortunately, the British continue to argue among themselves. Canterbury, famous for its cathedral and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is also a tiny “pro-Europe” bastion in Kent, pro-Brexit country. Many don’t understand how the country got to where it is now just as many others are vehemently against foreigners, from obsession to animosity to full-scale cultural racism. My German flatmate and I probably coined the word “crazy” among Erasmus students at one point, given the number of times we used the word.
Brexit fired up the old historic internal squabbles with new energy: England and Scotland are again at odds with each other. In 2014, the question of Scottish independence was on the table, with a referendum, which did not deliver. Now, the European question is a hotbed for disagreements; the question of Scottish independence is back on the table as a result. This is no surprise. Scotland is as very different to England as France is to Switzerland. Not an insult, but despite similar or same linguistics, there is a certain culture, which each side has and expects to keep.
While England voted in majority for Brexit, a majority of Scots voted against it. Historically, Scotland had close relationships with continental powers. Indeed, in Edinburgh, the historical culture talk is all about Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been Queen consort of France in her youth. (Ancien Régime France was one of the long-standing allies of independent Scotland.) Nonetheless, this is not a case of nostalgia but realism: maintaining one foot in the EU is maintaining those relationships. Scotland knows that the world is no longer Great Britain’s empire. Trade is now global, keyword tied into globalization. It’s quite possible the English forgot how much Margaret Thatcher fought to get the UK into European trade, or the modern trade world. Then again, many do remember her opposition to European political or federal integration (the 1986 Single European Act introduced this). Thus, that became the headline of the pro-Brexit movement. Unfortunately in a twisted sense.
However, Scotland is playing it fun in true British style. Scots are poking fun at the Englishness of the whole debacle. They seem certainly more open to talk about the uneasiness Brexit brought on or how London (and Brussels to some extent) is mucking everyone in the mud with this situation. But as we say, they are poking fun: a Scotsman will be able to discuss the Englishman at length. Not vice-versa.
It is pure social politics, present in art and creativity: modern art or the street art characterizing city streets even in London or down South, for example. Many are using freedom of expression to come up with performances, op-eds, or to simply march out in the streets. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe was a summer example of using Brexit as a comedy template. Different British or neighbor (Ireland) personalities from U2’s Bono to youth members of the UK European Movement wrote their thoughts on the situation, either on being European or how their opinion changed since the referendum. We include the Irish, as a lot is being said on border conflict management and the future of the Good Friday Agreement, which had resolved tensions and civil strife between Ireland and Northern Ireland in 1990s.
However, that’s also the weird element: Europe Day, celebrated 9 May, was nowhere to be seen in London. Meeting up with an American friend from Paris at that time, we passed through a part of Kensington Gardens where a pro-Brexit rally was convening. We didn’t see anything on Europe while we were walking around from Notting Hill to the EastEnd. The March for Europe only happened in June, one month later.
And yet, despite Brexit attitude, there were fabulous moments. From Canterbury, a weekend in London is simple (and the trains are the best compared to France). Cambridge was a favorite, a weekend visiting a friend there was not enough. In addition to hearing Evensong, it was a pleasure to learn the service and sing it with a choir. We also tried something new: we traveled (as it doesn’t happen often) and it gave us the “bug”. The problem was we didn’t do everything we wanted to do.
Then there was Erasmus+. This particular UK stay was exactly that: one of the reasons we heavily commented the “Brexit State”. Erasmus+ is what we call study abroad when we’re of one European country and studying in other European countries through university partnerships. There were issues studied throughout these past months, which are close to impossible to get in France: international policing and security, counter terrorism, and EU Foreign Affairs like one has never experienced it before.
Best of all: museums are free wherever one goes (England, Scotland, Wales…). Some favorites were the fabrics at the Victoria and Albert; the British Museum; and the modern art at the Lighthouse in Glasgow. Add to that the street art we mentioned earlier: there are hotspots like the EastEnd in London or various murals seen around Glasgow. At least, in our case, those are the places we’ve been to. There is a lot more to see in Great Britain: ruins in Wales, the Highlands, the Peak or Lake Districts, churches, castles, picturesque villages (though be warned if you plan to pull an Agatha Raisin…) and crooked buildings (apparently there are quite a few).
So, all in all, a very strange year and a very strange stay. Great Britain still lives (and we survived) but the signs show that the country is headed towards a full-blown crisis, whose presence is already being felt. Though, maybe, the Brits are going to do what all islanders do: be resilient and adapt. Fat chance of that happening if they don’t realize that they need the world more than the world needs them.