What a sad day. Not just for me, but for millions of people across this complicated continent – British people who wanted, sometimes passionately, to remain European citizens; mixed-heritage families forced to make painful, previously unnecessary choices; and citizens of other countries who face new obstacles to love, learning and work. Even those who wanted this, sometimes with equal passion, don’t seem to expect much from it any more: the promised land of 2016 has become getting Brexit ‘done’, because we said we would. There is a subdued resignation across the country, cold and still, like winter fog. Even Downing Street says its celebrations will be ‘low-key‘, despite its capture by the poster boy of the leave campaign. The lamps may not yet be going out all over Europe, as the British Foreign Secretary observed on 3 August 1914, but some bright ones are being put out, and I don’t expect to they will be lit again in my lifetime.
At midnight (Central European Time), the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, the first nation to do so in more than 60 years. We will have been members for 47 of those years, respected and appreciated, with huge influence on the laws, rules and policies some now decry. As many European politicians have said, we were valued and we will be missed. The European Union will be the less without us, at least for a while: it may come to find that it can get along without the UK better than it fears.
And how will we get along? Who knows. Perhaps we shall be happier and better off in the end, but the prospect is unsettled. I do know that I wish this wasn’t happening, because people are interdependent and we need teach other. I wish too that we could leave with the maximum of generosity, and the minimum of disruption to people’s lives. I expect disappointment on both counts. This rupture will diminish us all.
What a sad day. And it won’t be the last. There’s nothing I can do about this except to try to make sense of it, so I’ve started to write a book. I want to think about my European home, its changing mosaic of people and cultures, its glorious achievements and its unprecedented crimes, its hopes and its hypocrisies – above all, perhaps, what that chequered history tells us about a world on the edge of environmental, social and political catastrophe. I want to defend the idea that we always have more in common than separates us, and not only with other humans but with the entire web of life on earth.
It may be a hopeless project; it’s certainly quixotic in the present climate. It’s likely that I shall prove inadequate to the task or that, if I do turn out a book, it won’t find any readers. No matter, as Beckett says: failing is better than doing nothing. And this is the time to nail my colours to the mast. This is the side I choose: the side of tolerance, of living together, of accepting our mistakes, of learning from one another, of doing better, of truth, of people not populism, of kindness; the side of radical hope, of courage and getting on with what must be done, of moderation, of listening and negotiating, of democracy even when it’s bitter, of generosity and grace, of art and culture, of getting on and doing what we can.
This is a sad day, but creativity is an old response to sadness – making something, however unpromising or useless it might seem. Humans are constructive beings, and words are my materials. So, today, as one public door is pushed shut, I open a private one onto my European home.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for theeJohn Donne, Meditation XVII (1623)