Like many of the 48% who voted to remain in the European Union (EU), I was heartbroken by the referendum result last June. The UK joined the European Economic Community the year after I was born. I have never not felt that I have belonged to a family of nations, brought together in the aftermath of a devastating war.
Between Christmas and New Year in 1989 I went on a history and politics school trip to Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg – the three European centres of government. In Strasbourg we met (albeit briefly) Simone Veil, a survivor of Auschwitz and who was by that time a French MEP. Here was someone whose family had suffered inestimably but had worked tirelessly for reconciliation and prosperity.
I had always viewed the European Union with optimism, as a place to do business and to exchange culturally. I was living in Aldeburgh, when it participated in the European Cultural Villages programme in 2003. Fourteen years on I still have a bottle of fairly undrinakable home-made apple Brandy brought by folk from Bystre in the Czech republic and sold in a the ten-nation farmers market next to the 14th century Moot Hall. Here was a cultural Europe of peoples, co-operating, appreciating each other’s food, drink and music and having fun.
So in the aftermath of the vote to leave I read with interest a range of interviews with cultural professionals in the Guardian. To the person, playwrights, artists, directors they were all based in London. All of them probably experienced similar emotions to me, disbelief, anger, sadness, trepidation.
There was shock and anger in my organisation, Derby Museums. The latter distinctly felt by overseas staff that had worked and paid taxes in this country who were nevertheless denied the vote. I won’t repeat the expletives from the Dutch woman I met at Edinburgh airport waiting to fly south on 24 June. She had lived and worked here for 20 years raised a family and was allowed to vote in the Scottish referendum (voting No) but denied a vote in the EU referendum – “I have given so much to this country” she said.
I had a feeling that the Leave vote would prevail. In June I’d spent an hour or so in Ipswich Town Centre each week, (waiting for my daughter whilst she was at Drama club in the local theatre) in the run up to vote. I’d stand near the Vote Leave stalls in the market square watching the tactics of the campaigners. Carefully they would pick out older and white shoppers, frame the conversation about the EU around domestic issues (no talk of an international, global Britain), concerns about funding for local services and the NHS – before gently noting that immigration might impact on public services. This would light the touch paper – giving people permission to articulate how much their neighbourhoods or lives had changed (regardless of whether there were people different to them living in their locality) and how little control they had in it.
Take back control seems irresistible, if comfort, security and interest in your life by others are in short supply.
I saw hardly anybody in Ipswich market place campaigning to Remain in the EU.
I work in Derby, a city in the Midland’s which voted 58% to leave. Three days before the vote, Labour in Europe hired Derby Silk Mill to hold a rally in support of remaining in the EU. Only a handful of party members turned up to hear Margaret Beckett (former Foreign Secretary) and Alan Johnson (former Home Secretary) make the case for Remain. In the Referendum 57% of voters in Derby decided they wanted to leave the EU. Throughout the old industrial heartlands of the Midlands and the North voters rejected the overwhelming view of left wing political parties which had shaped the society of those areas.
I was angry at the mendacity of politicians who used fear and alienation not just of immigrants but fellow Britons who are – “not like you.” The week after the vote I was in a National Museum Directors Council meeting (perhaps the apogee of the metropolitan elite), around the table many were stunned, incredulous, and fearful that the progressive, rational values of museums might be under threat from an insurgent, nihilist clique who disliked everything we stood for.
I am not part of metropolitan elite. I grew up in small house in Portsmouth, went to university in Wales, began my career in Wakefield; I live in rural Suffolk and work in Derby – I am as a provincial mouse as they come! During 2015-13 I ran an organisation which worked with some of the most vulnerable members of our community… and yet I felt I was being ‘othered’ – out of touch with the ‘real concerns of real people.’
I am still angry. Periodically I’ll watch the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics to remind me of a vision I share of an old, but confident country ready to contemplate its past, laugh at itself and be proud of its multiculturalism. Leaving the EU political structure may not change this, but in my view socially and culturally the referendum needlessly opened divisions in our society.
I want rekindle the idealism about the world I felt as a 17 year-old visiting Strasbourg as the Iron Curtain fell. This desire feels very distant. I need help to understand, to listen and feel and show empathy – less ‘them’, more ‘us.’ But rather than dwell solely on things we have in common, we also have to understand, acknowledge and express the differences which contribute to the experiences that shape our decisions.
This Friday Derby Museums will be hosting a Happy Museum workshop to explore the neuroscience and psychology behind the referendum debate and the ways to relate to people who voted differently. The format of the day will allow ample time for discussion, debate and consideration of our role and that of museums.
I genuinely feel the need to change, when I say “its not you, its me.” – but I’m going to have to work on it.