Grandpa didn’t like to talk about the war. These things I know: He was with a regiment that drank lots of whisky. He was shot in the bum and sent home. In, I think, 1994 he and my Grandma went to Holland for an anniversary of something or other and returned bearing orange scarves and tiny little clogs for ‘The Grandchildren of those who liberated us’.
My Grandma, his wife, said her small Yorkshire town didn’t change much during the war apart from an army base of a few thousand training soldiers which was built on the moor. She was 15 then.
My other Grandma, his future daughter’s future mother-in-law, worked at The Rover Factory in Solihull, making bits of aeroplanes and weapons. One night her boss hired a coach to take them away from the city and get a rest from the constant air raids. They drove into the countryside and stopped on a hill with a view of Coventry. It was November 14th 1940. They watched as Coventry burned.
My Grandma, the one whose teenage hormones were let loose on a thousand training squaddies, died in 2012. Along with her, along with her generation, anyway, died the last people who knew what joining the EU was all about. Yes, the EU’s about economics. Yes, it’s about movement of people. And yes, joining it was about Britain and her lost Empire. But it was also about what war is like. About what seeing your mates bleeding to death is like. What cowering in a shelter or under the stairs, fearing for your life is like. What clearing up the debris of someone’s life; their stuff, their blood-stained clothes, their dead children, about what that’s like. I don’t know what that was like. My Grandparents wanted it to stay that way. The EU was about never letting war in Europe happen again.
Today it ends. The British public, an angry mob, voted for Britain to leave the EU. I’m still not clear quite why.
It’s difficult to write about this stuff in a public place when you’re not a journalist with a newspaper’s agenda, or politician with a party’s agenda. Some of my friends disagree with me. Some of my relatives disagree with me. Some of them voted to leave – and in any case, it’s too late now. I still don’t understand why.
Is it about immigration? Well, I don’t understand. My brother-in-law is European, and so my nephews are European. Loads of my kids’ friends’ parents are European, so loads of my kids’ friends are European – and so my kids are European. It makes for a strong, varied and peaceful place for kids to grow up in. And these Europeans, they pay tax, and they work: it’s difficult to want to wage war against the person whom you last saw between your stirruped legs as she administered your life-saving smear test. I’ve lived and worked in other European countries myself. I’d like it if my kids could too. When I see immigration as a reason, I read xenophobia. Ignorance.
Is it the anger? I do understand the country’s anger towards the wealthy and complacent South. I’m a Northerner living in the South – and I probably also count as wealthy and complacent. I agree that the provinces are neglected. I’d be delighted if more taxes were collected from here and directed there. That the target of that anger is the EU, who send money to many of the deprived areas that voted to leave, I don’t understand. I don’t. I’m angry too, for my children and for myself. I feel like my future’s been stolen.
Is it about sovereignty and democratic process? A prime minister the country didn’t elect is withdrawing us from Europe without consultation on the details. Her mandate is a referendum triggered in self-interest and turned into a lying old-boys’ jizzing contest. So – nope, I don’t understand that either. And Brussels ‘red tape’? That’s given us laws about gender equality, working time and holidays. Terrible eh.
I can’t believe – I won’t believe – that anyone voted just for a return to blue passports. I just won’t.
So here we are, an island poised on the rim of an economic bog-flush, deciding to sail off alone. And the country’s fractured, and we’re all angry with each other. Some of us feel British. Some feel European. We can’t, now, be both. We’ve alienated people who’ve lived here for years and we’re chumming up with rug-headed maniacs. We’re marching and shouting and letting the hatred of the stranger slip through our civilised front.
And the dream of the grandparents crumbles. There may not be war. But there won’t be peace in our time.