experiencing brexit as an immigrant
As a first generation immigrant, the Brexit referendum wasn’t merely a singular political event, but rather the latest chapter in a narrative that has shaped the course of my entire life.
What would justify terminating a friendship? Betrayal is the usual answer, but what counts as treachery? Walking in on your partner and your best friend having sex is an obvious one, but what about a difference in political opinions? Most people would probably consider that excessive — someone's politics become clear not long after meeting them, and any changes in conviction tend to be slow and incremental, rather than sudden and unexpected. No one simply wakes up one day to find their BFF leafletting for the British National Party, and if you have, well, then you probably didn't know them very well.
Yet leading up to last month's EU referendum, people that I had always assumed of gravitating to the left, if ever so slightly, suddenly started ranting on about EU bureaucrats and frothing at the mouth over perceived incursions into British sovereignty. It appears that some of my friends were actually Trojan yokels, quietly slumbering until the right issue came along to rumble their inner nationalist. And these weren't just random acquaintances that I had met at a house party once, either — they were genuine friends that I had known for several years, people who I had invited into my home for dinner, people who'd invited me to theirs. I had met their families and been entrusted with some of their most intimate secrets; yet by voting Leave on June 23, all of our shared history was rendered null and void as I severed ties with each of them in the most vitriolic of terms, adopting a sort of scorched earth policy that would leave no room for apologies or forgiveness.
For me, as a first generation immigrant, the Brexit referendum wasn't merely a singular political event, but rather the latest chapter in a narrative that has shaped the course of my entire life. It was more than a political issue, it was a personal one, and if you've never had to run the visa gauntlet, or stand in the "all other passports" line at Heathrow as British and EU nationals breeze through while you slowly edge towards a Border Force interrogation — clearly marking out your place in this very modern caste system — then you couldn't possibly understand how deeply personal it was.
The Leave campaign was merely the latest manifestation of a nativist agenda that has long dominated British politics.
Everyone that voted out didn't simply choose to leave the European Union, they took sides with the sort of people that have built walls and laid bureaucratic landmines to prevent me, my family, and others like us from earning the sort of privileges that they were born with: the right to travel without restrictions, to live in nations with enviable living standards, functional economies, and have a realistic chance of carving out a dignified existence — all unfathomable luxuries to many of those born beyond the borders of western Europe. It was a vote for people who've built their political careers by stoking the most repugnant, animalistic tendencies of the lowest common denominators in the British electorate and toying with immigrants' lives to score cheap political points.
This phenomenon wasn't spawned by the referendum nor will it wither away now that it's over. The Leave campaign was merely the latest manifestation of a nativist agenda that has long dominated British politics: one of Theresa May's 'Go Home' vans, Tory immigration caps, of divided families pulled apart by minimum income requirements for spousal visas, of people threatened with deportation for the transgression of earning less than £35,000 a year. Every single vote for Leave empowered that agenda's callous insularity. In practice, if not in intention, it was a vote against every single person who wasn't born on British shores, and I really don't give a shit about their intentions.
I realize that Brexit is a layered issue, one that had as much to do with political and economic alienation for some people as it did with immigration. But while the Leave voters that I once called friends may have intended to strike out against against unelected EU technocrats or lodge a protest vote against the establishment, in practice they have compromised the lives and futures of everyone that doesn't have "indefinite leave to remain" stamped in their passport. Their votes have already made Britain less hospitable for immigrants, and with time it will become even less accessible. Yet this isn't just about abstract principles. For me, it's about very real consequences: there is already talk of EU "expansion fatigue," with Johannes Hahn, head of enlargement negotiations, claiming that "all the current candidate countries are fully aware that they won't become members in this decade." Serbia, the country of my birth, is one of those candidate countries. It is my friends and family that will have their lives hamstrung, in part, by everyone that voted out. No, this isn't merely a political or a personal issue, it's an existential one that, for me, leaves no room for reconciliation.
Just as I see them as a barrier to my own betterment, they see me and others like me as a threat to their birthright.
Although I despise Leave voters and resent their political choices, in a way I understand them. These are largely people whose livelihoods have been degraded and sense of national identity warped, and they are convinced that we immigrants — with our cheap labour and funny-sounding languages — are to blame. Whether the facts back their prejudices up or not doesn't matter — in Sunderland and in Clacton it feels that way, in their minds they have willed it to be true and no "expert" can tell them otherwise. Just as I see them as a barrier to my own betterment, they see me and others like me as a threat to their birthright. Our two positions couldn't be more diametrically opposed on a matter that, is in my eyes, as close as you can get to one of life or death without severing an artery.
A month has passed since referendum day. My initial feelings of shock and rage have subsided, inevitably withered by the passage of time, but I feel no regret for amputating all of my former, Leave-voting friends out of my life. Because this isn't just about Brexit or its quantifiable human cost, it's about the inherent nature of politics. It's said that you shouldn't talk about religion or politics in polite company because it could lead to an argument, but I struggle to think of an adage I disagree with more. Whoever first voiced that opinion must have been what Bertolt Brecht would call "politically illiterate."
Our political convictions — or an absence of them — paint a truer picture of who we are fundamentally than personal tastes or projected public personas. The music we listen to and the clothes we wear are mere footnotes compared to our political leanings. If you're not prepared to fall out with someone over politics, then you seldom have reason to ever fall out with anyone at all.
Text Aleks Eror