My paternal grandfather, Alfred Johansen, arrived in Britain on the boat from Norway. My mother, Neeltje Verburg, arrived in Britain on the boat from the Netherlands. So far as I am aware, they did not suffer abuse on the grounds that they were immigrants. Maybe that’s because they were white. Alfred came here with his brothers to open the Mustad Nail Factory in Portishead and worked all his life, well into his seventies. Neeltje came here to marry Alfred’s only son Anthony and she then worked until she later remarried. Neither ever claimed any kind of benefits. No one in my family ever has. I wonder how they would be regarded today?
That’s what haunts and hurts me so much with this Brexit debacle. Alfred and Neeltje learned the language and integrated with the Brits. Alfred became a true Brit, whilst always maintaining a fierce pride in where he had come from. Although Neeltje was always a stranger in a strange land, she did her bit in her adopted country.
I fear they would not be so welcome today in a country that has taken an enormous step towards English nationalism, an inward-looking island pulling up the drawbridge to Europe. I doubt that they would have come here at all. They wouldn’t have been allowed.
Doubtless, the pages of the tabloids and their readers would be celebrating the sight of them being turned away as they attempted to disembark the boat. “We don’t want your sort here.” Nigel Farage would be standing in front of a poster showing a long line of ‘coloured’ migrants with the tag line ‘Breaking Point’. They would be coming here to take the jobs of ‘our own’.
It affects me because although I regard myself as English through and through, I am very proud of my roots. More of my bloodline is ‘foreign’ than English. My name is a bit of a giveaway. There must be people who say I am not ‘pure’ British, that perhaps the government should be considering deporting people to where their parents came from? Irrational? Probably.
As we set to leave Europe and pull the drawbridge up to the rest of Europe, dreaming of the sunlit uplands of a low tax, small state, deregulation of workers’ rights and environmental protections, it breaks my heart, not just the part of my heart that will be forever England, but the part of it that belongs to Norway and the Netherlands. I so wanted my children and yours to enjoy the freedom to live, love, study, work and retire anywhere across Europe and that dream – and that’s undoubtedly what it is – begins to fade and die amid a riot of ugly English nationalism.
I truly believe that we are all the same, regardless of creed, colour, race and all the rest of it. And I thought we were getting to the point where nearly everyone believed that. No more.
Alfred was a real life Dad’s Army person in the war, Anthony joined the Liberty Ships having lied about his age (he was 15) to bring much needed supplies to hungry Brits, sailing across the U-boat infested North Atlantic. Neeltje who narrowly survived the mass destruction wrought by the Luftwaffe, watched as brave Dutch marines were gunned down on the streets Rotterdam and thousands of Jews were rounded up and marched off to trains that would take them to Auschwitz. Some of her best friends were Jews. Those generations saw the world as it was and they hoped would never be again.
We are nowhere near that stage today, thank goodness, but hard line nationalism never ends well. My family were just ordinary people who lived mainly ordinary, ‘normal’ lives. Alfred and Neeltje just happened to be migrants in search of a better life.
The post war consensus seems broken and I fear for the future. I hope, even at this late stage, we can come up with a Great British Compromise that satisfies perhaps no-one but one that everyone can live with. But the fissures are too wide. Our rupture from the past must be seismic, it must be permanent.
When I think, particularly of my father Anthony, son of Alfred Johansen from Gjovik in Norway, a young boy sailing the high seas between the UK and the USA I feel nothing but pride in what he did and what he and his generation believed in. And I feel desperately sad that we appear to have learned nothing from history.