I dread to think what would have happened to my paternal grandfather at the turn of the previous century and my mother in the 1950s if they had arrived in Brexit Britain. My father had a Norwegian name and my mother a Dutch name. I fear they would have been roundly abused by some of those who voted to take us out of Europe. That’s certainly what has happened recently to many Europeans who have come here to work.
The 1950s did not exactly represent a time of tolerance or enlightenment. The Second World War had not long ended. My mother, born and raised in Rotterdam, frequently attracted derision from some who did not want Germans coming over here after all that happened. That she watched brave Dutch marines literally fighting to the death against the Nazi invader mattered not, or that she lost three homes and all her personal possessions during the Rotterdam blitz, or that she had Jewish friends who were taken to the concentration camps never to return. Or that she wasn’t German. But no matter.
My mother was very insular. I wonder if it was because of those early experiences. But then, so was my grandfather who came to this country to help set up the Mustad nail factory in Portishead. Like my mother, he kept himself to himself, rarely leaving the comfort, such as it was with no bathroom and an outside toilet, of his own home. Did he experience any comments about his heritage? He never told me. He would have experienced it today.
These migrants, my grandfather and mother, always worked, my grandfather well into his seventies. They never claimed benefits, never even thought about claiming benefits. No one in my family has ever signed on the dole. Yet now, they would probably have been regarded as foreigners taking the jobs of indigenous Brits.
We have nothing to tell Americans in general and Donald Trump in particular about racism. In many ways, we wrote the book on it. Throughout my adult life, racism has festered, not always in the background; directed at different groups. West Indians, Asians and more recently Jews have had to put up with it constantly. But if you look back to that Second World War, where my mother almost died, where my father almost died when a bomb exploded a matter of a few yards from where he was studying at the Cathedral school and later sailed in the Liberty ships on the North Atlantic at the age of 15, where my grandfather was a brave air raid warden, they were all doing their bit to turn back the rise of fascism.
All this hatred is not solely down to Brexit. Brexit merely made it ‘acceptable’ to be openly racist and bigoted, to blame foreigners for our unbalanced, unequal society, to take back control, whatever that means.
I’m English, British, European. My bloodline contains more ‘foreign’ blood than English but I was born here and would not want to be anywhere else. I don’t care if people don’t like me for pretty well any reason under the sun, but please don’t hate me, or anyone else, who is not 100% English.
We need to turn the tide, to stop and then reverse the ugly journey towards nationalism, as defined by the likes of Brexit, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Because we know from history where nationalism takes us.