Opinion | Britain Has Misplaced Itself


In the end, it occurred.

Shortly earlier than midnight on Thursday, Britain accomplished its exit from the European Union, changing an in depth 47-year lengthy relationship with the continent with one thing much more distant. Now it should dwell way of troublesome years of separation that can sap its political vibrancy and diminish its position on the world stage. Although a commerce deal was belatedly agreed, the financial fallout could also be dire, too.

But for a lot of, it’s additionally a deeply private second. My grandparents, who escaped Nazi Germany on the eve of World Warfare II, discovered a house in Britain — to them, it was a beacon of sunshine and hope. However they might be heartbroken to see it at present. Inward, polarized and absurdly self-aggrandizing, Britain has misplaced itself. In sorrow, I mourn the passing of the nation that was my household’s salvation.

My grandparents arrived in England in 1939 as stateless refugees. They felt not simply gratitude for his or her instant security but additionally a deep attachment to the values of openness, decency and tolerance they discovered of their adopted homeland. As soon as the struggle ended, they turned naturalized British residents as quickly as they might. In a letter to a buddy, my grandfather praised the “beneficiant hospitality and almost unrestricted freedom” they loved as migrants. They no means shed their German accents however switched to talking solely in English.

My dad and mom’ technology, in flip, gave their all for the nation that took them in. They inevitably confronted some anti-German sentiment within the early postwar years, however merely ignored it. My uncle, who arrived in Britain on a Kindertransport practice when he was 15 years outdated, joined a commando unit of the British Military composed of German refugees and was killed on a Normandy seaside on D-Day, aged 21. Within the 1980s, my father, a businessman, and my aunt, a radiographer, have been each embellished Queen Elizabeth II for his or her contributions to the nation. “After all of the trauma of leaving Germany I had struck recent roots in England,” my father wrote in a non-public memoir. “We had discovered a brand new dwelling in each sense of the phrase.”

However the openness and tolerance that made the nation a protected haven for them are in retreat. The vote to go away the European Union in 2016 and the surge of nationwide exceptionalism that accompanied it revealed deeply held prejudices about migrants. Xenophobia and racism, presumed to be banished to the margins of public life, made an unpleasant return to the mainstream. And anybody with a world mind-set was all of a sudden liable to being tarred, within the phrases of the previous prime minister, Theresa Might, as a “citizen of nowhere” — an ominous phrase not only for a household like mine that was as soon as stateless.

Because the 2016 referendum, the federal government has alienated lots of the 3.5 million European Union nationals within the nation, cynically treating them as bargaining chips of their negotiations with the bloc. Such individuals make a giant contribution to British life — not simply as Metropolis bankers, as they’re usually caricatured, but additionally as frontline medical workers, college lecturers and entrepreneurs. With out them, the nation could be significantly diminished. Alarmingly, massive numbers seem to have left in 2020.

And political rot has set in. Led Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the federal government performs quick and unfastened with parliamentary process and worldwide treaties. When Moody’s downgraded Britain’s credit standing in October, it cited the “diminished” high quality of British govt and legislative establishments. Moral requirements have taken a tumble, too, with the federal government turning a blind eye to office harassment of civil servants and cronyism creeping into the award of public contracts way of the pandemic.

I take no pleasure on this state of affairs, and neither do many fellow Britons. The nation is simply as divided as the USA has been over President Trump. Practically half the voters opposed Brexit within the referendum: Many are as indignant and disillusioned as I’m. However not like in the USA, the place the election of Joe Biden gives a reprieve from the crassness and cruelty of Mr. Trump, Brexit can’t be undone. There might be no turning again.

My American associates inform me that, to them no less than, I’m quintessentially British, a faithful tea drinker and fan of Marmite, Monty Python and honest play. But I’m additionally strongly pro-European, a sense strengthened having lived in a number of European international locations over time. The 2 identities all the time appeared to me to be complementary. However Brexit made it unattainable to be British and European on the identical time. I felt I had been orphaned.

Afraid of dropping my reference to the continent and alarmed the course which Britain seemed to be heading, I took a choice I no means dreamed I’d even take into account: I utilized for German citizenship. Because the grandson of refugees who misplaced their citizenship for racial or non secular causes, I used to be allowed to take action the postwar German structure.

I didn’t take the choice calmly. I can always remember what occurred to my household; my great-aunt perished in Auschwitz and a number of other different cousins died within the Holocaust. However I also can acknowledge how a lot Germany has modified and the lengths to which it has gone to atone for the atrocities of the Third Reich.

Certainly, roles have been reversed in some methods: At the moment, it’s Germany that opens its door to refugees and whose chancellor, Angela Merkel, is outspoken in protection of worldwide values and embodies decency and respect. Against this, the Britain that sheltered and nurtured my household is a tragic shadow of its former self.

After 80 years, I really feel prepared to shut a cycle of historical past. British start, I’m European heritage and conviction — and now have an unambiguously European nationality to show it. I’m nonetheless proud to be British, however I’m additionally proud to be German. I feel my grandparents and fogeys would approve.

Peter Gumbel (@petergumbel) is a journalist and the writer, most not too long ago, of “Residents of All over the place: Looking for Id within the Age of Brexit.”

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