I was born in Germany, I grew up in Australia, but I am also British. My wife is French-American but grew up in London. I moved to London with her in 2012. I was 29 during the referendum campaign, and turned 30 shortly after it. I’m not 33 – where does the time go?
I always liked the idea of the EU, but was never that passionate about it. I could see the economic benefit of working closely in a union with our closest neighbours and allies, but I didn’t proactively campaign for it (much to my regret later).
When the referendum took place I voted Remain mainly because of family. Given that my mum is German and my father is British, it felt like Brexit would tear those two halves of me apart. Also, it irritated me that my wife and her French family had no voice in this referendum, after living in, loving and contributing to this country for over 25 years.
When the referendum result came through on that black night of the 23rd of June 2016, I was devastated. But after the initial shock and despair, I felt some comfort in knowing that the British government was rational and reasonable. Surely they would recognise the concerns of the 16 million Remainers as well?
I remember thinking that however we approached this next step into an uncertain future, we would do so together, after a period of national discussion and debate. With the wishes and concerns of both sides recognised.
You could say I was a “soft Brexiteer” then.
What followed, though, has been arguably even more horrific and terrifying than the referendum result itself.
I watched as Theresa May’s new government formed after David Cameron’s resignation unilaterally dismissed all Remainers overnight.
Where it didn’t completely ignore the entire ‘other half’ of the electorate, it alienated or demonised them. Words like “Remoaners” and “undemocratic” started to appear. Phrases like “citizens of nowhere”, “enemies of the people” and “crush the saboteurs” began to be used regularly not only by the media, but also by our own government.
Abused for speaking French
Meanwhile, I was bombarded relentlessly with “you lost, get over it” on all social media platforms by jeering Leavers (later to become known as “Brexiteers”).
My wife’s sister was abused in a restaurant for speaking French, by another patron demanding that she “speak English”. I read about the increasing amount of similar such hate crimes taking place across the country. The one that stuck with me the most was a scared elderly German woman who rang James O’Brien’s LBC radio show in tears to say her neighbours were throwing dog excrement at her front door because she was German.
For the first time, my wife and I experienced abuse in the UK because of our accents. We were at a bus stop, the bus was approaching, and upon hearing our accents, a man got right up close to my face and said “I’m English, this is MY bus”, and pushed us aside so that he could get on first.
I threw out my Union Jack… but I found hope again
I remember in 2012/13 when I was first recognised as a naturalized British citizen and got my British passport. I was so proud that I went out and bought a Union Flag that day and hung it in my bedroom.
By the end of 2016, after seeing, hearing of and being subjected to daily abuse both online and in the street, I threw out that flag. I was so disgusted and disappointed that I wanted to leave the UK and never come back.
However, something else had changed by the end of 2016. Remainers had started to rally together.
After being shattered and beaten into silence, I found that many, many people had had much the same experience as my wife and I.
The first marches started to take place in London and there were smaller rallies around the country. One by one, MPs started to voice concerns about Brexit. Local activist groups started to form online and organise street stalls. I remember bringing a boom-box to one of those first marches in London and first turning it on to start blasting out “Heroes” by David Bowie. A few hundred people with European flag capes and picket signs turned around and smiled.
The last few years have been a journey. But the one thing I remember most, is that when I had lost all faith in this country, I witnessed for the first time the stalwart and defiant British spirit. And that gave hope back to me again.