On the day the UK was slated to leave the EU, Scotsman Westminster Correspondent Paris Gourtsoyannis writes a very personal account of the Brexit turmoil.
I’ve thought a lot about this column, because this is Brexit day.
Of course, it isn’t anymore, but for nearly two years, it was – so I’ve had months to wonder what my thoughts would be on 29 March. The name gives it away – I’m not from around here. And if you’ve read anything by me in the middle pages of The Scotsman – under the civic, inclusive banner of “Scottish Perspective” – you’ll know I’ve drawn on my background as someone who is Canadian by birth, and who lived for most of the first half of their life in Belgium. But the reason I’m able to live and work in this country is because I’m a Greek citizen and a European.
I started this job almost three years ago, not quite a month before the EU referendum. Like too many people, I began by thinking Brexit would be tidied away and politics would get back to normal. Then one of the stories I covered in those first weeks was Jo Cox’s murder and that sense quickly disappeared.
Out of politeness, probably, no-one has asked how I’ve covered Brexit as object rather than subject, but it’s been easy, actually. I’d stand by the objectivity of my work, and if I’ve had both distance and a unique perspective compared with most of the Westminster lobby, all the better. The journalism bit has been easy. The rest, less so.
Perhaps the only things I’ve lost are my illusions. Like everyone, I’ve tried to understand the experiences and feelings driving today’s politics
I’ve lived in the UK for 13-and-a-half years. As an English-speaking third-culture kid, the UK felt like the centre of the world. There were always British newspapers in the house – the first front page I can remember announced the arrival of “Cool Britannia”. Cable TV came with the BBC, so my after-school window on the world looked into the Blue Peter studio and Byker Grove. Wanting to become a journalist owes a lot to Kate Adie, live from Kosovo.
Even though I’d barely been to Britain – a weekend trip to London, and Stonehenge – by the time I was 18 and deciding where to study, I didn’t question coming to the UK.
The Greek passport decided where I ended up: in Scotland, I could study for free (to the chagrin of some SNP ministers now fighting to keep the UK in the EU). I landed in Edinburgh a few days before classes started and didn’t leave for a decade. I don’t need to explain that part to anyone who isn’t from Glasgow.
Perhaps the only things I’ve lost are my illusions. Like everyone, I’ve tried to understand the experiences and feelings driving today’s politics. I probably started at a disadvantage – those newspapers on the kitchen table were always the Times, the Guardian and the Independent. The moment it hit me wasn’t the sleepless night of the referendum result, but months later, in a Birmingham concert hall, when the Prime Minister announced that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. She could have been speaking to me.
Compared to other EU nationals, I’m lucky; no elderly parents to look after, no spouse or children to uproot. Financially, I don’t have the freedom to pick up and leave for somewhere else; even if I could, in my adult life this is the only home I’ve known. But I have options and could work somewhere else if I need to.
That would hardly be a national tragedy, but think of all the teachers, nurses, chefs, researchers, doctors, farm workers and cleaners who are in the same position, doing jobs the economy needs. EU nationals have been offered settled status, an option to sign up for slightly diminished rights. It comes with the requirement to accept what amounts to an identity card, something deemed politically unacceptable for British citizens. How I’m meant to accept that, in a political environment dominated by talk of freedom, sovereignty and self-respect, I can’t quite work out. Foreigners who have made their lives in this country do face a knock at the door in the early hours – obviously, as a white, middle-class person, that isn’t me.
What is true is that I once imagined myself here indefinitely, doing the ordinary things of life; building a career, buying a house, starting a family, even becoming a British citizen. The past three years have felt like a long, slow goodbye to the possibility of those things.
Thinking a few months ago about how to explain that life in this column, my mind went to all the people I’ve met in this country, the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done, and I’m only a bit ashamed to admit I sat down and cried.
Britain today isn’t what I thought it was 13 years ago, and neither is my place in it. Things change and maybe my window on it was too small. Maybe the mistake was mine, maybe I’m wrong now.
But it’s Brexit day and I still don’t have any answers. Neither do three million other EU nationals, or indeed anyone who lives here. It’s past time we found out what the future holds.