Who is ‘we’ ?

Reflections on being voted out of Europe, on being an immigrant, and on why we campaign.


Walking in early morning light … Facing up to the fact that we lost – that just over half the voters in Britain are happy with the referendum result that will take us out of the European Union. They’re not the half I know or whose judgement I can trust the future to – and that says something about how divided we are. The tasks ahead are huge.

Now, as things begin to fall only too predictably apart, some of those who voted to leave are saying, ‘I didn’t actually mean it, it was just a protest vote’. I am seldom speechless, but at this words desert me.

On referendum day our home was a campaign hub for the Remain-ers. From before I was up volunteers were arriving to collect stickers and leaflets, and they kept on coming until polls closed – fifty volunteers – people of all ages, backgrounds, political affiliations. After the first few we just left the door open. Through the day they came back in to refuel, to take the weight off their feet for a short while, then out again. I found my vocation as a tea/coffee lady, and I loved the vibe – all of us energised by the set of shared values that grows out of the kind of society we wer13516312_478107159051918_3598851207193013400_ne voting to keep – broad-minded, outward-looking, tolerant, interested in others, confident in our shared humanity. I listened to the stories they brought back. A couple of young women were accosted by heavies as ‘traitors’. To value being part of a wider community means you’re a traitor?

The leaders of the Leave campaign had no idea what would happen if they won, and lied consistently – deliberately misled the voters about cause and effect. A million words have documented this – I won’t repeat them. Now while they squabble about who is going to take the flak for the mess we are in, the immediate outcome is a sudden rise in openly expressed hostility to anyone seen as ‘other’. An anti-immigrant campaign won – ‘Leave’ to their supporters meant that immigrants should leave. School children taunt a Polish child – hate messages are scrawled on doors – teenage yobos tell a black man on the metro to go back to Africa. ‘Immigrant’ means anyone who is different. It’s the Other. The ‘not us’.

Who is ‘we’ ?

We want our country back,’ the Leave slogan said. And who exactly is their ‘we’? For the racist right across Europe, ‘we’ is those who are white and born in that country, to parents (maybe also grandparents?) who themselves were ethnically and culturally part of the majority. London – wonderful multi-cultural London, with its 100 mother tongues and endless permutations of mixed marriages – is foreign territory to them. Yet the spurious logic falls apart as soon as you try to define it – just look at the UK’s two most  prominent leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign. Boris Johnson had a grandmother who was half French and a grandfather half Turkish. And Nigel Farage – the UK Independence Party’s fiercely anti-immigrant leader: his first wife was Irish, his current one is German.

People who voted to stay part of the EU have a concept of  ‘we’ that goes beyond embracing anyone who lives in the UK, regardless of race and religion, and British citizens anywhere. We are also and will remain emotionally – whether officially or not – part of Europe. Having a multiple identity is normal. Each of us is defined by layers of belonging which may or may not overlap – family, friendship group, workplace, town, language, ethnicity, religion. In today’s mobile, globally connected world, it’s hardly a surprise that nationalities too can be dual.

The shock of having their European identity threatened is pushing people back into narrower nationalisms. There’s been a run on citizenship applications to Ireland by people of Irish descent in the UK. In Scotland there’s talk of a 2nd referendum on Scots independence, so they can stay part of Europe. So what about London?

Nearly 70% of us voted to Remain, and13516192_1178739832178802_3338190308955437998_n our mayor Sadiq Khan keeps posting things to keep our collective morale up – like this photo of sharing his evening meal at the end of a day of Ramadan fasting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, London’s chief Rabbi, and a crowd of every religion and ethnic group. Perhaps we should go independent too, become an island within an island, floating down the Thames into the channel – the Multicultural Republic of London.

Fantasy aside, hold on to the fact that along with the growth of anti-immigrant feeling – in the UK and elsewhere in Europe – there has been a rush of people looking for ways to counteract it. A friend of mine gave up her 3 weeks annual leave to work as a volunteer on the island in Greece which is receiving refugees who arrive in boats. Stories of what was happening to people fleeing from Syria led to towns all over the UK putting up banners saying ‘We welcome refugees.’ They’re up again now, as people demonstrate to challenge this Brexit-inspired outbreak of racism. In my own part of London there’s a meeting tonight of our local Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees group, and the lead speaker is our ex-MP Alf Dubbs – he himself was an unaccompanied child refugee from Nazism who arrived on the ‘Kindertransport’; and a man who has contributed hugely to society.

hqdefaultOn being an immigrant

I too am an immigrant into the UK – 40 years ago. I am also the child of a long line of immigrants from Europe to the southern tip of Africa. Between the different strands they exemplify all the possible reasons people might have for migrating. My father’s ancestors fled religious persecution in France, and wars in Germany. They crossed borders into Sweden and the Netherlands and from there eventually found passage on ships across a dangerous ocean to an unknown, far-away land. It doesn’t take much for me to imagine what it’s like doing this from Syria, Afghanistan, Libya.

A great-great (and possibly another great) grandmother was a slave from Batavia (now Indonesia), taken by force across the sea into who knows what situation. The genealogical records gave her no name.  A great-great-grandfather was a Scots church minister, answering a call by the British governor at the Cape to serve in the far flung Dutch settler communities, and hopefully get them to use English. That ploy failed –  like most immigrants they learnt the language of their new community while continuing to use their own language at home. In the small highveld village where my grandfather was the minister, Dutch farmers made a minimal living, African workers lived on even less, and all of them struggled to survive the privations of the Boer War. My grandfather didn’t. He died young from the damage to his health of constant moving around on horseback, to minister to the men in hiding, while women and children were herded into the world’s first concentration camps. My father was three when his father died. The impoverished community did what it could to support them, and the older children went out to work young. My father – the youngest – hardly wore shoes till he was fourteen.

My mother’s family were pure Scots, from Cupar and Achtermuchty in Fife – but ‘we’ even there almost certainly included a good measure of Scandinavian genes through the Vikings. Her father was a child of agricultural labourers, born after the early death of his own father, and had to leave school at eight to work in the fields — another story of extreme poverty. Others in the family emigrated to where they hoped it might be easier to survive. He was self-educated and stayed to follow his dream of running a bookshop. My mother’s first years were spent in a damp basement in Edinburgh, and by the time she was five both her mother and only sister had died of TB. So she and her father too joined the emigration trail and sailed for the Cape, where she was left with a series of housekeepers while her father moved around the country looking for work.

When I see what happens to children of migrants caught up in crises they did not create, I think of what my mother’s early years must have been like. Yet she never told us hard-luck stories – the stories I know, I got out of her later. She and my father gave us the kind of emotionally secure childhood one would want every child to have. I want the society I live in now to provide that possibility for today’s children.

Learning to look away

Growing up in a society as starkly unequal as apartheid South Africa laid bare for me 3-480x748 something more universal – the extreme inequality of life chances, and how people react to it. Almost everywhere today children in middle class, comfortably-off homes take for granted their own privilege, and the inequalities that surround them. Harsh Mander, an Indian social worker and journalist, called his recent book about this Looking Away. You cannot grow up in India without seeing terrible poverty, but we are socially inducted into looking away from what ought to shock us into response.

Some of my earliest memories are of going with my aunt in her small battered car on her journeys into the African part of town, some miles distant from the one we lived in. She was an unofficial, self-appointed social worker there, and I and my brothers were the only white children I knew who ever went there. I only realised years later how much I owed her for giving me that exposure. Growing up in a small town, the only Africans we met were domestic servants or manual workers. Our family values taught us that the racism and inequality that underpinned our small world was wrong, but there was little we could do to break out of it until we became adults. Those journeys in Auntie’s car – and their legacy – crept into my first novel, A Shield of Coolest Air. It was forty years before I had attempted to put any of it into words, yet still it burned me as I wrote, like trying to wash out the stain – that I had so much, while they had so little.

Once we have classified people as ‘not us’ – different in race, religion or culture, different in privilege, in access to what makes life more than mere survival – we block off empathy, accepting as inevitable levels of suffering that would be intolerable if they happened to those we think of as our own. A recent foreign minister of Pakistan – the first woman and youngest person to hold the post – has said that Pakistan’s children have been taught for 60 years that ‘national identity is to hate someone.’  The same is true of children who have been fed the RSS/Hindu chauvinist view of history in India, which fuels adults to regard Muslims as intrinsically anti-national.  Hate, said the husband of British MP Jo Cox after she was murdered, is poisonous. It is the ultimate form of rejecting another’s humanity. And hate leads to killing. Terrorists of all ideologies only kill people they have defined as ‘not us’.

It’s a huge failure in society that these things happen. As Nelson Mandela said, no one is born hating others – it’s something children are taught; and if they can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love.

Why we campaign

In another life I might never have been an activist – I just happened to grow up in a situation of such extreme injustice that my antennae were alerted early, and have never switched off. Temperamentally I like to get on easily with people and am a peace-maker. I’ve had to learn to be assertive – and what taught me was outrage.

51x5s7zD64L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_The first time I wrote about this was in a story in my collection, A Language in Common. The stories are fiction but this incident is straight autobiography. It describes what happened when I saw racist grafitti on a street where some of my South Asian friends lived, and knew I’d feel a coward for life if I didn’t do something about it. So I bought a pot of paint and a brush from the nearest hardware shop and painted it out. That’s all – but the real story, and the reason for telling it, was how nervous I was – that my heart was thumping as I did it – that I felt like a criminal who might be caught in the act. Just for stepping that tiny pace beyond convention.

I learnt to campaign for the rights of refugees through knowing people whose lives had been messed up by civil wars and persecution, and finding it impossible to look away. And that too is what led me to work for Save the Children –  to ally myself with others who were trying not to look away. It did not take long to discover that, like any organisation, it is far from perfect, but the fundamental fact remained – its purpose was to do something for children made destitute by war and trapped by poverty. In all the thirteen years I was there it always felt a privilege that my work might contribute to that in some small way.

And that leads me back to Uncertain Light, which was conceived when Save the Children sent me to Tajikistan. When I’m talking to groups about it people often ask what it was about the place that made me want to set my novel there. I tell them about my first visit there, in the wake of a four year civil war that had devastated the country.  The Soviet Union which for 70 years had dominated all the institutions of society had suddenly imploded. The economy had collapsed. The people who had demonstrated for democratic reforms and freedom to practise their religion had been turned on by a government that armed its supporters. In the face of extreme insecurity, people retreated into clan and regional loyalties, and the killing of the ‘other’ began. Save the Children was working in the districts which had suffered the worst violence. Hundreds of thousands who had fled were gradually coming back, many of them widows with children –  the men had been killed. The programme supported them to begin rebuilding their lives. But what moved me most was the Tajik women who ran the programme – all themselves  widowed by war, and from both sides of the conflict, now working together to prevent more children from becoming destitute. One of them was challenged by a man from her own clan, for working with families from the other side of the conflict – ‘Why do you help these people? It’s they who killed your husband.’ She said, ‘We’ll probably never know who killed my husband, but I know it wasn’t these children.’

We belong to each other, as people in a small boat out at sea belong. Whatever mess the world is in, we’re in it together. The wider we can stretch our definition of our own identity, the safer we will all be.


Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India, by Harsh Mander, is published by Speaking Tiger Books, Delhi.

The Kindertransport photo is from a YouTube documentary, published on 9 May 2012 by Ann and Analisa.

25 thoughts on “Who is ‘we’ ?

  1. Marion, that’s a lovely piece of writing. I’m putting it where lots of people in my circles will see it with a recommendation that they read it. It places the historical shift that Brexit has brought in a uniquely personal perspective; and is cathartic for that and all sorts of other reasons.

  2. Dear Marion
    Thank you for your insightful writing. Here in South Africa we are speechless that Britain chose to leave, not because of the negative effect it will have on SA but because we are horrified that this self-centred move may be a reflection of the thinking of the western world. As Laurie Penny in POLITICO says “This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world” and as a financial advisor from Australia reflects “I have a sneaky feeling that the English are once again in the forefront of history”. I hope not.
    I feel so depressed and feel if Boris Johnson and Trump become the new world leaders we might as well all stop recycling!
    However as you say we are in this together and there are so many wonderful people doing so many extraordinary things I need to focus on what can be done and be hopeful.

  3. Dear Marion,
    Again a very moving trail of stories. Unbelievable how your history continues to fuel your positive energy in favor of a listening ear, solidarity and love for humanity. Beautiful how you manage to visualize personal experiences across the globe and link it with the today developments of exclusion and fear for change across Europe, USA, South Asia and else where. Please carry on writing and help all of us to link personal positive outrage with concrete actions for a more just and human world. Thanks and never give up – Marlies

  4. Hello Marion,
    l have just read your blog and did put off as l knew l would find it moving and l am already all over the place with emotions especially from Brexit and the poison it is bringing to as we say ordinary people who are not looking at the bigger picture. The bigger better outside beautiful world we could have if taking as you say “we” out of it and put in “as one” united . Thank you for sharing your blog; change l hope will come for the better as long as we all keep united in our goal and reaching out to as many people as possible to take hate out of it, and stop big corporations messing with people’s head. Thanks for sharing – keep writing and sharing your own personal experiences.

  5. Marion, – beautifully expressed, as ever. As I sit here in Islamabad in Pakistan, full of its views of the ‘other’ I am aghast as I see and read the news on Brexit and the aftermath. I am amazed that we can be increasingly ‘global’ and yet at the same time increasingly insular.

    I am reminded of a statement I once read about how different the world would be if we taught children that we all breathe the same air.

  6. Marion, reading ‘Uncertain Light’ and now your blog on Brexit… Trying to fathom what’s happening to the world and so chaotic… The centre definitely cannot hold, its the Second Coming… Yeats’ poem resonating in my head! You are a wonderful writer – love the way you weave stories and touch the depths and nuances of character; now the insightful blog on the fallout of Brexit. In today’s world I ask who isn’t an immigrant, within one’s own country as a minority and outside as we leave our identities behind…

  7. Big hug Marion. I feel very sad about the whole thing. It really got out of hand. I feel this is now a divided country. The whole thing is a mess. I just keep hoping that it will all somehow improve. We must not give up hope.

  8. Marion this is so helpful. Just to hear you say it how it is (because how you describe Britons and their choices rings so true to me) calms me down and makes me feel that, although the world might be going quite crazy, there are still a heck of a lot of people in it who are not! Bless you

  9. Thank you for this, dear Marion;
    As a participant-observer of no less than four referenda between 1972 and 1995 — two in Norway and two in Québec — I find comfort in observing that both places have gone on to become more open, more tolerant of newcomers and other cultures as the world around us has grown more connected, and more prosperous, as well. I truly believe that Brexit does not represent the majority of British, and that the consequences will be such that, somehow, you will find your way back to a course where we all pull together.

  10. I am horrified at the position the UK has created for itself through shear lack of truthful information and short term selfish thinking. We are too comfortable, too greedy. We should not be creating borders, we should be opening them up and sharing.
    Thank you so much for your clarity in this situation and your positive thoughts. And wonderful writing. You are making a difference.
    So pleased we met. You are a very inspiring person.

  11. Marion
    Just read your blog and totally agree with all the points you have expressed so well! As you say there is no such thing as us and them, we are in it together . We are differet parts of the same body and if one part is sick then it affects the whole body and we cannot ignore it. As you so beautifully put it “we belong to each other as people in a small boat out at sea belong” .
    The Brexit experience has taken us many stages backwards to an inward shrinkage of identity allowing more room for fear, suspicion, and hatred to grow and hatred is the worst form of cancer that has the potential to destroy all!
    Have been so depressed recently and reading your blog has helped somehow ! Where do we go next!

  12. Many thanks Marion, so clearly put, and so interesting to hear your personal history. I recently finished reading Uncertain Light, which I really enjoyed and found very inspiring. My husband Steve has always worked in development, and you knew him at Save the Children. After Brexit I fear we are all facing very uncertain times in the aid agency world. The drop in the pound, the commitment to 0.7%, the International Citizenship Scheme, all of these could well be in jeopardy now, especially if the Tories appoint that idiot Gove. There are so many ramifications of the vote last week. I still hope it is just a bad dream, and time will rewind itself. Keep up the fight for equality and acceptance. There are a lot of us out there too!

  13. Marion I so agree with all you say, and it is a real story as to how we can turn around one of the biggest mistakes the UK has made. I am Scottish and live in Glasgow Scotland, & I am putting my faith in Nicola Sturgeon as she will do everything within her power to keep Scotland part of the EU – we did vote by 68% to remain.

  14. Nice piece of writing Marion, in the face of such a depressing and
    Self-harming decision. Keep up your energy and response X Steve

  15. Thanks Marion.

    A very good text and we completely agree. We feel sorry for the UK. You will definitely lose out on leaving the EU in many respects. But more troublesome however, is the growing right-wing nationalism all over Europe. We have in Sweden such a party with some 15 % support, but all the other 85 % are against the thought of leaving the EU. At least for now. However, the Social Democrats has just recently introduced some laws to block emigration from outside the EU. Very bad we think, and very short-sighted.

    We are happy to note that you claim some Viking blood. I have some Scottish ancestors, who moved to Sweden via Norway in the 17th century and Margareta has some Belgian ancestors. If we look back even longer the whole of Sweden was covered by ice. We are all ancestors of someone who crossed the straits, that separate us from Denmark and Germany and the rest of Europe.

    Certainly there has been a lot of beneficial immigration to the UK. We do not know so much about that, but after the initial ice age immigration we have had a lot of beneficial immigration to Sweden. In the 15:th and 16:th centuries many Germans came and helped us develop trade and commerce along the Baltic. In the 17:th century many came from England and helped develop shipping in Gothenburg. In the 18:th century there was an important French cultural influence in Sweden and also people from Belgian who helped us develop iron manufacturing. During the 2: nd world war many Finns fled the Soviet war and many, who have also contributed a lot, came from the Baltic states and also many Jews from Denmark during the German occupation. In the 50: ties many Italians came to help develop the then booming Swedish mechanical industries. The Hungarians came in 56, Checks in 68 and later people from Chile and the Balkan. And now the Syrians. Who is 100% Swedish? Definitely, without all these immigrants, we would not be the prosperous country we are right now..

    You wrote a very good text, that gave us a lot to think about

    Love from Margareta and Anders

  16. I’m so pleased to have read this Marion. I don’t think there was anything in it that I didn’t already know from our regular chats and all the sharing we have done. What I loved was the way you kept changing perspective from your own history, your own experience and joined it up to the recent horrible and frightening experience of Brexit as well as a wider and deeper understanding of what humankind is capable of. It’s so important for us to connect up and stand against racism and hatred together. Maybe I have a local group like yours. I must find out.

    Julian has recently written a paper about Complacency that addresses some similar issues to those you address.

    I look forward to reading the others. I will pass this on! Thank you again.

  17. A moving piece of writing, Marion, I’m sure many of us have many tales we could tell, many pulses throbbing through our blood and many cultural strands we could weave into our family tapestry. But that said, the Leave movement, the Leave vote, was about far more than immigration. For many, it was about democratic rights, about EU trade deals so secret that not even the politicians had access to them… I live in an area which voted overwhelmingly to Leave, but not one of the many folk I spoke to raised the issue of immigration – here, it was about the number of sheep we are allowed to put on our fields, the right to have our own magistrates’ decisions respected, and about spending our own tax money. A middle-aged woman would have been assaulted by pro-Remain campainers had her husband not stepped in… This is a very complex issue, let’s not focus on one obvious – and very negative – aspect.

  18. Your writing makes a strong universal and human case for who and how we are. Hearing Nawal El Sadawi the other night all the more affirms this. Life is about being ‘in’ remaining and evolving; that holds for individuals, families, societies unifying. Just the difference in percentage between ‘Brexit’ and ‘Remain’ cannot dismiss how long we have nurtured being European. Leavers need to learn to listen to the heartbeat of what makes for strength with diversity. Just a 100 years from the trenches, Brexit?!
    Thanks for buying that pot of paint and brush, hearing your heart thump and paint over the racist graffiti.

  19. Dear Marion — I read this tonight, July 4th, while listening to fireworks in New Haven, CT celebrating the 240th birthday of the USA. Also watched televised “A Capitol Fourth” from the steps of the Capitol in DC. It featured many well-known singers and entertainers who presented a more inclusive celebration of “we” than the elected representatives and senators who work in adjacent buildings. La lutte continue, Judy

  20. So eloquently put, Marion. For obvious reasons, I found the reflections on your early years in SA fascinating. I hope we get the chance to discuss the family history – much of which I didn’t know – face to face one day!

    1. Fantastic piece of writing. I shall pass it on to friends on both sides. As you say words fail me that those who voted Out as a protest now wish they had not!! Diana Baart

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *