When I arrived in London as a migrant from the United States in 1966, racial prejudice and inequality was prevalent even in the school playground where someone with a foreign name was taunted and called a ‘wog’. The England I left as a professional journalist in the mid-1980s was at last shedding bigotry and prejudice as British society adjusted to the new global norms of freely moving people and equal opportunity.
On recent visits back to the UK, I have been impressed by the remarkable accommodation of diversity and recognition of difference. Whether it’s the Bulgarian property agent, the Polish plumber or the Czech bus driver; England at the start of the second millennium embraced – even celebrated – pluralism, and left behind the obstinate small mindedness that used to mean no one bothered asking how my Greek name was pronounced properly.
Suddenly all that progress seems like a fanciful dream. Brexit heralds the return of the cold hard stares at foreigners and ‘why-don’t-you-go-back-to-your-own-country’ taunts I vividly recall as a teenager growing up among ‘snowcem’-clad semi-detached homes and vinyl-roofed Ford Granadas in the North London suburbs.
For all the talk of independence day, this is no return to the mythical Arthurian realm, British pluck and a ploughman’s lunch; it’s the victory of the lager louts. The referendum showed plainly enough that a great mass of people don’t share the aspirations of comfy armchair internationalists and globally mobile professionals; they feel locked out of the Shard, the Gherkin, and other symbols of Global London.
So break out the woad, pan along those austere white cliffs, hide the muesli and quinoa. If the long forgotten satirical magazine Punch was still publishing, the Brexit cover might depict a red-faced John Bull, his slobbering bull dog straining at the leash and lunging for a plate of roast beef swimming in gravy.
Bye bye ‘Cool Britannia’: Welcome to Little England!