Today, the UK must parse through the results of its historic EU membership referendum. Fifty-two percent voted to leave, 48% to remain. London is in shock, Scotland and Northern Ireland too. Other parts of the country celebrate.
The UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to resign in three months. And at the time of writing, even the extent to which the next government is obliged to respect the result was in question. In fact, this debate has brought clarity only to the depth of division within and between communities in the British Isles.
And though, for once, African Diaspora are not front and centre of a debate about ‘floods’ of migrants, our community has not been spared the national malaise – the creeping recognition of a constitutional crisis. An identity crisis.
Paul Gilroy made the statement that identity is an intellectual construct. But it is no less real, no less powerful, for the fact that it is the product of collective and individual choices, and wilful imagination. Falling in one camp or another will shape a life.
Fault lines are complex. On the ‘leave’ side: A significant proportion of the community feel themselves to be on the frontlines of competition for low paid jobs and assistance from the state. For instance, in 2011 around 30% of Africans and 25% of African Caribbean people were estimated to live in income deprived areas compared to a national average of 10%. These same individuals, or others more affluent, are persuaded by the unfairness of an immigration policy whose only mechanism for controlling numbers is to focus on non-EU migration. e.g. a South London nurse of Ghanaian origin adamant that she will vote leave because ‘otherwise all the Eastern Europeans will take away the jobs that Africans can do, making it more difficult for Ghanaians who want to work in the UK, particularly over the summer holidays’.
Finally, there are those whose social conservatism makes them members of a church (sometimes quite literally) that is terrified of the ‘Muslim other’ that they foresee swarming British homesteads through a European backdoor.
On the other side of the fence are the middle class children of the ‘leave’ crowd whose differing take on identity and economic interest cause the ‘remain’ arguments to resonate more strongly. Children is used broadly here. They may well be siblings. The point is that these are third culture kids, claiming a British identity alongside that of the place their parents were born.
It makes the pain and indignation of limits on non-EU migration less immediate than it is for the first crowd. They also have sufficient income to avoid feeling overwhelmed by competition from the more recent arrivals but are not so wealthy as to feel invulnerable to turbulence of an EU exit and the withdrawal of UK headquarters for ‘European’ operations.
They are deeply invested in the status quo and equally exposed to the proposed changes. The last six years have been less a season of saving and reserves, more debt management and recognition of insecurity.
There are other sides no doubt.
In any case, assuming Brexit is followed by an economic dip and the ascendancy of the Conservative right wing (a demographic ideologically committed to a small state), further retreat in the role of government looks inevitable. There is little basis on which to expect an expansion in services. Instead, assuring our creditors that spending is on a sustainable footing will take precedence. Those of our elders rich in assets, poor in cash, should prepare for a cull of the former, perhaps both.
Another concern is that fear of the other will accompany those hard times like barnacles on a ship. Without the East European boogie man, who must take the blame. England and Wales’ 1.8 million African and African Caribbean population is too large to escape notice, too small and recently established to escape abuse.
The inter-generational fracas on this issue is painful. It frays the gerontocratic aspects of our culture more still. Words from Beyonce’s Lemonade come to mind, ‘so what are you going to say at my funeral now that you’ve killed me… here lies the body of the love of my life, whose heart I broke without a gun to my head.’
Not a pretty picture by any stretch but as I say, identity is a composite of stories and choices. My tale is that my people have been to much darker places than this, and yet here I stand.
To quote an aphorism from the west coast of Africa… All die be die.