It was my 48th birthday on Friday 24 June 2016 and I was celebrating it at Glastonbury. I woke in my tent about 6, full of aches and pains and a strong feeling I was getting to old for this lark. I flicked through my phone for birthday messages, then checked the BBC site for news. First thing I saw – Britain had voted to leave the EU. I shook my head, the news not fully sinking in. Maybe they were still counting. Surely we could not have made such a monumental mistake. Soon the chatter spread all through the camp site. The sound of people trying to make sense of something, to get their heads around the enormity of the decision and trying to imagine how life would change.
After lunch I made my way to the front of the West Holts stage to watch DakhaBrakha, my favourite group from my three years working for the British Council in Ukraine. Three years that were traumatic and challenging for the country, but three enriching and happy years for me personally. Ukraine is a country that is desperate to join the EU. And not for the chance to flood into our country and sponge off our benefits. Rather to help them to change themselves, to take on a ready made set of laws and values that bring stability and hopefully sustained prosperity.
My Ukrainian friends reacted to the referendum result with shock. The EU is a dream for them and the UK a big part of this dream. Some Little Englanders would have you believe that the rest of Europe don’t like us, perhaps because they never vote for us in Eurovision or laugh when we lose at football. Not a bit of it. We are liked, respected and admired. For our traditions, for our creativity, for our honesty, our tolerance and for democracy. I have lived abroad for more than twenty years, most of the time in different European countries, and have found nothing but kindness and friendliness, and my nationality has opened many doors and the occasional heart. We are seen as leaders and exemplars and I couldn’t understand why we would turn our backs on this.
The more I thought, the more I talked, the angrier a felt. A deep directionless anger. Just a feeling I was being taken to a place I didn’t want to go. A bleak and sad place which offered little hope. I was angry at all of those who had voted Leave, angry at the media and the politicians who stoked fears and intolerance and manipulated the public for their own political gain, I was angry at the Baby Boomers who had voted for Leave in their droves, despite the overwhelming desires of their children and grandchildren to stay in. This selfish generation who had all the benefits of free education, universal healthcare, the stability that peacetime and the EU have brought, and now they want to pull up the drawbridge without a thought for the young people who have to live in the smaller world they are creating.
The only thing to do at this stage was to go and see Billy Bragg at Leftfield. Me and Billy go back a long way. I’ve been a fan for 30 odd years and I have seen him innumerable times. Billy has a talent for articulating an experience, whether it’s through a love song, a social comment or a political polemic.There was comfort in singing along to all those familiar songs – New England, Sexuality, Levi Stubbs’ Tears – but focus too, and he’d chosen his songs well. The highlight was The Few, a song about English football hooligans abroad. Those “Little John Bullshits” who “piss in their fountains to express our national pride”. There was bitterness in Billy’s voice as he sang the refrain “What do they know of England, who only England know?”
By the Saturday however I was determined to put aside the politics and focus on the music. There are always one or two moments at every Glastonbury, when the emotion overtakes me and I start to well up. This year it happened during Madness’ set at the Pyramid Stage, as I flung my arms and head back, and sang along to It Must Be Love with 80,000 other happy souls. I looked across at my friend and saw him choking back a happy tear as well. I tried to analyse what it was that made us react in this way. For me it was a link between the past and the present. I had loved Madness as a 12-year-old kid, bought their first seventeen singles (stopped at Michael Caine for some reason) and played them to death. That was me, alone in my box bedroom, just me and the record player and my Madness records. And now here I was in a field in Somerset, surrounded by thousands and thousands of people of all ages and all backgrounds, all sharing the joy of the experience. That feeling of community, of shared experience just got me right in the gut. And it got me thinking about the EU again. That we’re better together. Despite the differences in perspectives and priorities there is more that unites us. And it’s emotional, based on a feeling not facts. That’s why I feel European. I see no conflict between this and also feeling English and British. I feel European and I want to stay that way.
I’ve come away from Glastonbury feeling politicised and determined. I dream and will campaign for a second referendum. But in reality the democratic process needs to be respected and their are few good options. The push for a second referendum should perhaps come from the Leavers. As it dawns on people the damage that will be done to the economy in the short and long term, as they realise that immigration will not be curbed to any great extent, as they realise that the benefits of the single market come at the cost of net contributions and the free movement of people. Perhaps we will get a second chance for common sense to prevail. I’m not looking for a new England, I’m happy with the old one, in a United Kingdom and a united Europe.