Julia Pastor | From an English father and a Ghanaian mother, Hirsch is a journalist, writer, lawyer and activist for human rights. Her first book, “Brit (ish): On race, identity and belonging”, published current year, has stirred UK historic consciousness by exploring the origin of the identity crisis that the country is suffering, and which, no doubt, has its reflection on the winding road of Brexit.
Your field of work focuses on social affairs, education or development but it is impossible not to ask you about Brexit. Deal or no deal? What is your bet?
We are much closer to pulling out of the EU with no deal than anyone could have imagined in Britain a year ago, and it is very alarming. For the first time now we are seeing the real possibility of another referendum, because nobody knows what people voted for, the majority voted to leave the EU but we don’t know on what terms, whether they wanted to remain in the single market or in the custom union or if they were willing to leave without a deal. I think that was not something anyone imagined would happen and I think it just justifies going to the people again with the terms. Also nobody could imagine we would have such an incompetent government that even among its own ranks cannot agree on anything, that has not been capable of building any consensus. At the moment when the country is so divided, we need more consensus. Instead we have none. So it´s a very troubling time in Britain. I feel that the voices of people are hard line about leaving on any conditions are becoming weaker. Most British people are reasonable. They are conservative with a small “c”, people who don’t like to take huge risks and this is a huge risk that will hurt people economically. The problem is that the people who voted for Brexit are the people who will lose the most because they are in areas that are most dependent and most vulnerable to economic decline. So I think the weight of feeling is beginning to tip.
During the long negotiations sometimes I have had a feeling that all the people involved were not taken us seriously. Do you agree?
We have really poor quality politicians in Britain at the moment. We have very substandard political leaders. We see that they are enjoying of freedom of movement, moving their own assets out of the UK so that they can stay inside the EU. I think it is that hypocrisy. They say that remain is an elitist thing, but actually the people who want to leave the EU are an elite who will continue to enjoy wealth and freedom of travel, while the majority of British people will suffer. That hypocrisy is starting to show.
For those who voted for Brexit, the vote was a way to protect what we can call “Britishness” against everything that comes from outside or foreign…
Brexit is about identity and has a lot to do with the lost Empire. A lot of English people feel that their pride in England has gone because nobody talks about the Empire, instead they blame it on inmigration and globalisation. Both have meant a profound change for Britain , like in every country in Europe, but the sense of identity of being this great nation that ruled the world, spread its culture and civilisation around has been lost, and people who were made to believe in their superiority now feel that loss very painfully. Instead of being honest with them and saying you were told these lies about the fact that you are superior to everyone else and now we have to go through a painful period of reajusting, they say we can feel like that again, this time by leaving the EU. Instead of taking the opportunity to actually look at what is really happening to British identity, it is just a new solution . It´s very short term and I think will be disastrous. But this shows that questions like identity are so profound that people will even vote against their economic self interest if they feel they it is going to restore their identity. That is why I think we overlook the political force of nostalgia, identity, long term change – it really affects people’s sense of self .
We talk about UK still having the Commonwealth, but other countries such as France or Spain also maintain these invisible and not so invisible bonds with their ancient colonial empires. It seems that nobody wants to break with them.
Yes, and I am not sure that they can be broken. When you have hundred of years of linked history and intimate economic interdependence, that has built these modern industrial European countries, whether it is UK, France or Spain, the background is very deep, you can´t untangle it overnight. Immigration population comes from different places in each country, usually from their former colonies, but all our families stories are linked to these European countries over the centuries, so what we need is honesty. In my book I don’t have the answers. You can´t solve the problems that history has created, but you can start talking about it. The problem is that we have not even talked about it, we have not been honest, just kind of push it to the side. We act as if when the Empire ended, the problem went away. The first step is now having to go back and understand our history, it is actually quite basic, but we haven´t done the work. In Britain what we do is choose a celebratory approach. We celebrate the Commonwealth, we never talk about the Empire. It is just the Empire to point up, we never talk about slavery, but we talk about the abolition of slavery and how wonderful it was that Britain abolished it. You think well what was the thing that needed to be abolished that you created. It almost like a psychosis. We choose a way of talking about these things that make us feel good when they are fundamentally problematic. I think it is linked to this fragility, you have to feel secure in your identity to be able to see its mistakes and crimes in the past. If you don’t feel secure you cannot cope with anything negative. This is what we see in Britain, an extreme fragility. It is not sustainable having a nation that is built on fragility. That is what is happening. Britain is tearing itself apart rather than deal with these questions about what kind of country is and how it became what it is today.
What is your idea of Europe as an economic and political construction. Does an European identity exist ?
I think there are two questions: is there a European identity, and does Britain feel it? To the extent that there has been an European identity, Britain has always been a little bit apart, and this is linked to its history. Britain always has this idea of itself as this great island, a small country that took over the world and we ran the Empire. That is one reason why Britain has been reluctant to be part of Europe, because it thinks it is special and this special relationship with America…. Everybody knows that it does not exist anymore, but British people think it does. If you go to America, nobody talks about the special relationship,but in Britain everybody talks about the special relationship, we are America’s best ally. So Britain thinks its really special. I think that´s partly historic, and partly geographic and partly cultural. It´s partly just being an island. However, I have a lot of criticism of the EU. For people like me who are pro-remain and what to stay in the EU, it is not because we think it is perfect and love everything about EU. We recognise that in a globalised world you need regional integration. In the future, Britain is not going to be a huge imperial country and it needs to have a close relationship with its European neigbours, and it doesn´t make sense for Britain to stand alone. And I think this idea of Britain standing alone is based on this idea of “we still have the Commowealth”. The Commonwealth is not our empire any more. But British people are in real denial about that. The problem with the European identity is that in some way it comes across as imposed from above, and for very sensible reasons after the Second World War. There is a very rational justification for creating those structures but creating a kind of political super structure does not translate into grassroots feeling, and whether somebody in Provence or Valencia or Bavaria feels European is something that has to come from the bottom up.
Considering that there is an European identity, do the British people feel it?
I think to some extent that is happening. If you look in Britain, seventy-five per cent of British people under 25 voted to remain. Young people, if you ask them if they feel European, they say they want to live in Spain or Italy, they want to learn European languages, they want to marry other Europeans, they don’t want to be separate. If you speak to people who remember the war, they don´t feel European. I think those individual European identities are maybe starting to exist, but it of course takes time.I think it is similar with multiculturalism in Britain. Multiculturalism was an identity that was created by political leaders. They say we are a multicultural society, this is what it means, it didn’t come from the bottom up. As a result, I don’t think it has legitimacy in the hearts of many British people and now you see the cracks of having being told that we are multicultural, they don’t want to be multicultural. They don´t want to live next door to someone who doesn´t look like them. And that can´t change through political policy. These identities which have been created are very rational. There´s good reason for them. But what we are seeing is that it doesn´t work like that. And the reason that populism is powerful in Europe is because it is appealing to those identities that nobody spoke to. Its exploiting them, and its finding it very fertile ground. So I think there is a great more work to be done to create a European identity, and nowhere more than in Britain.
The feeling of hostility towards the “foreign” is not also exclusively British, but sadly global. Germany, France and Italy are only some of the examples in Europe with xenophobic or eurosceptic parties. How can we combat this trend?
I think we need to look at the root causes, and not the political leaders. They are the symptoms. The root causes are globalisation, automation, and structural change in the world economy. I think we know that these changes have created a big gap between rich and poor. And often where these right-wing movements are strongest is not where people are poorest, but where there is the biggest gap between rich and poor. And this sense of being left behind… it´s often a very valid grievance. People were told their lives would just get better and better as technology improved, as globalisation grew, and people believed. And I remember in Britain when New Labour was elected, I was 16, and Tony Blair, and that was when I first became politically conscious. And there was this sense that everything was just going to get better, and for everyone. And I think that that has unravelled and that is not what these changes are going to bring, and I think it´s going to get worse. If you think of automation, they are saying that in Britain in twenty years one third of jobs are not going to exist. And what we need are politicians who offer a plan to cope with these huge social and economic changes. And they do not have a plan. I have interviewed the British Government about this and they do not have a plan. So what they are talking about are immigrants, putting a cap on migration. These things will not solve the problem, but they need to be able to offer something. So everyone has taken the lazy solution, the quick fix, blame the visible other, frame it in cultural terms instead of what they really are which is structural economic terms. So I don’t think we can deal with it unless we look at the root causes and really start to work out solutions. Until someone really has something to offer it´s always going to fall back onto immigration, people stealing our jobs, people taking our houses. It´s much easier to understand than the really big changes we are facing.