We didn’t realise it at the time, but we were being pitted against one another. By politicians, press barons and people who found it easier to blame the EU for the UK’s domestic problems: cuts to public services, capped public sector pay, lower real terms wages, record levels of poverty, homelessness and a widening gap between rich and poor.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Government policies had already demonised welfare recipients, blaming the lack of affordable housing on council tenants, and means-tested the disabled as if they were too lazy to work.
They were aided and abetted by the tabloid press and TV series like the BBC’s Saints and Scroungers and Channel 4’s Benefits Street amplifying the government’s narrative. As well as populist politicians and rightwing newspapers blaming migrants, less than 1% of the population, for the struggling NHS, lack of school places, falling wages and housing crisis.
In this “hostile environment”, to quote Theresa May’s now-infamous immigration policy, is it any wonder that rational debate was drowned out and nationalist voices began to dominate public discourse?
“If you think you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” A British prime minister told us that.
I watched this us versus them narrative develop and take hold after the EU referendum. A Conservative think-tanker published a theory dividing people into “Somewheres,” those who stayed in their local communities and belonged somewhere, and “Anywheres,” those who left to study or work elsewhere and by implication didn’t.
I instinctively bristled at this false dichotomy. It seemed to be labelling people like me but didn’t bear any relation to my reality. It overlooked family ties and the attachment we have to the place where we grew up. I remember thinking how arrogant to assume that people’s lives could be made to fit a simplistic theory! To get anywhere you have to start somewhere.
My scorn turned to anger when only a few days later the author was given a platform to promote his theory on BBC Radio 4 and the Andrew Marr politics show. The narrative was starting to gain currency. I had groaned when the prime minister labelled people like me “a citizen of nowhere”. But by the end of 2018, she had effectively made me that, by depriving UK citizens living abroad of their right to live and work in the EU.
Starting out as a British diplomat representing my country overseas, I could never have imagined that I would be labelled “a citizen of nowhere” by my own government. That was towards the end of the Cold War, when walls were coming down, the Soviet Union broke into its constituent parts, Germany reunified and the UK was a respected leader. It had felt like the dawn of a new era.
So I want to refute that divisive narrative by sharing my personal story.
Home is where we begin.
My sister taught me that.
I come from a town that was once the largest fishing port in the UK but is now one of the “left behind” coastal areas in Britain. I am fiercely proud of it. I grew up in a family where equality and honest, hard work were the norm.
With my two sisters, I was educated in the local comprehensive school — a new complex boasting swimming pools, tennis courts, a film theatre, music, metalwork and art studios, and some inspirational teachers. We had access to the same opportunities but chose different paths.
My free university education and maintenance grant enabled this working class Northern lad to go to @imperialcollege in 1980s then qualify as an accountant. In the 30 years since graduation I have paid >£3m in UK tax, NI. Education is an investment in society. #ForTheMany
— HappilyGrumpy (@astealthyrevolt) February 19, 2018
The eldest sister followed her life-long vocation and became a nurse, studying and working in the local hospital. The youngest set up her own business in the nearest city, sampled expat life in Singapore and returned to the UK. She never lost contact with her childhood friends. I became a diplomat, moved to London and spent much of my life working abroad. I returned home regularly, including to have my children in the hospital where my sister worked.
According to the theory, we are sisters of somewhere, anywhere and nowhere. And yet we come from the same place, forged by the same values, raised in the same community, connected by an unbreakable family bond. Time, distance and travel do not alter that.
In 2016, as the UK was battling with Brexit, our younger sister was battling brain cancer. A battle she ultimately lost. It didn’t stop her railing against Brexit, the sense of entitlement of the still predominantly male establishment, the election of an amoral narcissist to the White House, and the rise of racism and intolerance. We marvelled at how the UK and the world we had thought we knew had come to this.
After a while, we stopped discussing politics. It seemed too unkind to add to her personal grief.
Like many facing their own mortality, our sister was drawn back to the place of her birth. She wanted to be with family and friends whose love and support she had cherished in her younger years and needed to feel again at the end of her life. Her final words recalled the beach where we spent childhood summer days and winter walks, and always returned to on home visits: “Is the tide in?”
After we laid her to rest close to our mother in the local churchyard, we marked Isabelle’s name in the sand for the evening tide to reclaim her.
To anyone who seeks to divide families and friends through labels, identity politics or tribal warfare I say this: we are all the product of the families and communities that shape us. They are where we begin, and often where we end. And they are ultimately what unites us.
Eventually, the empty rhetoric of division will be revealed as the barren ground that it is. Where nothing good grows and only seeds of discontent are sown. It will be found wanting. And it will be rejected. Because politics is about the society we want to be, the community we want to live in and the hopes and dreams we have for ourselves and our families.
The Battleground is my way of fighting false narratives and the forces of division, by speaking up for truth, trust, tolerance and explaining current affairs and global events in context. It may be optimistic, but it is marking a line in the sand. I know Isabelle would have approved.
Natalie Sarkic-Todd is the publisher of The Battleground. Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.