Like many people who have made their lives and raised their children in South Cambridgeshire, I am an immigrant. My Dutch husband got his first job teaching Chinese history at Cambridge University, and we thought we would stay here for a few years. I worked at Cambridge University Press and then as a teacher. We had three children, who came out speaking English in different class accents. Fifteen years later, I became a UK citizen in order to become a fully active member of society with the right to vote. And why not stand for public office too!
Acquiring citizenship is a very conscious step requiring planning and forethought: there are the financial costs (unaffordable for us in the early years of raising a family) and the bureaucratic hassles (the Home Office lost virtually our entire file of identity papers).
Most important is the adoption of a new national identity. The EU UK passport felt precious to hold in my hands, because I knew it represented decades of building peace across a continent that had seen thousands of young lives wiped out in world wars. Through the microcosm of my in-laws’ experience in the Netherlands, the stories of loss in families in our South Cambridgeshire villages rang true. My own family had been shattered by wartime Lebanon. So, belonging in a small way to this European project across a community of nations provided hope and a way of participating in building a peaceful future for our children.
As a district and county councillor for the past 12 years, maybe I should have talked more about an immigrant’s perspective, or about the richness of immigration. But I saw my role as campaigning for public services, and keeping my constituents informed on what the council was up to, or up against. Once or twice I was shouted at across the council chamber to ‘Go back to America,’ and given the nickname Cllr van der Hun. But apart from such crackpot comments by one nutter I always felt welcome. There was a change in the air when the word ‘immigrant’ sprang up in the vernacular.
In the months preceding the EU Referendum, it seemed important to promote being informed about the choice we faced. I helped organized a series of information talks about the future of UK Trade Deals in the event of Brexit, by Professor Chris Grey – one of Michael Gove’s derided ‘experts’. Also, a debate by young people who wanted their voices heard. While I knew my own personal passion for the European Union, listening to the talks and debate taught me new things about the breadth and depth of our EU relationship.
I quizzed the County Council chief finance officer about the implications of a Brexit vote on public service finances, and wrote a letter to constituents outlining my concerns: austerity measures had already cut into the bone and could not, it seemed to me, tolerate the inevitable financial instability of a Leave vote.
A week before Jo Cox was murdered, I asked my MP Heidi Allen and her Labour, Lib Dem and Green competitors from last year’s General Election if they would stand together for a Remain photograph. An impromptu five-minute video was made and it was fantastic to see the four of them contributing together to a common cause, each from a different angle. Considering Jo Cox’s famous words, ‘There is more that unites us than divides us,’ this photograph took on a special poignancy.
As so many people who attended Heidi’s post-referendum public meeting on July 2 described, the vote to Leave the EU left my family and me distraught and utterly unhinged. Feeling physically sick, as in a bereavement. How can decades of work building a European community with which we are so inextricably linked be so swiftly dismissed, in a process that itself raises so many questions? Do we still belong? Where do I belong? What is our children’s future? Equally, we can see at point blank range a country that is profoundly divided. A million questions stare at us, but not many answers. Some of these questions were expressed by the 200 people in the audience, though we didn’t hear from the 300 others who were turned away because the room was full.
I am pleased that Heidi will hold more public meetings in the difficult weeks ahead, in order to listen to and work with the South Cambridgeshire residents she represents. And, in a constituency that voted strongly to Remain, that the local Labour, Lib Dem and Green parties have asked Heidi to work together with them for the best possible outcome: Surely, that must be to remain part of our European Family and to continue working to build a peaceful future and tolerant society. My colours are nailed to the mast.