I remember a winter’s evening, about five months after the UK referendum. I was drinking and chatting with some artists after a private view at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London, in a craft cider brewery where once a nightclub called the Rhythm Factory used to be. I declared that I voted to leave the EU, the response was polite, tolerant and one friend moved the subject on to something else. Later on, as the drinks loosened us up, one of the artists, a Russian, approached me in an older established bohemian pub opposite the East London Mosque, while we smoked a fag outside and asked “Why did you vote Brexit?” She continued, you’re not British, you’re an immigrant, the people who voted Brexit are racists and don’t like foreigners, people have been so horrible since Brexit.”
I responded by telling her that I don’t tolerate racial abuse and was concerned to hear that. However I tried to reassure her that the majority of people who voted to leave the EU are not racist, it’s about independence from an undemocratic unaccountable super-state, rather like former nations of the USSR wanting independence and sovereignty over their country. I also pointed out that as a non-EU Russian citizen she’s probably aware that the EU privileges the freedom of movement of its member-states and restricts those same freedoms to non-EU nationals. She wasn’t having any of it, and gave an example of the xenophobia she had encountered. She claimed that shortly after the referendum she was threatened with being evicted from her studio. I told her to go public about it and raise the matter with the arts community, so the studio provider could be taken to task about it – there are unions, federations and campaign groups who would help fight this wrong-doing. Later, I did wonder whether the eviction attempt, if indeed there was one, had anything to do with xenophobia.
I voted against being part of the EU bloc because I want Britain to be an independent nation with full national sovereignty over its people and lands, just like the land of my birth. I still visit Mauritius, after all it has gorgeous beaches and tropical beauty and my mum, who lives there, can recall what Mauritius was like when it was poor and governed by a foreign power.
It’s paradoxical that many of my ethnic minority artist friends play down the imperialism of the EU yet are keen to attack historical imperialism and have such respect for post-colonial studies? When I suggest that the EU is an Empire I am met with incredulity and told that I’m grossly exaggerating. But the EU is a very modern empire which extends its power through regulation and bureaucracy not with armies. And this is not just my idea it is embraced by former EU commission president José Manuel Barroso who said that the EU has “the dimension of empire.”
Mauritians used to laugh at the slave mentality of its neighbours Réunion Island, only 140 miles away from each other, but Réunion is a French department and the outermost region of the European Union. It never fought for, and probably never will campaign for independence. Neither was Mauritian independence a unanimous decision, according to a Mauritian newspaper, “half the Mauritian people sulked at home because they had expected integration with the UK. The other half rejoiced and so joined the celebration because they got ‘Azadi’ (independence).” Sounds familiar?
I acknowledge that the future is uncertain, and that was the case for many post-independent nations, but freedom also brings new opportunities and challenges with it. Let’s take inspiration from my little country of birth Mauritius, when 50 years ago “all the conditions were gathered to meet the predictions of the prophets of doom”, when GDP per capita was barely US$200. Today, its economic capita is estimated as just above US$8,000 per capita.
But my adopted homeland, Britain, has a huge advantage over Mauritius and that’s why it’s my home: we have great art, literature and culture that responds to communities, people and places in the UK but also looks outward to the world and will continue to do so after Brexit.