THE BLOG

The Identity in Question

28/06/2016 11:04 | Updated 28 June 2016

In common with many other British people, as the shock of the 'Brexit' referendum wears off, I find myself, quite strangely, in the middle of a personal identity crisis. As I wrote on this blog only last week, in order to further my family history research, I recently had my DNA analysed and found that genetically, I am largely Continental European, with a dash of Irish and Scandinavian. Putting this together with my paper research it seems that I am rather more Huguenot than I realised; that is a significant proportion of my genes descend from a sixteenth century French Protestant sect who claimed asylum in England to escape religious persecution in Roman Catholic France.

Britain entered the modern European project in 1975 when I was still at school, when my knowledge of my Scottish and Huguenot ancestry was located within the stories that my grandmother had told me. As I found out more about my ancestry I found interesting overlaps between the narratives of robustly Protestant Scottish Covenantors on one side and Huguenots on another. In more recent history, the branch of my family that provided the Scandinavian genes, who originated within the Norfolk Danelaw area brought their indomitable Viking spirit into London branches of the Independent Labour, Trade Union and Co-operative movements in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was here that they intersected with the descendants of the Huguenots who had arrived in London many centuries earlier and Scots who had arrived fleeing land clearances, leading to my birth in Camberwell in the latter half of the twentieth century which (arguably) makes me a genuine cockney.

For all of my adult life, I have been very comfortable describing myself as 'British' and 'European' (although my Scottish quarter has always made me a little uncomfortable with 'English'). And, in terms of my genetic heritage, I am very typical of the majority of the white British population; the only thing that may be a little unusual about me is that, as an historian, I have been so active in detecting the specific history of my ancestors. My own life events brought me to Yorkshire in my mid-20s, and in that sense I would describe myself as 'born in London, made in Yorkshire', particularly as most of my direct descendants are most definitely Yorkshire lads and lasses. All of these strands sit together in a cohesive identity, with which, until Thursday, I was (although largely unconsciously) completely comfortable.

What I, I suspect along with many other British people, am now experiencing is a painful shattering of this identity. My adopted county voted quite decisively to reject my European genetic heritage, while my adopted town (Leeds) voted narrowly to accept it. My Scottish quarter voted overwhelmingly to accept my European half, as did the city of my birth. According to Nigel Farage, people who have such feelings of fragmentation and dispossession are neither ordinary nor decent, which he bafflingly announced in a sea of people waving Union Flags, despite the fact that their campaign is likely to mean that this particular emblem will shortly be consigned to history when Scotland seeks its independence from the 'Brexit', taking the St Andrew's Cross with them. Farage's ancestors, like my own, were Huguenots who sought asylum in England, fleeing persecution. It is fortunate for him, although possibly not for us, that they too found humane people who provided a safe haven.

While Farage spouts his empty rhetoric, Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, whose father like my grandfather was a London bus driver, embodies 'ordinariness' and 'decency' in his comment that "we all have a responsibility to now seek to heal the divisions that have emerged throughout this campaign - and to focus on that which unites us, rather than that which divides us." However, not only do we have to seek unity between ourselves, but also within our own currently shattered identities. The campaign that Farage, Johnson and Gove ran did not draw upon 'ordinariness' or 'decency' but upon hatred, division and fear, a toxic compound which has now not only split British people between themselves, but each individual from the internal integrity of mixed ancestral heritage.

I am now beginning to wonder if that, if we can each bring to consciousness our own, internal diverse identities, we might eventually emerge from recent troubling events more able to effectively engage with external societal diversity, and able to enter into international partnerships with a more 'grown up' and reflective understanding of what makes us all human beings. This is now my fervent hope for my grandchildren's generation as the current adult generation is forced to move forward into the sobering, insecure realities of 'Brexit'.

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