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This is who I am: from digital to European identity

writing insight music
Published by Paul Brasington in Identity · 19 November 2020
I'm entitled to Irish citizenship, courtesy of my father/grandmother, and Brexit has turned a long-held vague intention into action as I've initiated the application process. It's not strictly necessary for ownership of my French home, but it will make it easier to move across borders in Europe and spend as long as long as I want to in any EU country.

Part of the process requires you to get a witness to sign the printed application form, alongside other proofs of identity. As usual, the list of approved witnesses specifies various professions (though strangely, and ironically given that it was my father's work, not architects).

You have to wonder at the persistence of this strange notion of respectability. It seems a hangover from early 19th century electoral practices, when you could only vote if you held a certain amount of property (and were a man), something justified by the idea that only property-owning men had a stake in the good government of society.

Strangely we tend to accept this persistence (it's been cropping up in much of the admin around my French house purchase) as part of the way things have always been, but it only takes a moment's reflection to realise how absurd it is: is the word of a careworker or business manager somehow less trustworthy than that of a lawyer or doctor?

Indeed the whole process of physical signatures has become an anachronism in a world where online transactions are rapidly becoming the norm. What did they ever really prove, given how easily forged they were? At best they were an expression of good faith, a physical record of a handshake, but in reality dependent on the good faith of all parties.

Covid19 has accelerated a trend for us to conduct our affairs online, whether shopping or completing tax forms and banking. Many of these activities require security around our identities, and so we have a hotchpotch of different online identity measures. It is about time we developed a proper statutory system of digital signatures, finally dispensing with the quaint practice of giving weight to a scrawl on a piece of paper. We have the technology, through whatever combination of biometrics and distributed keys. What we lack is the political will, even though there is a growing urgency to think harder about our personal data, how it is secured and how it is used (all of which can sensibly be done in relation to secure identity). It has been done already, in Estonia. You might argue that Estonia is a far smaller country than the UK, but the problem is not about scale; it's the lack of any political understanding of how important this is.

It needs to be done too with proper regard to demographic differences in technology penetration, but again this is a problem that needs to be tackled rather than treated as a reason for doing nothing. I'm sure it will come (Tim Berners-Lee's new SOLID initiative may be helpful, if it can attract enough corporate and institutional support) but in the meantime lack of government vision will ensure we continue to flail around with pointless bits of paper.

Not quite English
Proving our identity is one thing, but understanding it is another, a difficulty that's been shaping politics across the western world. Assuming I've ticked all the boxes in the officially designated way I will become an Irish citizen at some point in the next year or so. Does that make me Irish? Technically it does, or at least it lands me with the interesting ambiguity of dual nationality.

In truth that's nothing new. Growing up as a Catholic in England it's hard to feel fully English. If you go to Catholic school (as I did at primary level) there's a good chance many of your teachers will be Irish (my grandmother came over here to teach). If you attend a Catholic church the culture is predominantly Irish. Most significantly perhaps you learn a different version of British and Irish history. In my schoolboy version Henry VIII was a villain who turned the country away from the true faith, and his daughter Elizabeth a towering monster who persecuted and tortured our brave co-religionists (less mention gets made of the fact that the pope put out what was effectively a contract on her life).  More accurately you'll come across stories of Cromwell's brutal slaughter in Ireland, and might even get to hear direct testimony about the crimes of the British before partition (my grandmother had grim memories of the Black and Tans, though she was not remotely political). Hitting adolescence as I did in the 70s meant watching The Troubles unfold across Northern Ireland. I never had any sympathy for the violence on either side, but unlike most of my school contemporaries I had an understanding of the injustice and brutality directed at the Catholic community in the province; it's a part of their history which to this day the English mostly have neither knowledge of nor much interest in, an indifference and ignorance which has led us directly to Boris Johnson's misreading of the Irish element in Brexit and its likely threat to any deal he hoped to make with the Americans.

Whether or not a reflection of this ambivalence I've never had any real sympathy for narrow nationalism. I fully understand an attachment to the norms of your life and culture, and even John Major's saccharine hankering for warm beer and cricket (not so much the cricket), but an acknowledged attachment is very different from being "proud" of your national identity. To be proud of something you need to have had a part in its achievement, but how can you have such pride when your only link is through an accident of your birthplace? Some might argue that patriotism is a loyalty to an idea, an embodied set of values, but most nations are compromised by historically indefensible behaviour, which is why the pseudo-patriotic like to pretend that such behaviour didn't really happen.

More than me
Such national pride is an act of bad faith, but identity is about more than pride. It is a basic or at least common aspect of our psychology that we need to identify ourselves with something bigger than ourselves.  This can be harmless enough, for instance cheering on a sports team at whatever level, but then the ease with which sports fandom quickly spills into quasi-tribal violence is a mark of how real harm lurks near the surface. It is equally a mark of how significant that need for a sense of identity is,  and how ethically important it is that we manage that need thoughtfully in ourselves.

The Brexit farrago is fundamentally about identity and its misdirection, falsely promising an elusive security to people displaced by economic forces which while far from inexorable will not be redirected by fantasies of past British glory. We are at a critical point where all the lies put forward by Cummings, Johnson and Gove are being inevitably exposed. What is on the table right now even as a best case bears no relation to those glib promises of an easy future that were used to sway the Brexit vote. As I write it seems possible that some kind of desperate deal may be hacked together to avoid catastrophe in Northern Ireland, or it may not. Whatever the outcome the UK is going to have to spend the next five years trying to minimise the damage, and for what?

Being European
When I first went to the US, nearly 30 years ago, I understood as I had never understood it before how much my English identity was bound up with my European heritage. It was disconcerting, because so much of American life seems so familiar, from film and TV, with a broadly shared language. And yet it felt far more alien than anything I'd experienced travelling in mainland Europe. I realised there were common European reference points, in terms of history, geography and culture that were absent in America.

There is much to dislike about the EU, much that needs reform and improvement, but from Britain's accession in 1974 a European identity has made fundamental sense to me, has aligned with how I've thought of myself (even before I went to the US). This identity is not a simple thing; it is rooted in an acknowledgement of the conflicts that have characterised Europe since classical times, but also the bonds developed as Europeans of different states and cultures influenced each other. It is an identity that frames a rich diversity. That seems the saddest irony of Brexit, that its advocates apparently have so fragile a hold on their own sense of identity that they should feel so threatened by diversity, as if common ground demands homogeneity, as if  harmonised trading standards are going to make the slightest difference to whether people drink Guinness or ouzo.

I suspect Brexit may prove a blip rather than a turning point. I hope so. But for the moment, although driven partly by practical considerations, my taking up of Irish citizenship has a symbolic and emotional force too. It's not so much about being Irish, but about remaining European. When Brexiteers complain about Remoaning they seems to have no sense of what they have done: for the sake of a fantasy (which is about to crash on the rocks of reality) they have ripped away a crucial and truly positive element of all that the British identity had become. Without it Scotland seems likely to pursue, not independence, but a reaffirmed identity with the rest of Europe, away from the idiocy and arrogance of the English. It was a common identity that stretched across the border in the island of Ireland, and helped to bring peace there.

I understand of course as I contemplate spending as much time as I can in my new home in France that France itself is hardly untroubled by petty nationalism, casual racism and a fearful xenophobia. But in choosing to live across borders, between passports, I'm staking my claim on my European identity, an identity wrought from the acknowledged darkness of a shared history as well as its bright triumphs. Sadly that's an honesty and reality which the Brexit-minded simply cannot accommodate.



paul@brasington.co.uk
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