The Reluctant Remainer


By Matt Richards

Hamish Mardell opens the door to his student room. Crammed inside: a sofa, armchair, coffee table, bed, wardrobe, chair, desk, golf clubs, shelves. A Union Jack hangs prominently on one wall. The eighteen-year-old British student arrived at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands two months ago, and will stick around for a three-year Economics degree programme. He takes a seat on the sofa, leans back, then leans forward, eager to discuss Brexit, living in the Netherlands and European identity politics.

So Brexit must have been a huge topic of conversation with people since moving here.

Yeah, in the first few weeks it was: ‘Ooh you’re English, what do you think about Brexit?’ That’s literally the first thing they said. It was a bit embarrassing really. I’m proud to be British, proud of my country, but we look a little bit silly at the moment, and it hurts.

But you still have a Union Jack flag hanging on your wall…

Yeah, I’m proud. I believe we [Britain] are a real force for good I’m the world. I believe we’re a very civilised society. I’m proud of what we did in WWI and WWII. I’m proud that we’re such a hotbed of science, culture and music.

So how was referendum day for you?

I walked the dog down there. It was just packed with Leave voters. I ran into some of my neighbours. I said I was voting to Remain and they looked shocked. Everyone had a Leave sentiment. One woman had put a Union Jack hat on her dog…

Did you feel uncomfortable?

No because it’s what I expected. I live in a very Conservative and UKIP area [laughs].

You say that scathingly, but you voted Conservative at the last elections, right?

Yeah I did, but compared to the older generation I think I’m more liberal. I support what the government has done around gay marriage and looking at gender equality. But I don’t want to see overspending carry on. I think austerity is the only measure that can be taken to lower the debt.

And you also voted Remain?

I was very unsure for the few months before. At first I was on the Leave side. I remember watching a documentary – it looked at how they were running things and the money they were wasting. Economic reasons too, creating a controlled market in Europe, I’m not comfortable with. I don’t see the [European] project going well.

How did you decide?

It was me putting my faith in experts – people who work with Europe, in Europe, saying we need to stay in. And the overriding feeling was that I’m coming here. The Dutch government are supporting me as an EU student to study here.

So you already knew you were moving here? What were your reasons?

Europe didn’t play a big role in it. It was the cheaper tuition fees, and I didn’t get the best grades so I needed to find a way of differentiating myself from other candidates. The only option for me was to do something crazy and go abroad.

What it was like for you when the Referendum result came in?

I woke up at four in the morning and thought ‘I’ll just look at it, see that we’ve stayed and then go back to sleep’. Then it was Brexit, and I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. I had an exam the next day at 9am. It didn’t go well.

Since the result, there’s been a lot of hate crime in the UK. What do you think about far-right sentiments at home and here?

Brexit has been a wake-up call for both the EU, and the people of Europe. For me, as long as the EU makes an effort to be more transparent to the people of Europe, and as long as the EU develops a concrete plan to deal with the migrant situation, then the far-right will not get very far.

Immigration was a big part of the debate, of course.

It comes down to the disconnection people feel to immigrants. My area is just old white English people [laughs]. But we probably do have too many people in our country to support at the level we would like. I believe that to be absolutely true. I think English people should be put first.

Now you’re living in another European country yourself, you could get a job if you wanted to. You’d have the same rights as anyone else. How does that make you feel here?

Personally it feels good, but on the other hand this isn’t my country. I do recognise that. It’s a difficult one. The fact that a Dutch person isn’t the priority seems a bit wrong.

The other perspective is that we are all European citizens – when you move somewhere new, often the longer you stay the more at home you feel. It’s about a greater sense of European identity, right?

I can see that perspective. I do feel European. I do feel completely at home here – it’s an incredible feeling that I didn’t expect. And when it comes to globalisation and travelling the world it makes sense. But when it comes to welfare, I believe the countryman should come first. I suppose that’s quite a right wing view. I don’t know. It’s a bloody difficult one, and one that I haven’t worked out.

Do you feel less sure about all of this now compared to six months ago?

I feel far more unsure now than six months ago. Meeting different people with completely different views to where I’m from, from different countries and values, it’s a melting pot. You pick things up when you speak to people, especially when you’re drunk. That’s been great. I’ve changed a lot as a person and my views have changed. I feel interested and connected to other European people, meeting people and listening to their stories. It’s that excitement, and knowing that there’s a lot more than just ‘Little England’ out there.

Have you experienced any negativity towards you since being here?

No, no. I haven’t felt any negativity. Mainly just interest. I haven’t felt any anti-British sentiment. Perhaps they just look at me as another European.

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