Friday 16 October 2020


Having read, and now listened, to your dreadful stories of cruelty and incompetence in trying to achieve 'settled status' I cannot but be aware that my situation is not like that of settled citizens of the EU such as yourselves. I was a refugee from Hungary in 1956 and have been a UK citizen since 1964. Becoming a British citizen however did not mean becoming English. I have long recognised the fact that it was easier to be officially British than to be unofficially English.  Having worked as an English language writer and translator from Hungarian for about forty years I now think it is even possible to become part of English literature without ever being quite English. Could I become Hungarian and start again after 64 years? I really don’t think so. That’s two close communities dispensed with.

But there is a third community of which I am historically, culturally, and psychologically part, and that is Europe. We are all part of that community, however we understand it. Europe is a continent with a history of conflict between nations that were, at more or less the same time, out in the world dividing it up among themselves.  That history has divided us in the past but has, since the Second World War, driven us together, till now, in political and economic terms. Those terms have been and continue to be under strain. And the world around us keeps changing. Nothing is stable.

The EU has offered us peace for the most part if only because we have a common interest in keeping the peace. It has also tried very hard to operate as a power in the world where other major powers are growing ever more powerful.

One of the reasons I voted against Brexit was because I felt Europe was stronger and less vulnerable as a single body rather than as a set of disparate nations. Now, even more,I fear the various schisms that are developing. I suspect the UK itself is falling apart partly, at least, because of terrible nostalgias about its imperial and military past. There are people here who are so much in love with a vanished past that they will do anything to preserve its attitudes at the cost of present unities. They depend on making enemies out of friends.

I am not entirely out of sympathy with them. There are many values bound up in language and nationhood and I fully understand that it is very painful to lose them. But modern Britain increasingly depends on those who are not intrinsically part of it. People like you and I in fact. More you than I at my age. I am a minor cultural figure with various prizes for writing and translation but I am of negligible economic or social use. You are not.  You – and all those moving round Europe – are literally the moving parts of the engine.

Since I have lived here for sixty-four years I want to think a little about what the word 'here' has meant in that time and what it means now. It is a mere sketch and very simplified but it may suggest some kind of context as I see it.

I don’t know how long you have felt unwelcome in this country but I suspect Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ campaign of 2012 will have aroused and spread and intensified that hostility. Officially, that hostility was directed at illegal immigrants, but how do you tell who is or is not illegal in the street, in the shop or at work? By their skin colour? By their accent? The way they move?

And if the nation is served with a long diet of anti-EU suspicion and hatred, how is it likely to react to those who are here because of the EU? Don’t they take British jobs and British housing? Don’t they disturb our British way of doing things?

Once you get to that point, of course, the difference between legal and illegal presence in the country has significantly narrowed. People are no longer people, many of them people doing valuable jobs. They become an alien statistic.

Personally, I have never felt the latent hostility of my host country, a country that has been generous in the past, as many individuals still are, but, as the son of a mother who survived two concentration camps, I am aware that hostility is latent in people everywhere in the world and can be roused for any political purpose. 

That is especially the case in a country that was once proud of its identity and status but is uncertain about it now.  Modern Britain is a complex country with many strands it does not itself understand. A modern country is not a family affair. It is a state that is inextricably part of the world. But it is comprised of families, yours and mine and everybody else’s. My son has just married a French citizen resident for several years in the UK and they now have a bilingual son. What is to be their fate? What is to be ours?

The Brexit process has been a short-sighted mess and the confusion and cruelty of the special status process is further proof of that.. I suspect the UK is slowly falling apart. The country – England particularly - is on edge and its nervousness has made it cruel. Cruel to you. It has a government whose fortunes have depended entirely on pushing Brexit and whose leader does not mind reneging on freshly written contracts.

I have not said anything about those whose families originally came from outside Europe, whose problems are various and a direct product of British imperial history. Their positions are part of the same complex problem as yours and mine, but this occasion is not about them

Hungary, the country of my birth is in an even worse condition. It is for me a source of despair. That does not help. Very little does at the moment. Covid least of all.

Europe is an idea based on centuries of experience. Europe too is in trouble. Now is the time to hold together. My warm best wishes and hopes to you all.

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