Thirty-two years ago, I embarked on my first trip into Europe. Six of us left Belfast, money belts dangling from our waists laden with passports, traveller's cheques and brown Interrail cards that allowed you to take any train on the Continent. Europe was for us a vast adventure playground full of beautiful girls and cheap cold beer. For each of the next six years, I took a month out of my life, bought an Interrail ticket and travelled across Europe. By the time I was 25, I had visited nearly every European country.
It was only after the referendum result that I fully appreciated how I belonged to the first generation of people from my background who could afford to travel so freely. For working class kids, nights spent on sleeper trains coursing across the Continent was a perfect expression not just of a new found freedom but also vital aspiration. In the 30 years since, I have worked in Europe, secured funds for the UK from the EU and chaired pan-EU policy partnerships.
So going into the referendum, I had both a romantic and practical perception of the EU. When asked my view on the institution, I mostly rolled out the stock dictum of my peers; 'it's not perfect but we are better in than out'. The Remain campaign I supported ultimately left me feeling dismayed. Our side of the debate seemed to be in danger of turning the open Europe of my youth into a prison that we were locked into for our own good, with referendum day the only chance of escape. We underestimated that for the socially conservative white working class, EU free movement of labour had concreted into a proxy for their indignation at a whole gamut of socio-economic changes over the past 20 years.
Sign in to continue