I arrive at Melbourne airport for my midnight flight with an unfortunately timed cold. My lack of sleep after Canberra’s ultimate insider event, the Midwinter Ball, is catching up on me at the worst possible time. There’s nothing quite like a night celebrating with journalists, in Parliament House, to wear down one’s stamina.
On the long flight over to London I have the opportunity to read Arthur Brooks’ masterful Conservative Heart. Brooks contrasts Europe’s lost mojo to aspirational developing countries. In India people are agile and innovative – moving to shanty towns desperately looking for opportunities to create a better world for themselves and their children. In Europe, the energy is lacking. The best days are behind them. They have accepted their slow slide to mediocrity.
I have a few weeks before I begin studying. After less than 24 hours in the United Kingdom (just enough time to get my residency card) I board the next budget airline flight across the channel to Spain. Spain hasn’t had a government for nine months – stuck in caretaker mode after elections last December and June failed to produce a conclusive result.
Yet, miraculously, life goes on unencumbered. The beautiful beaches, the bars and clubs that stay open all night – nobody tell our Puritan premiers Mike Baird or Anastasia Palaszchuk that people are having fun at 2am in the morning! The tapas is as free flowing as the sangria (which literally comes from taps in some bars). What a time to be alive! The hostels are full of young Aussies, seeing the world before being thrust back into the reality of study and work. We are an intrepid people.
The darker elements, however, are not far below the surface. Spain was governed by a fascist dictator until 1975. The signs of the Spanish Civil War, where dictator Francisco Franco ruthlessly took power, are still visible in gun and shrapnel damage to beautiful historic buildings. Meanwhile, due to failed economic policies, over half the country’s young languish unemployed – freed from material need by a welfare state and yet lacking a sense of purpose and hope for the future.
Following a visit to Bilbao and the beautiful resort town of San Sebastian, I arrive in Barcelona on their Catalonia region national day. There are tens of thousands of people across the city protesting for Catalonian independence. Spain’s most successful region is sick of subsidising the rest of the country with high taxes – sound familiar? – but the central government won’t accede to the people’s wishes and allow a referendum. I wonder if an independent Catalonia would join the European Union. In Madrid my local tour guide – attempting to be funny – repeatedly points out that Spain was ‘a great empire… once upon a time’ but now ‘we’re a bankrupt country’. The ‘joke’ doesn’t get many laughs.
After a quick visit to Portugal, another economically struggling former empire, the jaunt is up. I’m back on the plane to London. I’m doing it the wrong way round — Ausexiting, Brentering. On my train into London from the airport a loud American tourist asks a local what Brexit means. ‘Freedom’ the Brit swiftly responds, before admitting he didn’t actually vote. ‘We’ve had to follow all their laws, now we can do our own thing,’ he explains. The comment reminds me of a poll shared a few days earlier on Twitter by the great Dan Hannan which found the number one reason people voted for Brexit was ‘The principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.’
The London School of Economics’ welcome lecture proves an intriguing affair. The Equity, Diversity and Inclusion speaker, after discussing various services available to students, begins discussing freedom of speech. She says it is ‘not absolute’ – limited by public order law, terrorism law and the equality act, however that ‘simply causing offence is not enough to limit freedom of speech, after all a university is about exploring controversial ideas’. It sounds almost perfunctory, however it is unimaginable that an Australian university would make a similar comment to students during their first week.
The head of the student union was next. She was careful to comfort European students with the comment that ‘We didn’t vote for Brexit’. As a Commonwealth student I already feel discriminated against. Brexit is on everyone’s lips, and yet nobody knows exactly what it will mean in practice. The civil service, fearful of a potential leak, apparently did no preparation work before the vote. And now everyone has their own vision.
I attend an event with Syed Kamall, the Leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament and a Brexiter himself, who says that the UK will not remain part of the common trading and regulation market, or keep current migration targets. However that doesn’t mean the end of trade, or migration. Meanwhile, Theresa May is being hounded for not outlining specifics, or triggering Article 50 (the leave clause). The European Union is also in disarray, infighting about who should lead the negotiations, between the Parliament, the Commission and the Council, and lack any offical position. Well, with all this drama, there’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian in London.