Identity crisis: Five Brits on Brexit

Mat Ellis, Emma Mcilroy and a few other British-born entrepreneurs weigh in on the pending disintegration of the United Kingdom.

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Brexit hit close to home for Oregon Business. Research editor Kim Moore is from the U.K.; so is former art director Chris Noble, who has since decamped to Adidas. 

The day after Brexit, Kim walked into the office looking shell shocked.  “I can’t believe it,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”

Only 24 hours earlier, Kim had said with confidence there was no way her fellow citizens would vote for leave. 

We asked a few other ex-pats in Oregon to describe the shock, the sadness — and what it’s like to wake up one day and discover you’re a citizen without a country.

Mat Ellis, CEO, Cloudability

I caught up with a gloomy Mat Ellis this morning as he was driving to the San Francisco airport.  “I feel dread and sorrow,” said Ellis, a Brighton native who has been in the U.S. for 13 years; Portland, eight.Unknown 1

“It was a pointless loss of money, opportunity, influence and prestige. Nothing but bad will come out of it.”

Ellis is part Scottish, and he was hoping against hope the vote would be a close but ultimately symbolic protest  — as close as the (failed) Scottish referendum to leave the U.K. last year.

No such luck.

Ellis says his family split on the vote. His mother voted for leave, a decision he said he respected — up to a point. “If you’re not going to be around much longer, why are you screwing with my future?” Ellis asked, rhetorically.

If Great Britain makes good on the vote, “I’m pretty sure I will no longer be British,” Ellis said.  “That country I belong to won’t exist in the future. I now know what it’s like to be a Yugoslav.”

Like most disaffected Brits, Ellis views Brexit as part of larger, ominous trends unfolding in the U.S. and Europe:

“There seems to be a thing with globalization. Politics is no longer about left and right; it’s about open and closed. Nobody is solving today’s problems by investing in education or making the middle class good again. The quality of mainstream party leadership is very weak; only the extremist positions are strong.

It doesn’t bode well for politics in general.”

Emma Mcilroy, co-founder, Wildfang

Belfast native Mcilroy moved to Portland eight years ago to work for Nike as a global brand manager. In 2012 she started Wildfang, a menswear-inspired clothing line for women.wildfang

For citizens of Northern Ireland, the British vote has more serious implications than in other parts of the U.K., said Mcilroy, who holds British and Irish passports.

The majority of voters in Ireland voted to stay, and political leaders will likely hold referendums on whether to leave Great Britain and become part of the Republic of Ireland.

(Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, has more to say about Brexit and Ireland in today’s New York Times).

Both of Mcilroy’s parents voted for Brexit. Her father is a small business owner, and his vote reflected dissatisfaction with onerous European Union regulations, she said.

“When Great Britain became part of the E.U., it equalled a lot of legislation both in terms of employment law and insurance. It created huge problems for small business that affected my family. I get why he feels the way he does.”

But nationalist, anti-immigration sentiment, not small business woes, were the main reasons “leave” voters championed Brexit, Mcilroy said.  

She is still reeling from from the emotional impact.  “I believe in the concept of the European Union; I am someone who has sought global employment.” 

“Literally my nationality might change. I was born and raised in Northern Ireland and consider myself British and Irish. It will be a huge departure for me if Northern Ireland, if the country that I come from, leaves the U.K.”

“It’s as if you woke up one morning and someone told you you were Canadian. Canada is a nice place, but you’re not Canadian.”

Like Ellis, she sounded a cautionary note for American voters facing Balkanization at home.  

”If Brexit doesn’t reemphasize why people in America need to vote and vote based on facts and research instead of what people tell you to think —  I don’t know what.”

Sara Batterby, CEO, HiFi FarmsUnknown 2

“I was shocked that Brexit happened,” said Batterby, a Birmingham native, in an email. Her E.U. citizenship is integral to her identity, she said.

“I feel disappointed and angry about potentially losing my right of free passage and residency in all of the EU countries.  I never imagined going back to live in England. But Italy or Spain … much more appealing.”

Batterby says the voted “tarnished” the British tradition for tolerance over nationalism. “It feel like part of a global movement emphasizing protectionism and fear.”

The vote won’t affect her material situation— for the time being.  “But perhaps later when I have plans to retire or have a home in Continental Europe — those plans might be thwarted.”

Tracey Hamilton-Gray, owner, Lady Di’s British Shop & Tea Room

Hamilton-Gray has been in the U.S since 1987 and in Portland since 1992.  Unlike others interviewed for this post, she exhibited an abundance of British good cheer.  

Brexit, Hamilton-Gray said, has drawn more people to her cafe and retail outlet.

“All all the coverage has helped my business by creating an awareness of all things British.”Unknown 3

The leave vote won’t change her personal or professional life, Hamilton-Gray said.

“It will be at least two or more years before the UK will leave the E.U., so as much as the uncertainty will continue, the laws will not change and should not affect myself or my business too much.”

Hamilton does have friends and an uncle in England.  “I wonder what the political situation will be like for them,” she mused.

Chris Noble, former OB art director, Adidas senior designer and maker of pretty cool shelves for Lego minifigs

Chris responded in inimitable fashion to the post-Brexit drama surrounding former London mayor Boris Johnson. Johnson was the public face of the “leave” campaign. Many say he adopted that stance to further his hopes of becoming prime minister and not because he actually believed leaving the U.K. was a good idea.AAEAAQAAAAAAAAV2AAAAJGM0MGRiODNiLWUyZDEtNDBkNy04YjQ3LTI0MzQ4YTBiMWVhMw

Post-vote, Johnson was betrayed by his own campaign manager, Michael Gove, who decided to run for PM on his own.

“That guy [Johnson] is a foolish kook,” opined Chris. “His posh, bumbling, idiot charm has got him where he is. Too bad he slipped on his own banana skins too late.”