Politics has become personal - look after your students

In the political chaos of this week, Julia Belgutay has felt more foreign than ever

Julia Belgutay

In these chaotic times, politics has become very personal

Later this month, it will be 16 years since I moved to Scotland. It isn’t quite home, but it is the only place I have lived as an adult. It is the only place I have paid tax, and where I got my first full-time job. It is the place I have created a life and a network, joined clubs and made friends. 

And yet, I have never felt more foreign here than I do right now. Watching utter chaos unfold at Westminster has been massively unsettling, to say the least. I won't be the only one who has felt that way – among the thousands of EU students and staff in schools and colleges, many will have felt equally uneasy. 

Don’t get me wrong: I have had more than enough time to get my head around the idea that Brexit is, in all likelihood, going to happen. I hate it, but I have come to terms with the fact it is the most probable outcome of all of this mayhem.

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Finding the courage

I also know that I am lucky. I have settled status, a very supportive employer and enough exposure to politics and current affairs to have a good understanding of how changes are likely to affect me. Only last week, I was speaking to a close friend and fellow EU migrant who has been too scared to fill in her settled status application for fear it may be rejected. She has no reason to assume that – she ticks every necessary box – and yet, she is scared. She is not the only one – I will admit it took me months to find the courage to fill in my own application.

There has also been the social cost of the Brexit vote. Everyone I know, regardless of how they voted or whether they even had a vote, has a tale of friendships that had ended over Brexit, and acquaintances who have moved back to their home country to avoid whatever the reality of Brexit might be. Undoubtedly, you will have seen examples of this in your college or school. 

The uncertainty that Britain’s approaching exit from the EU has already brought to the lives of thousands of EU migrants who have built their lives in the UK has been amplified over the last fortnight or so by the risk of a no-deal Brexit – and then the chance of a delay of Brexit, followed by more posturing about Brexit.

I have had messages from peers in England worried over how they will prove their settled status if they require emergency NHS treatment after the UK crashes out of the EU. I also know people who have cancelled business trips that would see them leave before 31 October and not return until after that Brexit date for fear they may struggle to re-enter the country. I don’t know if any of those fears are even remotely justified. But I would challenge anyone to not be at least a little concerned.

But it isn’t just Brexit that has kept me awake over the last week or so. Last weekend, a protest against the prime minister’s prorogation of Parliament took place in Edinburgh – as it did in most big cities across the UK. Among the hundreds of people attending, I would estimate at least a third, if not half, were European migrants with one thing in common: they felt their agency was being removed, and as chaos descended over Westminster, they felt the uncertainty had simply become too much. And to them, all of it was personal. 

That, of course, doesn't just apply to migrants like me. Just today, Sarah Simons wrote for Tes about how impossible she found it to follow what went on in Parliament this week. I doubt she was alone in that. It has been like watching that metaphorical car crash – impossible to watch, but equally impossible to turn away from. More than once have I turned off the TV, unable to cope with any more of it, only to turn it straight back on. Even the usually unflappable Ed Dorrell has been rattled by the circus of it all – and the behaviour of some politicians in particular.

Taking a step back from it has been impossible. Politics has become the main topic of conversation everywhere. I, for one, could do with a break. And I don’t mean I want Parliament to take a break from working out where the UK is headed. I need a break from the tension. Not a single day has passed without someone asking for my view, as an outsider, on what will happen next, or what it all means. But I am an outsider to none of this. I just happen to not have a vote in a general election. 

The next time you ask someone about their interesting accent, or how long they have been in this country, or what they make of the prime minister – especially if you do so in the college staff room or school corridor – consider this: these conversations are no longer just about politics. Brexit may seem like a political circus, but it is so much more serious: it has become the fulcrum for the future of this country and, with that, the UK's place in Europe and the world. That future isn't just about the political, it's about the people, too. It's something that's personal to all of us – not just those of us not born here. 

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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