Friday’s FT carries an amusing tirade from John Lewis’ boss Andy Street in the Retail & Consumer section that denigrates France as “sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat”. It seems, en route from Paris to make this speech, “He was delayed by a rather poor experience coming back through Gare du Nord”—a place he described as “the squalor pit of Europe”.
Having spent time there, I grant his point, although most main termini (and indeed many airports) could contest the title. More relevant, though, is his dismissal of one of the three main pillars of the EU as “finished“. Leave aside the material such outbursts may provide UKIP and the troglodyte wing of Tory backwoodsmen, this sent me back to the archives where this blog parried such xenophobic mutterings on other occasions such as this.
There are many variants on the ‘Frogs Begin at Calais’ theme but if there is one thing that does continue to unite this Kingdom it is an endemic, perhaps genetic, inability to couch anything in terms of other cultures, even cultures no more than a coastal artillery shot distant. There is little to choose among all four nations in this regard—all are equally inept at languages and (more importantly) the cultural differences they conceal. We get annoyed by Japanese saying “hai“, thinking it means “yes” when what is meant is a far more subtle “I understand you and respond as if agreeing, so as to save you face“.
Since languages simply reflect the cultures that developed them, we need to appreciate subtlety to a depth a dictionary cannot begin to fathom. The German equivalent of “hai” is “jein“. Technically it doesn’t exist but translates more as “Your point seems a good one but incomplete/in error”. The culture of precision vs the culture of face. The British ‘happens’ is neutral, without overtone; the Portuguese equivalent “acontece” is laden with acute understanding for woe or misfortune—much closer to the American “shit happens”.
Andy Street is almost certainly one of our more traveled and cosmopolitan Brits. If he’s alienated by our Eurocousins, what of the 90+% whose Spanish experience is poolside waiters in Lanzarote and Italian is Spag Bol down Streatham High Street? Most schools offer French to under half their pupils; a fraction of those could survive in France—even with a decent A-level in the subject.
In Scotland, 191,850 pupils sat Highers last year: French was down from 4,688 to 4,236—a miserable 2.2%. German (spoken by 1/3rd of the EU) was 0.5%, with no other language significant. The rest of the UK is no better. The argument that “the world speaks English” is a fallacy, especially in business where negotiations are personal and cultural subtleties often form winning strategies. German precision is not enforced; it is a cultural necessity. Anyone aspiring to trade with them need to ‘get into their heads’, much as style is a part of Italian psyche and any product for the Italian market needs passion as an ingredient.
So, even if we spoke the language beyond ‘A’-level, we’re still miles from thinking as they do. Andy’s nemesis the French do have their idiosyncracies; they are proud, volatile, voluble, communautaire and generally socialist. The French believe implicitly in the superiority of their culture, at whose peak lie language, cuisine, couture, art, wine and architecture. They are dismissive of British culture, although do appear as wedded to their cars. This is in contrast to the Dutch, who do use cars and build motorways but give comparable space and priority in their crowded country to bicycles and pedestrians.
Another contrast for the Dutch is that nobody bothers learning their language—despite 28 million people speaking it in half-a-dozen countries, as well as remnants in South Africa and Indonesia. This appears to bother them not one whit; in fact it appears that anyone you meet in the country speaks English and this may help explain why they effortlessly run major global operations, including Shell beer, electronics, financial services and long-distance tugs.
Whereas the British and French have both, for their own reasons, accepted the need for an EU with their own versions of bad grace, the Dutch (and most others, including Germany) have embraced the concept of opportunity. With ongoing delusions of global grandeur, the Entente Cordial of 100 years ago share a hankering for their glory days and ambition to ‘punch above their weight’. But, whereas France—after a couple of sharp lessons from the Wehrmacht—have accepted a humbler, less global role, the UK has not; some 50 years on it still hasn’t learned lessons from the Suez débâcle and is still first to rattle its sabre (that is, once Uncle Sam has sanctioned it by furrowing his brow).
The pathologically incorrigible ego of the French is, unfortunately, what most Brits know of Europe and much of our unsatisfying experience in the EU can be diagnosed as a form of macho chest-butting between those two ex-empires. But while British cuisine has moved on from the disaster area it once was and squadrons of pieds-á-terre Anglais colonise the Dordogne, real mutual understanding remains in short supply.
How much worse then with the rest of the Continent? There may never be much meeting of minds with the Mediterranean profligates (although Portugal is an old, old friend with much in common and would repay any subtlety and discrimination in British attitudes.
The tragedy of all this is that the greatest misunderstanding—deriving from almost total ignorance and willful isolation—is with the Middle European and Scandinavian blocs with whom the British ought to find the most in common. Plenty of Brits have had a stag or hen in Amsterdam but find me any who have visited the Rembrandt Museum in Antwerp. The glories of Vienna and Prague are only now being discovered, thanks to Easyjet—and the fact that the locals speak English.
But the bulk of the area is unknown and opinions formed on the basis that they lost the war and have been in penance ever since. This is absurd. Germany dwarfs all others in the EU in both size and economy. But a Rhine boat trip from Bingen to Bonn floated on a couple of glasses of Piesporter is like elastoplast to cure a brain haemorrhage. That we Brits can’t manage alstublieft in Amsterdam is poor but understandable. That we don’t understand Wirtschaftswunder on any level shows our cultural credentials as threadbare.
A century ago, Britain was a manufacturing colossus. WWI tested the best the British could do against the best the Germans could do and we were found wanting. At Jutland, three RN battlecruisers blew up, whereas a German equivalent (Derfflinger) took huge punishment yet made it back to port. A century later, we are still puzzling why the ghost of British Leyland haunts our exports and why German engineering is legendary and leads their exports.
It is senseless to withdraw from the EU like some petulant child who can’t get his way. Our cultural, linguistic and Victorian-era attitudes that drive that are a ball and chain that will hobble ambition for any economic virility until we realise we need the world more than they need us. We speak English; that gives us an ‘in’ to all of prosperous Scandinavia and the Low Countries, not to mention Germany. But we must train engineers the way they do: in schools and technical colleges that have as much status as our much-favoured doctors and lawyers. Fastidious accuracy is not a joke but a credo that builds products and markets. Investment in infrastructure like transport systems follows boundary-crossing plans that work and are not just an opportunity for large contractors to get their snouts in.
Britain may not be as sick as the cardiac arrest that was the 1970’s. But its low-wage, services-driven, unequal society is no way to compete in a 21st century world, still less to address and defeat a £1.5tn debt hole dug from a decade of living beyond our means.