The present stushie with Europe over closed borders, banned travel and half of Kent covered with lories should not come as a surprise. Not only has the UK behaved brazenly against our neighbours’ interests in asserting “sovereignty” in the teeth of palpable benefits accrued by co-operation, but the level of our understanding of those neighbours is poor for a country aspiring to be a global leader in the 21st century.
As if to demonstrate the point, among Auntie Beeb’s many contributions to ‘light entertainment’ is the quiz show “Pointless”, normally shown on BBC1 at 5:15pm. In it, pairs of contestants are challenged to find the most obscure answers posed to 100 people drawn from the public prior to the show. The topic for the first round of the contest on Thursday, 17th December were regions of European countries.
Normally, answers range from the obvious, which would typically garner 90 or more points, to the fiendishly obscure, which may have been correctly answered by none of the 100 people—a highly desirable “pointless” result for the contestants. The answers in this case were each a list of three regions. Contestants had to identify the country.
Not only wee there an abnormally high series of incorrect answers, penalised by 100 point scores, but the obvious correct answers garnered unusually low scores. In fact, none of the 14 short lists of three regions had been correctly identified by even half of the 100 people originally asked, and many languished in the teens and twenties.
To be fair, there were a couple of right stinkers: who knows the names of Andorra’s regions? But some—Normandie; Brandenburg; Murcia—should not have taxed the average punter, the cast majority of whom have enjoyed package holidays in the sun, stag nights in other capitals and a wide choice of dirt cheap flights (at least until this year).
Pointless do not reveal where in the country their 100 are selected each time, but it’s a fair bet it wasn’t in the Brecon Beacons or the Fens. These would be city dwellers, exposed to the full gamut of media and culture. These people readily identify Wimbledon champions, TV soap characters, or even US states and their capitals. But on Europe they were dunces. Just as educated people are described as “literate” and those competent at mental arithmetic are “numerte”, those familiar with the rest of the continent could be called “Eurate”. Sadly, the contestants ad the original 100 could be described as “in-eurate”. In this, they are typical.
The reasons lie deep in English history. Though the other nations of these islands have had their ‘in-eurate’ moments, sullen resentment of ‘Johnny Foreigner’ across the Channel has run deep in English veins since the Norman Conquest. Euroscepticism is not new. It is a millennium in the making. A grudge carried that long makes MacDonald vs. Campbell or Hatfield vs. McCoys seem lightweight fluff by comparison.
“Ah”, you say “what about: Marlborough and Blenheim; Wellington and Waterloo; Montgomery and D-Day, where we pulled European chestnuts out of the fire? None are examples of euracy. All such interventions on the continent have been military—and always to serve English interests.
Close on the heels of William the Conqueror, England became a recruiting centre for the Angevin Empire. From Henry II’s browbeating Philip’s enfeebled Franc, to Henry V’s triumph at Agincourt, to Henry VIII’s beggaring his French neighbour at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, England made its abrasive, aggressive presence felt actoss the Channel. The loss of Calais ought to have have weaned England off cross-channel confrrontation. Not a bit of it. Elizabeth egged her fleet of English pirates on to bring home more Spanish loot..
Then the prospering Dutch spice trade with the Indies came under the cosh so the East India Company could overhaul them. Then it was the turn of France, for getting in the way of imperial expansion from Madras to Montreal. Defeat in the Seven Years War turned France inward, toward revolution and a republic. This was anathema to England, for whom royal culture and patronage justified both empire and the commerce that drove it. Napoleon would have been an enemy, even had he been as pacifist as Ghandi.
Upom Napoleon’s defeat, the shift of France into an ally driven by the booming empire’s need for defence against new threats, like imperial Russia and a finally united Germany. These led, respectively, to Crimea and two World Wars, all of which reinfrced centuries of suspicion toward those beyond the Channel. Global though the vision was, it lacked education in euracy, in building bridges with foreigners.
Over the last couple of hundred years, Irish and Scots have been fellow-travellers in in this English enterprise. When the Union took its greatest formed in 1801, the English were already the dominant nation, having 60% (8.9 m) of the 15.1 m population. As well as demographic, they held political, economic and cultural centres. 4.7m Irish had links with fellow Catholics and their diaspora in America. The 1.5m Scots’ early links with France and trade with the Low Countries and Hanseatic ports was soon eclipsed. Yet their 62% vote to remain in the EU contrasts with Brexit isolationism of the English.
It has ben abundantly clear since 1603 that this union was not between equals. For 400 years, the nomenklatura running it saw “Britain’ and “England” as interchangeable terms, a practice followed by the rest of the world: Angleterre; Inghlaterra; etc.. In itself, this is unremarkable: the proportion of English people in the union is now 85%. In a country without global pretentions, this would not matter. Norway, Sweden and Finland share their Sami minorities in Lappland, yet demonstrate exemplary diplomacy in working with other culturess. All three are in Nordic Council, run SAS airlines, are members or partners of the EU, the WTO, the UN, etc. Such has been true since Sweden eschewed ambitions toward empire post-Gustavus Adolphus and the Thirty Years War. They learned euracy early.
Not so the English. Having effectively absorbed Wales, Scotland and (temporarily) Ireland, England parlayed its 17th © pirate profits into an even more profitable empire. Taking over the spice and silks trade that made Venice rich, they expanded it into a global cash cow. Industrialisation took raw materials from native/slave plantations and sold profitable finished goods back to the world. Ths required imposition of a hieratchical imperial system. There was no room for understanding of—let alone appreciation for—other cultures
Victorian dynamism and affluence needed no partners. Continental neighbours were, at best, irrelevant, at worst competitors. Authority through superiority held workers that produced the goods—whether the poor at home or indentured abroad—in thrall. This essential hierarchy bred a disdain for social inferiors. These were easiy identified becayse the ‘right’ schools and the ‘right’ pronunciation placed you idelibly in society.
Lower classes consoled themselves by subscribing to the greatness of empre and feeling superior to natives distinguished by their skin colour. Interaction with other Europeans was unnecessary, as their empires were inferior. Travel there was confined to “Grand Tours” of the cultures of Italy and Greece by the upper class. Those who did not go abroad derived biased opinions from those who did.
Despite two impoverishing world wars and a dismantled empire, a significant influence has been nostalgia over such greatness lost. Despite the six decades since Suez demolished the crumbling edifice of ‘Great Power’ status, there has been scant erosion of convistion in English superiority and the amplified hackle-raising effect it now has on our neighbours.
Once, those neighbours exhibited a similar jingoistic aggression toward each other. That was what drove centuries of internecine warfare. A change in attitude since WW2 across the continent, embodied in the EU, has shown that most of Europe’s 500m people have ditched their warring past and embraced euracy. But their tectonic shift seems lost on the English. Even 47 years at the heart of things; even 780,000 people who have chosen to live across the EU have not brought this message home.
It would be trite to blame such myopia on The Establishment, on the pukka types, on the stockbroker-and-twinsets who inhabit leafier shires around London. Because it is exhibited by ex-steelworkers in Cleveland and retired boilermakers in the Midlands, all of whom voted Leave with enthusiasm. Few had visited Eurpe beyond sand-and-sangria holidays or hen nights in Dublin or Prague. When interviewed, the reasons given were resentment at foreigners telling them what to do, with a hankering to return to a time when Britannia ruled the waves. Eurate, they were not.
Interview their equivalents in Germany, or Holland, or Sweden and their response looks to a future that can be built together. If they look to the past, it is to marvel how far they have come, while Brits have stagnated. Consider some statistics on insularity:
- 214m (56%) people of the EU’s 382m speak at least one foreign language; 23m (38%) of 65m Brits do..and 4m of those speak Urdu/Gujurat/Bengali
- 90% of Dutch people speak good English; hardly any English speak Dutch.
- almost 1m Poles live in Britain; almost no Brits live in Poland.
- Most British who have moved to the EU live in English-speaking enclaves on Spain’s Mediterranean coast and have little interaction with locals.
A time traveller from a century ago, leaving the post-WW1 wreckage of a continent might expect to find 2020 dominated by English culture because their empire was at its greatest extent, while exhibited the most global vision through the empire, then covering a fifth of the world.
Instead, the English clung to empire amd its glorious isolation. Its flagging economy, built on Victorian heavy industries adapted slowly. Admitted late to the club in 1973, Britain never learned to grow into a pivital partner as Germany has. It never learned euracy, the pragmatic creed by which medium and small nations bury the past, influence the future and ‘punch above theor weight’, as Brtain claims, but fails, to do.
The ‘sovereignty’ mantra of the Brexiteers is delusion. In this interconnected world, glorious isolation and economic decline will be the reslt. Unless you are Chia or the USA, you must recognise that even medium-size countries are the stronger for close ties to neighbours. Geography is permanent: the EU is our only neighbour of key importance Euracy doesn’t just stop wars, it breeds prosperity. The sooner the English learn that, the better for all nations on these islads.