Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Does Theresa May really not understand our place in Europe?

PUBLISHED: 11:00 01 October 2017

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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Theresa May’s speech in Florence was truly derisible.

The self-styled Boudicca of Brexit warbled on about the Renaissance and enduring partnerships, then proclaimed: “The UK has never totally felt at home being in the EU, perhaps because of our history and geography, the EU has never felt to us like an integral part of our national story”.

Is this woman dumb or devious? Benighted or Machiavellian? Did she think those listening wouldn’t spot the inconsistencies? If it was a ploy to placate and dupe all sides in her cantankerous party, she failed. And as PM she embarrassed herself and the UK.

The EU is a political, economic and cultural entity and also the embodiment of an oath to keep the continent bound together and at peace. The idea and imperative were germinated in the blood and soil of the continent, our continent, depleted and demoralised by the world wars. The late Brian Beedham, an astute foreign journalist, believed “Above all, this is the horror lodged in the back of Europeans’ minds”. Those horrors are lodged in our national memory as much as in the heads of the French or German, Polish and Greeks.

Journalists and parliamentarians in the UK have never told these larger truths about the joint missions and their aftermath. It was always GB wot won it all. With a little help from the Americans.

There follows a short lesson on the strong, long British/European interconnections. May needs to familiarise herself with these basics. After all, her own name, ‘Theresa’ has Greek, old Spanish and Hapsburg origins. And the Royal family has at least two European bloodlines: Prince Albert was Germanic and Prince Philip is Greek.

Indigenous Brits are biological and social hybrids. Margaret Thatcher, of all people, recognised that in a speech in Bruges in 1988, the city which Chaucer visited, where William Caxton printed his first English book: “For three hundred years, we were part of the Roman Empire and our maps still trace the straight lines of the roads the Romans built. Our ancestors – Celts, Saxons, Danes – came from the Continent. Our nation was… ‘restructured’ under the Norman and Angevin rule in the 11th and 12th centuries. This year, we celebrate the 300th anniversary of the glorious revolution in which the British crown passed to Prince William of Orange and Queen Mary.

“Visit the great churches and cathedrals of Britain, read our literature and listen to our language: all bear witness to the cultural riches which we have drawn from Europe and other Europeans from us. [For] centuries, Britain was a home for people from the rest of Europe who sought sanctuary from tyranny.

“We know that without the European legacy of political ideas we could not have achieved as much as we did… Over the centuries, we have fought to prevent Europe from falling under the dominance of a single power. Only miles from here, in Belgium, lie the bodies of 120,000 British soldiers who died in the First World War. Tomorrow, King Baudouin will attend a service in Brussels to commemorate the many brave Belgians who gave their lives in service with the Royal Air Force – a sacrifice which we shall never forget… And still, today, we stand together. Nearly 70,000 British servicemen are stationed on the mainland of Europe. All these things alone are proof of our commitment to Europe’s future.”

The lady did not turn but she did learn her history. Unlike the second-ever female PM we now have, who both reflects and leads a gravely introverted nation. Little Britain is no longer a joke. It’s a deplorable state to be in, so much noise, so little awareness.

Religion, language, art, music, architecture, ways of seeing, ways of being, on these isles are all traceably European. William Tyndale, the reformer who translated the Bible into English so everyone could read it, was closely linked to the radical Protestants of Basel and to Martin Luther. Shakespeare used Plutarch as a source for his plays and located much of the action in Italy, Rome, France and Cyprus. Christopher Marlowe’s Faust was ‘borrowed’ from a German fable. Keats, Byron, Shelley and other romantic poets found joy and inspiration on the European mainland.

Cook Elizabeth David described post-war British food: “There was flour and water soup seasoned solely with pepper; bread and gristle rissoles; dehydrated onions and carrots; corned beef toad in the hole. I need not go on.” She taught Brits how to cook Mediterranean food. Soon, Italian food, even bad Italian food, was preferred by most Brits. And so it is today. Native Brits, as we know, do not learn other languages – that’s the imperial mindset. But English is an amalgam and is constantly replenished by other European tongues. ‘Hoodlum’ and ‘delicatessen’, for example, are German words; ‘patio’ and ‘macho’ are Spanish; the French gave English ‘menu’ and ‘brunette’. In fact 29% of words in English are French. Europe and Britain also share bad histories such as slavery, white racism and exploitation. They divvied up Africa as if it was a birthday cake. Until 1972, Britain was desperate to join the economic coalition of several west European nations and was kept out by France’s De Gaulle. The Conservative Group For Europe ( which still exists), tried to get the Foreign Office return the remains of Napoleon III to France. It never happened. Britons back then understood the ties that bound this country with the mainland.

Europe is indivisible from the EU and we were once indivisible from Europe. The referendum severed us from our continental siblings, our collective heritages. Now Britain is like a phantom, amputated limb, lifeless but still twitching as if it is attached to the main body. The pity and shame of it all.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is an award-winning columnist, author and broadcaster

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