Just who the hell are the British? After five years of Brexit, 18 months of a pandemic and a year of Black Lives Matter, the country – and the world – still doesn’t know
My life in the United Kingdom started in 1972 at the age of eight with a black eye. My brother, who is two years older, and I had been dispatched by our well meaning mother to the Chelsea cub scouts for some immediate and deep immersion into British culture and the English language.
We turned up in our starch stiff green uniforms armed with nervous smiles and barely a word of English to find ourselves on the wrong side of a popular game called World War 2, the re-enactment. It was 40 of them against the two of us. That’s when we received the black eye.
It seemed unjust collective punishment for atrocities which we, as young German boys brought up in the Black Forest of Baden-Württemberg in the 1960s and 70s, were only dimly aware of.
My father was outraged and then issued what turned out to be the wrong advice. “You will go back. You need to learn English. Why not remind them which nation is better at football.” We did. And now the other eye was black too.
Britain was a very different country then, on the cusp of joining the EEC, a club which offered an economic lifeline to “the sick man of Europe”. The IMF was conducting harsh economic triage. The unions were battling the government. Piles of rubbish accumulated in festering and fragrant pyramids all over London.
For three nights a week the Freis lit candles not out of celebration but necessity and some of the first words my brother and I learned in the English language – apart from “sorry” – were “power cut”.
There was one Italian restaurant on the King’s Road (Don Luigi), a half grapefruit with a glazed cherry plonked on top was considered a gourmet starter and Black Forest gateau was an unavoidable curse.
Fast forward to 2014. Mozzarella di bufala was sold alongside cheddar at Sainsbury’s. British politics never stopped obsessing about Europe. But the big cities, especially London and Edinburgh, felt more European than Rome, Paris or Berlin. Vorsprung durch Technik had replaced Schweinehund (‘pig dog’ – standard Nazi insult) as the most popular German phrase.
The German ambassador no longer had to complain about all the Second World War references in the media. A colleague of mine from the Süddeutsche Zeitung was walking his son home from primary school, where young Klaus was one of 22 foreigners in a class of 30, after Germany’s crushing defeat of Brazil in the World Cup semi-final that summer (7-1 against the host nation and footballing superpower).
A group of unusually British builders working on the house next to my friend’s, waved, applauded and shouted: “Go Germany! Go all the way!” A little later Jürgen Klopp would become the most loved Liverpudlian since the Beatles and perhaps the most popular German ever in the United Kingdom.
English football was dominated by European coaches with almost incomprehensible accents called Wenger and Mourinho, bossing it over a motley crew of British and international players in front of a fan base in the stadia that was resolutely local.
The boy who barely spoke English in 1972 was lucky enough to have received two wash cycles in the laundromat of elite British education and was now broadcasting in his second language on the BBC and later Channel Four.
The sick man of Europe had become a vibrant global economy. And while there were deep divisions, racial injustices, glaring income discrepancies and clashing universes of London and much of the rest of the country, to many Germans, Italians and even French it seemed as if Britain had found a sweet spot between the EU and the US.
European leaders had got used to the UK’s constant coitus interruptus when it came to the consummation of Europe’s ever closer union. Yes, this withdrawal in the heat passion was annoying. Yes, it led to many unproductive all-nighters in brightly lit Brussels conference rooms. But Britain’s recalcitrance also proved a useful shield or excuse for reluctant Germans or dithering Dutch to hide behind.
And then there was Brexit.
To grasp the befuddlement with which this vote was greeted by much of Europe it is worth remembering how much Britain had changed since its membership of the European Economic Community. As my parents, who were both alive in 2016 and living in Berlin, put it in a chorus of disbelief: Why would a country to that to itself?
I travelled all over Europe in the years after the vote as Channel Four News Europe editor and the responses to Brexit ranged from disbelief at a foolish act of self harm, to anger that this might jeopardise the whole European project, to sympathy that Britain had taken a courageous plunge. The latter was expressed to me by Alexander Gauland, one of the leaders of the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) – a man with impeccable English and a penchant for crumbled tweed jackets.
But when I asked him if Germany should join Britain on the exit ramp, he shook his head and betrayed a muffled laugh: “Nooo, not really,” in one of the plummiest English voices ever to come out of a German mouth.
There were of course some Europeans, like the Polish president of the European Council Donald Tusk, who warned David Cameron that referenda are dangerous conduits of popular anger against everything, including the question on the ballot, and that siding with one answer, as the incumbent administration that put the ballot to the people, is asking for trouble.
But those Europeans who point out the obvious while expressing their dismay at the result have also rarely visited the parts of Britain where the howls of anger and outrage could be heard loudest.
They did not understand that for millions of Brits the decision to leave the EU was as visceral as it was for millions of Italians, Spaniards or Greeks to stick with the club.
Every country comes to the EU altar for a slightly different reason: for Germans it was to overcome the past. For the French it was to overcome the Germans. For the Italians it was to overcome Rome. For the Spaniards to overcome fascism. For the Poles to overcome Moscow. And so on.
In all these cases membership continues – just – to be driven by a need which has not been short-circuited by the club’s shortcomings. That day may come. In Greece it almost came during the financial crisis. Marine Le Pen may flirt with Frexit. But this is an indulgence that dares not speak its name on the campaign trail.
So the question is: What is that visceral need that Europe fulfilled on the island of Britain? That depends on who you speak to, where and even when. I have staunch Remainer friends who marched for the blue star spangled flag through the streets of London, fought with close relatives over Christmas lunches and deleted friend’s contacts over Brexit. But after their first jab of a lifesaving vaccine – even a German one – they were heard muttering that Britain’s vaccination programme was only possible because we had left the EU. “And look at the mess they’re making over there on jabs,” they would add with a hint of schadenfreude. (Some words are immune to Brexit).
The former statement is nonsense. Nothing suggests that Britain would not have opted out or been able to opt out of the EU vaccine roll-out. The latter was undoubtedly true at the beginning of the year. But now that Europe is vaccinating at speed and organising EU-wide vaccine passports it is we who are contemplating a summer of island captivity and over-priced seaside cottages in Wales.
Our feelings towards Europe are perhaps more diaphanous and fragile than they seemed in the heat of a bitter debate. Much of the country is exhausted and bored by Brexit. It was Boris Johnson’s or Dominic Cummings’ genius to weaponise that fatigue with the 2019 election slogan – ‘Let’s get Brexit done’, leaving the details of what ‘done’ really means to unfortunate others, from trade negotiators to financial institutions to Welsh farmers and Cornish fishermen.
Even the Labour Party is keener to talk about root canal surgery than Brexit. The economy will suffer a degree of pain: Dorset dairy farmers may wish they had never voted to leave as they convert their loss-making fields from cattle pasture to glamping sites; the city will struggle to hold on to its status as the world’s leading financial capital; the care and hospitality sectors are screaming for cheap labour from the EU; and Tim Martin, the boss of Wetherspoons, who pulled more pints for Brexit than any other landlord, is begging for EU work visas without even a pork scratching of irony.
But we are prepared to do that very British thing and soldier on without too much grumbling. British phlegm saves the day once again. After four years of fractiousness about Europe we are far more comfortable in clashing over less consequential issues: like Meghan versus the Palace; or football fans versus European Super League.
We may feel more like a beleaguered island today than we did before 2016. And for a German-born Londoner I may be the wrong person to judge whether Britain has become less welcoming to outsiders.
I have certainly come across Romanian builders and Polish nurses who have called into my weekly LBC radio show to complain that they are no longer made to feel at home here.
Many thousands have voted with their feet, encouraged by the pandemic and a weak pound to seek homeward shelter. A friend of mine’s Spanish wife was elbowed in the stomach after Brexit with the accompanying remark: “Time to go home. F**k off!”
But whether it’s in the small market towns of Dorset, or the multicultural Babel of London, or the deprived and still forgotten industrial ruins of Stoke, I don’t get the impression that England has become noticeably more stand-offish to outsiders.
English nationalism is clearly a force in British politics, although it tends not to be called that in England. But its emotions rarely spill out in the open. Perhaps that too is a matter of phlegm.
And even that most English of events, a royal funeral with all its pageantry and theatre, reminded us that the late Duke of Edinburgh, that epitome of English upper class snark, was the original citizen of nowhere: a Greek Danish German Royal with an impossible name (Von Sonderburg-Glücksburg) who was apparently called the “penniless Hun” by his mother-in-law to her dying day.
The Duke had invited a smattering of hitherto obscure German princes to his funeral, perhaps as a departing reminder of his exotic heritage. And yet he had played the role of stiff upper lipped Englishman better than many who were born to the role.
The royal family is a constant reminder of the fluid identity that comes from trading nations, blessed with a global language and a love of overseas. Although it remains to be seen whether these vague global pretensions, underpinned by a colonial past that is best not mentioned, can be converted into political or trading currency in a post-Brexit global Britain. In Delhi and Beijing the answer is probably a resolute ‘no’.
What confuses most foreigners about Brexit, including those outside the EU, is why the English have traded the well-worn, loose-fitting garment of pragmatism bordering on hypocrisy for the straightjacket of ideology. It seems so very unBritish.
This country practically invented the art of having your cake and bingeing on it in an eat-as-much-as-you-can buffet of EU opt-outs. Why exchange that feast for the Weetabix of Brexit?
In Beijing they think that we were indulging in self harm. In non-Trump America the self harm makes us untrustworthy allies, who should be sent for a stint in geo-political rehab. The dishevelled and distracted Boris Johnson, with his initially cavalier view of Covid and his penchant for making light of heavy issues, is seen more buffoon than bulldog, betraying an unbearable lightness unbefitting leaden days of anguish. Until last January Johnson was the Sancho Panza to Donald Trump’s Don Quixote.
The biggest disservice of the prime minister is to make light with spluttering stuttering levity of the real question undermining Britain, of which Brexit is just a symptom: who the hell are we anyway?
For years this island nation has been facing an existential crisis that was swept under the moth-eaten carpet like an old slipper that no one owned up to owning, but no one had the courage to bin. Is there still a union? What remains of Britain, let alone Great Britain, if Scotland were to leave?
On what grounds can Englishmen persuade Scots to stay? And what about Northern Ireland, some of whose Protestant leaders believe the world is 6,000 years old, and many of whose Catholic leaders now embrace gay marriage in line with the Republic of Ireland?
Unionists in Scotland and the unionist government in Westminster are using the same “doomsterish” arguments about leaving Britain that Remainers used to ward against Brexit, failing to understand that a vote for Scottish independence is above all a gut reaction against Westminster. Its very lack of economic rationale gives it political potency.
The dry logic of numbers makes ideological pulses race faster. The union needs to find a passionate argument in favour of its survival or it will fail. The issue of race, from the Windrush scandal to the Black Lives Matter movement, is on so many levels a debate about Britain’s colonial past and the need for atonement that has never taken place and can no longer be ignored.
In fact the debate is uncannily like the felled statue of the slavetrader Edward Colston who was knocked off his plinth in Bristol and dunked in the river last June. Largely ignored since he was cast in bronze he now lies beached and daubed in a museum called the M Shed, awaiting sentencing and possible relocation. His fate has now forced Britain to rummage in its colonial past like never before and to see a hundred similar statues in a new and uncomfortable light.
What does one do about a problem like Edward Colston, slave merchant turned philanthropist? And while we are at it. What about the Opium Wars against moribund, morphine addicted Imperial China, when we went to war against a nation in the mid 19th century because it refused to take the drugs we were pushing on it. That’s like the dealer punishing the addict for going cold turkey.
That war bagged us a prize called Hong Kong. Although China’s actions in our former colony are reprehensible you can see why the Chinese, with a memory as long as their thousand years of civilisation, don’t take kindly to British lectures on anything.
The truth is the rest of the world, with whom we now seek to cobble together bespoke trade relationships, has a much longer and less soothing memory of our involvement in their past than we do. That’s one of the unfortunate consequences of having had an empire that turned so much of the world pink.
I was speaking to a businessman in Gaza the other day who was suppressing tears. We were sitting in the shadow of a singed fig tree next to the office block he owned the top three floors of, which had just been decapitated by an Israeli missile. “It’s all your fault,” he said. “You Brits. You allowed the Jews back. Your Balfour…” He was fuming.
There are many parts of the world where lines in the sand drawn by British officers over a glass of port in flagrant disregard of tribal boundaries in the hot flush of colonial acquisition, have helped to create present conflicts. We should at the very least acknowledge this fact.
So should we change the school curriculum that had jumped from the industrial revolution to the First World War with only a cursory glimpse at colonialism in between?
We were very happy to talk about the abolition of slavery and William Wilberforce but rarely the flourishing slave trade whose highly profitable business model created the seed capital of the British empire as well as for the architectural beauty of dozens of stately homes.
The impression I have of Britain today is that we are like a patient on the psychiatrist’s couch finally succumbing to therapy after years of denial. And there is a lot of material to work with: class, race, past, present, future.
The pandemic has both exacerbated the need for the debate and frozen its conduct. We have spent the last 16 months hunkered in our homes, focused almost entirely on the detail of survival. First it was: are we all going to die and while we wait for death, will bog rolls run out? Then it was how quickly can we be get back to the pub. Then we repeated the whole sequence again.
We have been sustained by two potent drugs. Debt is the first. The furlough scheme has cushioned inevitable questions about the viability of jobs on a spongey mattress of borrowings. The second is the vaccine which has given us a much needed lease of life and allowed us to fret about existential issues like when and where we can go on holiday.
We are in the middle of post-pandemic happy hour. The sun is out. The days are long. The pubs are open. The recent past is best forgotten. And the government has become very good at making us focus on the immediate steps out of lockdown, the gold star rewards for good behaviour, like hamsters fed peanuts in their wheel. The English patient is still high on AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer and Rosé.
The wave I would worry about is not the third wave of Covid but the first wave of post-pandemic soul-searching. From fishermen whose scallops are rotting unsold, to farmers whose sheep are being flogged for a pittance, to students who are saddled with debt and little to show for it, to bankers whose bosses are forcing them to move to Frankfurt, let alone restive Scots, angry Ulstermen and the waking Welsh, beware the return of normality.
It could get ugly, and Brexit will seem like a distant amuse-bouche. We are going to need all the phlegm we can muster to get through the next phase.
Matt Frei is the Europe Editor and a Presenter at Channel 4 News
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