When did we Brits become so thin-skinned?

PUBLISHED: 13:00 11 December 2017

European Parliament coordinator for Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt.

European Parliament coordinator for Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt.

DPA/PA Images

The sanguine British used to shrug off foreign criticism. Not any more. SUNA ERDEM on how we became a hypersensitive nation.

For seasoned UK-watchers abroad, this has always been a quirky country of pragmatists who disdained great ideologies feted elsewhere.

Brits kept calm, carried on, and got things done while the world around them argued and flounced.

In this context, Britons either didn’t care particularly about Johnny Foreigner’s views or had the self-confidence to brush off whatever others said about them.

This always contrasted greatly with the more insecure societies where I have lived and reported, such as Turkey, which has a razor sharp antennae for international praise or perceived slight (“How dare they!”), or Italy, where the angry reverberations of The Economist’s persistent critiques of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi once resonated far and wide. It’s hard to imagine a Corriere delle Sera hatchet job on David Cameron making the headlines here in the same way.

But that was then. Look around, and the British media now seems full of angry reaction to international comments.

Now, even the most parochial outlets feature pronouncements from hitherto unnoticed names, such as Verhofstadt and Barnier, and articles anxiously detailing foreign leaders’ views on our politicians.

Who hasn’t read about those Irish diplomatic leaks, where European politicians, from Latvia to the Czech Republic, lined up to declare the UK government unimpressive and chaotic?

The reporting of journals such as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which carried tales of May’s private dinners with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, are pored over for details that could define Britain’s 
future.

When the New York Times’ former London bureau chief, Steven Erlanger, wrote an article earlier this year, outlining his bemusement and despair at Britain’s embrace of “an introverted irrelevance” since the EU referendum – referring to a “hollowed-out country” engaged in “controlled suicide” – the British Twittersphere and the right-wing media erupted in angry retort.

It’s safe to say that, like most stories penned in foreign newspapers, it would once have sunk without a trace. But this time, even sanguine mainstream columnists felt the need to retort that Brits “don’t need to be damned by a Yankee” and that Britain had great things going for it, from charitable generosity and Oxford to women’s rights, Adele, a Muslim London mayor and fewer gun deaths than the United States.

It was an understandable cry of anguish at the recent Brexit-related negativity that, with increasing regularity, encroaches on the ‘We Are Winners’ bravado of ardent Brexiteers.

But it also seems part of a worrying trend for a nation once famous for its reasonableness, but becoming increasingly thin-skinned in a way that is dangerously changing the face of its public discourse.

This was noticeable before the last general election, when Prime Minister Theresa May made the extraordinary complaint that European leaders were conspiring to influence the result. It was as if a line had been crossed.

Of course, with Brexit the only game in town, it’s natural that they write about us and we notice. But our reaction has been fascinating. A case in point has been Dateline London, a niche discussion programme on the BBC News channel, mostly featuring foreign correspondents based in the UK.

It has seen its ratings rise steadily over the last 18 months. At least some of the those new viewers seem to have been Daily Express journalists, as the show has produced a series of choice stories for the paper, attacking the views expressed by guests from overseas.

These have included outraged articles about a “Europhile” calling the UK “a useless country” and the “anti-Brexit” contributors “mocking” the UK. A regular complaint is the number of Remain panellists, entirely missing the point that most international journalists don’t get Brexit and see it as dangerous self immolation – probably because, from any dispassionate, internationalist view, it is.

The atmosphere isn’t vicious, as in the days, 20 years ago, of the ‘Up Yours, Delors’ headlines, says Marc Roche, London correspondent of Belgium’s Le Point newspaper, but more perplexed, on behalf of those upset by them.

“The problem they have is that they recognise that some of the negative articles in the European press are because they can’t articulate their model of Brexit Britain. It’s an absence of knowing what they want,” he says.

The scathing commentary on the international stage is unpalatable because it juts up against an eternal belief that has sustained these islands and perhaps helped Britain consistently punch above its weight for so long: British Exceptionalism, that foundation of Brexiteers’ faith.

“I think there’s definitely a heightened sensitivity about this kind of coverage. There’s a strong thread of jingoism in the reaction which arises when (Brexiteers) are feeling insecure,” says economist Simon Tilford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform think tank. “But if Britain is so confident why react so strongly?”

And this is the point. In so widely dismissing Brexit as ridiculous, international coverage has created the strongest challenge for some time to the very idea of British Exceptionalism.

The examination of what the future might hold tends to show the obvious drawbacks of Brexit and the delusions that underpin that narrative.

“They tend to highlight the way that we have much to learn from European countries rather than escape from their awful embrace,” says Tilford, who has written an essay on British Exceptionalism.

In the tract, he pointed the finger not just at the supposedly pro-Brexit ‘left behind’ and the Brexit ideologues, but at much of the country’s elite as a whole – many of whom could fit into an urbane Remainer profile.

They had too little understanding of Britain’s economic strengths and vulnerabilities compared with other European countries. Even amongst supposed realists, a rosy picture of Britain’s history as a unique promoter of democracy and human rights has also long clouded their judgement, he wrote.

And indeed, the Referendum and its aftermath has led to a sobering sadness among some Remainers, who had been happy to go along with the ‘ironic’ Frog and Kraut bashing but are now finding that they, too, knew little about Europe and had not taken the trouble to find out or speak up.

It is the huge knock to this group’s former self assuredness which Brexit has delivered – as much as the traditional hair-trigger defensiveness of the usual British Bulldog brigade – which is changing the character of this country. And not for the better.

Suna Erdem is a freelance journalist and former Turkey correspondent for the Times and Reuters.

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