Britain has never been a small, dull, grey island... until now

PUBLISHED: 09:00 09 January 2018 | UPDATED: 15:27 16 January 2018

(L-R): An image from the film Dunkirk, and playwright William Shakespeare. Photo: Cover Images/Archant

(L-R): An image from the film Dunkirk, and playwright William Shakespeare. Photo: Cover Images/Archant

Archant

YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN argues that Britain is part of Europe’s progressive, enlightened and savage history.

If you really want to annoy Nigel Farage, accuse him of hating Europe. I did that some years back on the LBC, and he went a bit bonkers. We were on Iain Dale’s show, reviewing the year – I think it was 2012.

EU membership came up, and I said (perhaps being a vexatious minx) that unlike the then UKIP leader, I loved Europe. Farage got cross, turned a funny colour, called me a “stupid little girl” and then pompously declared that he was against the EU not Europe. The ads came on. I said I would leave unless he apologised for his gratuitous insults. I got a grudging apology.

Since then, this hideous right-winger, successfully led us out of one of the world’s most audacious, pan-national blocs. And yet he still proclaims his ‘love’ of Europe. Why, he worked for a French company, did business in Italy, goes on hols to various places across the diverse continent, married a German – from whom he is separated – and fathered two bilingual kids. (Being a gentleman, he does not mention the French woman, he has reportedly been living with).

Such Leavers see Europe as their hedonistic playground, just a cheap hop away from their own heavily-guarded small kingdom. Crass and shallow, the jingoists – most of them English – think they can have it all. They barely understand their own country and even less so, multifarious and sophisticated Europe.

With the sea beckoning, Englanders have never stayed within a tiny, proscribed land mass or culture. They have long been restless, covetous, curious, promiscuous, eager for connections and expansive experiences. Shakespeare, our nation’s voice, reworked European sagas and myths. Imagine Shakespearean plays without Rome, Venice, Padua, France, Spain and Greece.

Our greatest British writers, though the centuries, felt part of European civilizations, the renaissance, the reformation and the age of enlightenment. The royals are German. Prince Phillip is Greek. So Charles, William and Harry are born Europeans.

How on earth were those who voted for Brexit persuaded that we were never truly European? It was a mix of arrogance and ignorance, a very English amalgam.

As Andrew Marr wrote many years back, the English have long “felt themselves to be better than the hot-blooded, untrustworthy and unstable peoples around them. The Anglo-Normans were the unifiers, the builders of world beating institutions, the grown-up race”.

And that’s the point of this column. The noisy Brexit gang lied not only about money and immigration, they wilfully repudiated most of the historical and cultural ties that bind us to the mainland.

Deep arteries transport lifeblood from there to here and vice versa. But our nation barely registers this perpetual, pulsating exchange. Brits are emotionally attached to the world wars, but do not even realise that the EU came out of that darkness.

As the journalist, Tom Peck, wrote in the Independent, generations have been taught that: “Britain was somehow at its best when its young men were fighting… against the nations that are now our friends and neighbours”. Farage urges youngsters to go see Dunkirk; David Davis evoked the war last year to infuse us with patriotism and post-Brexit ardour. That’s all we need to know folks, apparently.

Europe’s history is inhuman and savage, as well as enlightened and progressive. We Brits have been part of all of it, from exploration, slavery, colonialism, to the endless conflicts, cold war to globalisation.

London was built by Romans when they occupied and controlled the land. Vikings settled in England in AD 793. By the 13th century, our market towns bustled with French, Venetian, Flemish buyers and sellers.

Dutch and German brewers supplied beer to Brits. The Black plague of 1348 killed almost a third of Britain’s population and Europeans flooded in to fill labour shortages.

Do most Brexiters realise that despised and persecuted French protestant refugees helped set up the Bank of England? Or that in the Tudor and Stuart periods, European artisans, scientists, artists and inventors settled in England? Several members of the Royal College of Physicians were German; Austrians taught at Oxford and Cambridge, the father of the great engineer Isambard Brunel was French and so on and on. Read Robert Winder’s seminal book, Bloody Foreigners to learn how Europe made Britain.

Rudyard Kipling, a complicated, tormented English imperialist, saw the perils of his nation’s foolish pride and senseless prejudices. His words resound today as never before:

Winds of the World, give answer! They are whimpering to and fro-

And what should they know of England who only England know?

The poor little street-bred people that vapour and fume and brag.

They are lifting their heads in the stillness to yelp at the English flag.

Those street people, ill-taught, used and betrayed by manipulative scoundrels, cut us off from our continent. And they still vapour and fume and brag.

Sadly, few of them will ever see the light or admit they were wrong. So bring it on – the dull small island life, grey, inward, with shops full of pies and chips and blue passports in our bags. Groan.

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