They don’t politicise Union Jacks being waved at the Last Night of the Proms, accompanying a defiant melody, overflowing with pomp and circumstance. They applaud the vain attempt to remind everybody that if Britannia doesn’t rule the waves anymore, she certainly deserves to. Forgotten are the days of dark colonialism associated with Britain’s mastery of Neptune’s seas. And yet, not a stone’s throw away from the cradle of democracy and free speech, these very same people want to silence a festive display of colours, music and emotions, at the London Eye.
For Roger Helmer and others, the EU is akin to Argentinian dictators attempting to take over a piece of English soil. Before the Falklands War of 1982, of course, half the UK didn’t care less about the islands, whilst the other half couldn’t locate the archipelago on a map of the world. The conflict claimed 907 lives, and just under 2000 casualties. Quite comparable to the EU, it seems.
There was, indeed, a message, but not a political one. It was a human message calling for openness, tolerance, and love. The 3 million EU citizens who have made the UK their home, may need all the love they can get.
But the Brexiteers’ reaction to what they see as yet another provocation on behalf of those who want the UK to remain, underscores the fact that they have a deep psychological problem, when it comes to Continental Europe. I got this feeling when I finished studying at the French Lycée in London, and went on to university. I felt that there was a profound mistrust of anything associated with the Continent, as well as an attraction – or even jealousy – of the intellectual capacities and way of life of those living on mainland Europe. It’s as if the English Channel were responsible for Englishness and its associated insecurity that is masked by a deep sense of humour and self-derision. Once the waters were crossed, it was as if the English were entering a part of the world they did not understand, but were still attracted to. At the time, of course, the EU did not comprise countries from Eastern Europe. The enlargement of the union has made things worse, from an English perspective, but the fundamental problem remains the same. It is based on a lack of understanding, and something you don’t understand, you don’t like.
When I was at university, the jibes I received where mainly directed at the French. It wasn’t helped, of course, by the fact that the French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing – a French royalty, if ever there was one – was testing nuclear missiles right, left and centre. I particularly remember a teacher who just loathed the French, and then boasted how he drove all the way down to the South of France, in his Peugeot 404, stopping in picturesque villages, on the way down. I am sure that this ambiguous love/hate relationship with the French, coupled with an unforgiveness of the Germans, explains why the English hate the directives emanating from Brussels, directives that are seen as dictated by the French and Germans.
It seems, then, that the English have a double problem with the EU – (i) cumbersome French and German directives from Brussels and (ii) migration from former Eastern Europe member states. The latter is relatively new, dating from the EU enlargement to embrace a crumbling Eastern Europe. The former, however, dates back more than a century and two world wars, for the Germans, and just about a millennium for the French. The English have never forgotten the Norman conquest, in 1066, when the white cliffs of England, symbol of purity and invincibility, had been overcome by undisciplined and temperamental thugs originating from the woods of Europe.
English hatred of the French is almost genetic. The latter believe in their intrinsic superiority to everyone else, whereas the English just know theirs. England is a country that believes it can cook and enjoy good food, whereas the French just know about their culinary supremacy. And the list could go on, from games you think you can play well because you invented them, to the very way both societies are organised. But the irony of it all, is that nearly all these beliefs are misconceptions and do not reflect the reality of two countries that are intrinsically linked to each other. I may be generalizing, of course, and you may be able to give me examples of English people who just love France and the French. There are even some who go and live in France, forget about their Englishness, and write successful books about it. That may be so, but I still think that these people are exceptions to the rule.
The best thing I know between England and France is the sea. – Douglas Jerrold, The Anglo-French Alliance
Even though I have crossed the Channel with the ferry many times, it always remained an adventure, a feeling of crossing the line between two continents, between two worlds. It was so different to the land borders between countries on mainland Europe. I tried recapturing that feeling when travelling with the Eurostar, but to no avail. The magic had gone, England was no longer that special island. Its border was no longer so well-defined, and became no different to other European borders. Was the great divide being finally breached? Was Britannia finally accepting to hold Europa by the hand? Maybe she was, but the waters of the English Channel remain above the tunnel and, for the Brexiteers, it is this narrow stretch of sea that has become as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. England has outgrown the European Union, in the same way that she outgrew Europe, two hundred years ago.
The truth is that England has outgrown the continent of Europe. Her position is no longer that of a mere European power; England is the metropolis of a great maritime empire, extending to the boundaries of the furthest oceans. […] England has a greater sphere of action than any other European Power, and has duties devolving upon her on a much larger scale than those of the Continental States which may be her allies. – Benjamin Disraeli, 1868
With her eyes set on American demagogues and Far-East dictators, Britannia has set her sights on new horizons. Only time will tell if she is not blinded by the allure of a greatness that cannot be recaptured. In the mean time, though, the London Eye was not against Brexit, but crying over friendship and understanding that are in danger of being lost.