The latest spasm of anti-French hostility, provoked by border delays at Dover over the weekend, is so depressing because it’s so familiar. I’ve heard it all my life. British politicians never get the bill for their nasty rhetoric. It’s the kids in school who pay (like me, once), the people who speak another language in public, or who just look as if they don’t belong in the eyes of those who think they do. For years, I’ve heard people say that Brexit was not about xenophobia, and I know that it’s a complex, historic, cultural phenomenon. But I know too that with each new cycle of its revolutionary self-consumption, I have felt less welcome—and I am a citizen, how must it be for those with only settled status?
Many British people are convinced that the rest of Europe envies Britain and wants only to bring it down (or now to ‘punish’ it for leaving) but I see no evidence of that. On the contrary, throughout and beyond the EU, I’ve met only warmth and admiration for the British (well, perhaps not always in Ireland), as well as some bemusement in recent years. The Brexit diehards have torched a lot of goodwill, but I think the UK would still be welcomed back if it wanted to rejoin (it won’t).
And I understand why—there’s a lot to love and respect in British culture, thought and history I am at home in the land of Jane Austen and Daniel Defoe, Stanley Spencer and Laura Knight, the Quakers and the Rochdale Co-Op, Shakespeare and Lenny Henry, Perpendicular Gothic and terraced houses, the Fens, the Dales, the Downs and the Lakes, George Orwell and Arthur Conan Doyle, Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Proms, Jerseys and Oxford Downs the NHS, Free Houses, best bitter, tea, chip shops and cheddar—I could go on, but you get the picture. If you’re British, you’ll have your own. It’s the Britain of tolerance and forbearance, democratic in practice not only in posture, unimpressed by money or title, phlegmatic, temperate, and slow to anger, stoical, brave and decent, at once radical and slow to change, fair(ish) and law-abiding, independent but willing to give a hand or a home to someone in need. whether their name is Marx, Zola or Pevsner.
This Britain has been on the defensive my whole adult life, attacked by its nasty alter ego, the piratical, imperial freebooter, entitled and arrogant, still unreconciled to the idea that anyone might not choose to be under its dominion. it’s Dr Jekyll vs. Mr Hyde. And Mr Hyde has been in charge for several decades, talking to himself and getting drunk on the silence.
Between 1973 and 2020, Britain’s membership of the European community allowed me to live and work in both countries of my identity and heritage. That is increasingly difficult. When I go back to England this week, I will have to show first my French passport and then my British passport to prove my right to be where I am. It’s been a painful decision, but if I’m forced to choose, I will live within the European Union. It’s where I am at home; it’s where I have never been made to feel unwelcome, even by those who see me as British.
Such a good piece François, and maybe you are right about re-unifying. But, but, seeing everywhere around me people who believe passionately in the essential good of a united Europe including whatever remains of the United Kingdom, my own instinct is that one day, after the current confused Labour leadership and rabid Tory leadership have faded into memory, the inescapable logic of reunification will prevail. It won’t be quick, 15 or 20 years or more probably, but I do believe it will happen, as surely as day follows night.
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