Whenever I returned from a visit to the continent in the 1980s and 1990s, my heart would sink as I approached the port or airport. For I knew that when I set foot on British soil I was likely to be confronted with an antiquated train that was dirty and smelly. These days I need to re-mortgage the home I don’t own to pay the fare. On the continent, the railways are fast, clean, efficient and reasonably priced. Everyone has a seat and no one stands. Those countries embrace modernity. This country mostly rejects it. We have one high speed line. That is all.
In 1970, when my father announced to the family that we were going to move from Germany to England, I wasn’t happy. I wanted to stay in Germany. I’d grown used to the country and learned to speak German. But if you’re a child growing up in a military family, you get used to moving every 3 or 4 years. You lose friends and you quickly make more. That’s the way it is.
When we arrived in England, I was surprised that little had changed since my previous visits in 1963 and 1967. The country was still fusty, curled up around the edges like a stale cheese and pickle sandwich. Many television programmes were a source of horror and I was appalled to see white men blacking up and singing minstrel songs in 1970! I was disgusted when I heard comedians tell jokes about “nig nogs” and “pakis”. Grown up men telling jokes that schoolchildren whispered to their mates on the playground. Grown men!
People were still complaining or making jokes about the Germans. The attitude toward the French was no better. Other European countries also came in for abuse. No one was safe. But there was no justification for this superiority complex. None at all. It seemed that Britain was resting on its laurels; always harking back to the 19th century and the days of Empire. “This country kick-started the industrial revolution”! “We invented the railways”! So? What are you doing now?
Britain’s post-war governments had tried and failed many times to join the EEC. Now European nations must be wondering why they bothered in the first place. But in the 1970s Britain persisted with its application for membership and because the biggest obstacle, De Gaulle was cold in the grave, it was finally successful.
So on Wednesday when Cameron appeared before the cameras to announce that he would give the British people a say over the EU, it reminded me of all the times I’d heard jokes about the Germans and the French. On Twitter, the Europhobes crowed. They started popping the corks – prematurely, of course. Some started talking fondly about the Empire. “Oh, those were the days”! “We should never have given up Inja”!
Britain is not a modern country. The parties of the right are obsessed with the days of Empire. They refuse to face the future, because it’s much more comforting to look to the past. But it’s not a past that exists in either the bowdlerized history books beloved of Michael Gove and Niall Ferguson or the popular memory. It’s a past that’s formed entirely out of the nothingness of nostalgia; it’s shit and dust. The Tories and their ideological cousins, UKIP, are incapable of doing anything but looking backwards and in doing so, they want to drag us back to some mythological age when there was “free trade” and “civilization” was dispensed from the barrel of a gun.
And with the talk of a referendum, comes the Churchillian rhetoric about “fighting them on the beaches”. Plucky little England against beastly Europe. These people demand Imperial Preference from an Empire that no longer exists and “free trade” that isn’t free. The thing is, in spite of what our Europhobic friends say, Britain still trades with its former colonies. Today when I visited the supermarket, I saw Anchor Butter (from New Zealand), New Zealand lamb, Sri Lankan tea and coffee from Kenya – openly on sale. Who says that Britain doesn’t trade with these countries? UKIP does and so do Europhobic Tories.
It was a Conservative government under Edward Heath that took Britain into the EEC. The Labour Party was mostly opposed because they saw it as an institution dominated by bankers and bosses. By the 1980s, the Labour position had changed because of Thatcher’s anti-union laws. The EU was gradually seen as a bulwark against the excesses of rapacious neoliberalism, though it was pretty much hopeless, because those laws were passed (so much for a “loss” of sovereignty) and trade unions were forced to comply.The Tories complained that Britain would lose its sovereignty. It didn’t.
The Tory-supporting media drives the debate on Europe and it would be wrong to suggest that it doesn’t. It would also be wrong to suggest that many British people are well-informed about Europe. They aren’t. If you tell that to a member of UKIP, they’ll tell you that you’re being “patronizing” but they’re in denial and they’re arrogant. Just have a look at the papers: they all say the same things about Europe and the EU.
The alleged ban on curved bananas was a myth fabricated right here in Britain. You see, Britain can still manufacture things, even if those things are completely wrong or useless. The press continues to make up stories about Europe and the EU. Take this example quoted by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian.
I can only shake my head in dismay. How can we have a sensible and rational debate about the EU when our “free” press prints lies like these?
I’ve said in a previous blog that the EU isn’t perfect. But when one unpacks the narrative of the right’s opposition to the EU, one uncovers the sheer hatred of foreigners and immigrants that lies beneath rhetoric about sovereignty. I see plenty of comments on Telegraph blogs that do nothing but bleat about “purity” and how Britain’s culture is being destroyed by immigrants. Like it or not, this country is a nation of immigrants and it is all the better for it. But it still isn’t a modern country.
What really galls me about the UKIP and Tory Europhobe argument is their tendency to insist that there is a consensus of support for their position. But this consensus is entirely imagined. They talk of the “people” but they have nothing but contempt for the people. They demand a referendum on the EU but they won’t give us a referendum on austerity, the cuts to education and the selling off of the NHS to medical companies. Their obsession over Europe and the EU is pathological, perhaps sociopathic. Even a psychoanalyst would say so.
As for modernity, it’s resisted at every turn. Right-wing politicians and businesses (including Registered Social Landlords) operate like feudal overlords. The poor, the unemployed, the disabled are all dumped on. Those with the least means are saddled with massive debts and high costs. Modern? Hell, Britain isn’t even civilized. A socialist acquaintance told me years ago that “Britain was the last colony of the British Empire”. He was right. We’re all living under the heel of rapacious colonizers and little empire builders in a country that refuses to grow up and enter the modern world.
Europhobes cry “Many people weren’t old enough to vote in the Common Market referendum of 1975”. The people who use this line are the same people who weren’t old enough to be Tory MPs during the Thatcher years, but who now insist on forcing through policies that not even that government could get away with.
We need a proper grown up debate on the EU, not more lies, mischief-making and scaremongering by the press.