Not only does it sound like something full of fibre you might have with milk for breakfast, this month’s meme, the “Brexit”, is set to stir the bowels of the country and, no doubt, unleash an unholy amount of sh** from the mouths of politicians, dinner bores and people with comical accents over the next months.
The leave campaign has already won the first battle in framing the debate with the catchy Brexit name. It’s not, after all, the Bremain debate, or the EurO.K. vote, we’ve not even got a mock Beatles anthem exhorting us to, ‘Let it G.Be’.
Forty years ago the campaign stickers against joining the European Union said ‘EEC Ugh!’ which was either too clever, or too Beano, to convince the UK to remain out of Europe. Even using a word that struck terror into Tories across 70’s Britain didn’t seem to stem the country’s enthusiasm for joining the ‘Common Market’.
But even as our ties with Europe have grown and we have got used to their filthy food and foreign ways, our relationship has never been less than dysfunctional. We’ve always acted like the moody teenager who whined to be let into the party only to spend the rest of the night sulking in the corner complaining about how rubbish the music is. And on that one note, as it often is, we do have a point; as Eurovision proves time and again.
In the four decades since we joined, did Europe ever become us? Or has it always been ‘us and them’? Seventy years after WWII, the animated map in the opening credits of Dad’s Army still reflects our attitude to Europe more accurately than any number of think-tanks or focus groups. You can count on the “Leave” campaign posting a YouTube rehash of the animation, within minutes of a referendum date being set, to the tune of, “Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Juncker.” Because, like a nation of Basil Fawltys desperately trying not to mention it, I don’t think any of us have really been able to get over the war, or at the very least put it in context.
We see Germany at the centre of the “European project” and it feels like we’ve never been able to forget our exasperation at Britain’s post-war policy of magnanimity in victory (implemented to avoid a repeat of the German resentment after the reparations for WWI fuelled WWII). As Noel Coward echoed the annoyance of the time, “We must be sweet, And tactful and discreet, And when they’ve suffered defeat We mustn’t let them feel upset, Or ever get the feeling That we’re cross with them or hate them, Our future policy must be to reinstate them. Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans.”
And reinstate we did. But instead of feeling proud of the seventy years of peace in Europe that have ensued, our distrust of Germans, and by extension Europe, is as sceptical and shellshocked as ever. Even Merkel’s attempt to open doors to Syrian refugees, which could be from the most honest of humanitarian motives, is seen completely differently from this side of the channel: it’s guilt, obvs! Clearly an over-reaction trying to right the wrongs of the Holocaust. Too little too late Fräulein!
Forty years in Europe and we’ve never stopped sneering, we’ve delighted in mocking the garlic snail eaters and the lederhosen sporters. Modern Europe, as far as the national dialogue reflected in the tabloids seems to go, is a cultural dustbin. Europop will always be ludicrous; as long as we make an exception for the likes of Snap!, Abba, Roxette, Ace of Base, Daft Punk, Kraftwerk and, let’s face it, U2. The whole concept of Eurotrash, and the TV programme that examined it for over a decade, brilliantly exploited our sneering; all those odd Germans wife-swapping, and doing peculiar things to their genitals. We Brits wouldn’t do any of that, we’re far too superior. It’s not like this is the nation that invented dogging or anything. Oh hang on.
The online Urban Dictionary defined Eurotrash as, “A human sub-phylum characterized by its apparent affluence, worldliness, social affectation and addiction to fashion. Males are characterized by a semi-slovenly appearance (including half-shaven faces), greasy hair, rib-hugging shirts, tight jeans and loafers worn without socks. Women are easily distinguished by anorexia, over-bleached hair, gaudy jewelry, plastic surgery (particularly breast-enlargement) and their attachment to the male species. Both sexes greet each other with “air kisses,” immediately speak of their last trip (often Paris, Rome, Majorca), spend hours at “see-and-be-seen” restaurants and exhibit a world-weariness and pained sense of irony.” If that doesn’t sound like everyone featured, right now, on the aspirational “side-bar of shame” on the nation’s most read website, Mail Online, I’m not sure what does.
The truth is that our clear vision of Eurotrash has been quietly slipping away as we have gradually embraced café culture, the Shoreditch Hipster, cheap Ryanair flights to obscure European airports, George Clooney’s Grand Tour, and motorways clogged with Vorsprung durch Technik.
We still sneer, but maybe with a little less venom than we did in the last century. Psychologists will tell us that sneering is a very human way to deal with fear, a way to assert our superiority over the things that scare us. And maybe the Brexit question is born out of being afraid, not just of losing sovereignty or adopting straight bananas but, perhaps, that there is some long buried latent distrust, an uneasiness, that there’s a Blitz waiting to happen all over again.
With the croissant and coffee quaffing, audi driving ‘urban elite’ (a hate-phrase beloved of the Daily Mail) lined up to vote to stay, and the job-shorted UKIP supporting working class desperate to change things, it looks like we’re in in for a classic British, class-lines drawn, North-South, ding-dong. It will no doubt be decided, as ever, by the huge swathe of Britain that considers itself middle-class caught between reality and the delusion that they share the same aspirations as the one percenters. The Brexiters will attempt to reignite the sneer and the fear, whilst the fay southern poshos will adopt a Kiss-A-Kraut message.
Personally, and maybe because I’m one of the ‘soft Southern shites’, I get the feeling it’s all a little too late. Just as it seems impossible to all, except the most extreme zenophobes, to imagine the return of an exclusively white anglo-saxon Britain, can we really construct a British identity that doesn’t include, at its heart ,the Tesco baguette sitting next to the crusty farmhouse loaf?
First published in