How I learnt to loathe England

A Dutchman reflects on what he’s learnt by living in Britain for the last six years—it isn’t pretty

by Joris Luyendijk / October 6, 2017 / Leave a comment

Listen: Luyendijk chats to Prospect Editor Tom Clark in our monthly podcast, Headspace

When I came to live in London with my family in 2011 I did not have to think of a work or residency permit. My children quickly found an excellent state primary school, and after a handful of calls we enjoyed free healthcare, and the right to vote in local elections. The only real bureaucratic hassle we encountered that warm summer concerned a permit to park. It all seemed so smooth compared to earlier moves to the United States, Egypt, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. Then again, this time we were moving in with our cousins—weren’t we?

We had arrived as fellow Europeans, but when we left this summer to return to the Netherlands we felt more like foreigners: people tolerated as long as they behave. At best we were “European Union nationals” whose rights would be subject to negotiations—bargaining chips in the eyes of politicians. As we sailed from Harwich, it occurred to me that our departure would be counted by Theresa May as five more strikes towards her goal of “bringing down net immigration to the tens of thousands.”

The Dutch and the British have a lot in common, at first sight. Sea-faring nations with a long and guilty history of colonial occupation and slavery, they are pro free-trade and have large financial service industries—RBS may even move its headquarters to Amsterdam. Both tend to view American power as benign; the Netherlands joined the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Shell, Unilever and Elsevier are just three examples of remarkably successful Anglo-Dutch joint ventures. I say “remarkably” because I’ve learned that in important respects, there is no culture more alien to the Dutch than the English (I focus on England as I’ve no experience with Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland). Echoing the Calvinist insistence on “being true to oneself,” the Dutch are almost compulsively truthful. Most consider politeness a cowardly form of hypocrisy. Bluntness is a virtue; insincerity and backhandedness are cardinal sins.

So let me try to be as Dutch as I can, and say that I left the UK feeling disappointed, hurt and immensely worried. We did not leave because of Brexit. My wife and I are both Dutch and we want our children to grow roots in the country where we came of age. We loved our time in London and have all met people who we hope will become our friends for life. But by the time the referendum came, I had become very much in favour of the UK leaving the EU. The worrying conditions that gave rise to the result—the class divide and the class fixation, as well as an unhinged press, combine to produce a national psychology that makes Britain a country you simply don’t want in your club.

I am terribly sorry for my pro-EU middle-class friends in England, and even more sorry for the poor who had no idea that by supporting Brexit they were voting to become poorer. But this is England’s problem, not the EU’s: the nation urgently needs some time alone to sort itself out. So when those first “Leave” votes came in, I found myself making fist pumps at the television.

On the morning of 24th June 2016 the middle-class parents at my children’s school were huddling together in shock over the result. One or two were crying quietly when a working-class mother I knew walked up to a well-to-do mother who had been canvassing for Remain. “OUT! OUT! OUT!”, she shouted as she wagged her index finger. Then she walked off in triumph, back to her working-class friends at the other end of the playground.

Over the years, I had learned she was a warm person, yet on that day something stronger burst out. She had used the referendum to try to smash that expensive middle-class toy called the EU and it had worked. At last, for the first time in decades, those who felt like life’s losers openly defied the winners, and carried an election. Now her country would have £350m a week to spend on the number one worry for people like her: the NHS.


I’ve seen a good deal in England which suggested that, just maybe, not all was well with the collective psyche—the in-your-face binge drinking, the bookies stoking gambling addiction on every high street, the abject but routine neglect of public housing which went undiscussed until the Grenfell Tower fire.

But that scene on the morning after the referendum encapsulates my disappointment with the country. Not only the division, but also the way it had been inflamed. Why would you allow a handful of billionaires to poison your national conversation with disinformation—either directly through the tabloids they own, or indirectly, by using those newspapers to intimidate the public broadcaster? Why would you allow them to use their papers to build up and co-opt politicians peddling those lies? Why would you let them get away with this stuff about “foreign judges” and the need to “take back control” when Britain’s own public opinion is routinely manipulated by five or six unaccountable rich white men, themselves either foreigners or foreign-domiciled?

“In-your-face binge drinking and gambling addiction are tell-tale signs that not all is well in the English psyche”

Before coming to Britain I had always thought that the tabloids were like a misanthropic counterpoint to Monty Python. Like many Europeans, I saw these newspapers as a kind of English folklore, laying it on thick in the way that theatrical British politicians conduct their debates in the House of Commons. Newspapers in the Netherlands would carry on their opinion pages articles by commentators such as Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash—giving the impression that such voices represented the mainstream in Britain. Watching QI before coming to the UK, I remember seeing Stephen Fry banter with Jeremy Clarkson and imagining the former was the rule, and the latter the exception. Living in London taught me that it is the other way around. George Orwell is still correct: England is a family with the wrong members in charge.

Read how Brexit will threaten national security—and why the government isn’t paying attention.

This has been a bitter pill to swallow for this Smiths fan who grew up in the 1980s on a cultural diet of Tolkien, Le Carré, The Young Ones, Spitting Image and The Singing Detective—these books being available in every library, and the programmes carried by our national broadcaster. I never knew much about French culture and politics, so if I had discovered that these are vile it would have meant travelling a far smaller mental distance. But the English? They were our liberators, a term still used more than 70 years after my mother saw the “Tommies” enter her home town of Eindhoven.

Until the tabloids are reformed and freed from editorial interference by their plutocratic owners, the rageful misunderstanding that I saw in the school playground will not go away. Tabloid readers will sometimes see through the bias on particular issues and against particular people, as many did when they voted for the demonised Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in June. But when it comes to Europe and the world beyond, the campaign of chauvinism has been so unremitting, over so many decades, that it is much harder to resist. And as things stand, the journalists at those publications could never come out and admit that they have misjudged Brexit—that would mean not only losing face, but very likely losing their job. Indeed, where is the investigative reporting about the exact quid pro quo when Rupert Murdoch or Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre come out in support of, say, Theresa May? Most British journalists, with a few noble exceptions, are too terrified of the press barons to pursue such questions.

Time out: Britain needs a period of self-reflection

That scene at my children’s school last year showed up another side of English society: entrenched inequality. In the Netherlands, schools are not ranked, and nor are universities. Sought after secondary schools and universities use a lottery to decide who is admitted—the opposite of the generally hyper-competitive and market-based English model. (There have been experiments with school lotteries in England, but these have run into outrage because of the perception that giving every child an equal chance is—in some unspecified way—profoundly unfair.)

“The Brexit vote was the logical outcome of a set of English pathologies”

You could, if you’ve been as frustrated by the Dutch educational system as I was, characterise it as institutionalised mediocrity. But the good thing about it is that it really doesn’t matter for your identity or your prospects exactly which school or university you went to—not in the way it does in England. Dutch people are unfamiliar with that English ritual where two highly educated people try to work out which one has the edge: state school or private? Oxford, Cambridge, or some other place? If Oxbridge, what college?

I have seen plenty of English middle-class parents jump through crazy hoops to get their children into the “right” school. I have seen friendships ripped apart when one couple sends their daughter to a private school and the others do not. I was not surprised to read that Jeremy Corbyn’s second marriage collapsed over the question of whether to send his son to a selective school.

Read Jay Elwes on how May’s speech was the perfect metaphor for a country which has lost its voice.

It is quite ironic that a nation that gave the world the term “fair play” sees the fact that rich children receive a better education than poor ones as a perfectly natural thing. I remember asking around at the Guardian, where I had been hired to investigate the City of London, why this progressive newspaper did not put the school system centre stage. This is how the elites clone themselves, is it not? The answer: most of our management and prominent writers went to private school themselves and most are sending their children there, too, so that would invite the charge of hypocrisy. I struggle to blame those former Guardian colleagues knowing that two thirds of all top jobs in England today go to the 7 per cent of children who have attended private schools. Are you really going to sacrifice your child’s prospects to make an individual stand which will change nothing?

Nor do I blame working-class people for seething at a system where by the time you are 11 the die is cast, and where—to add insult to injury—you are constantly told that this is a meritocracy where all that counts is hard work and being “aspirational” (a word that does not even exist in Dutch). And one in which you hear everyone talk about “public schools.” That is like calling a taxi a form of “public transport” or indeed, naming dilapidated zones of social housing “estates.” (Seriously, middle-class Englanders, how will you ever straighten yourselves out if you can’t even say what you mean, and mean what you say?)

If I were English and working class, the loaded dice and the accompanying cant would make me very bitter—a bitterness that was cleverly harvested by the “Leave” camp. Yes, there were factors beside class that bore on the vote: voters in London and Scotland broke for “Remain,” and pensioners broke for “Leave.” But class was central: the connection between voting “Leave” and having finished education early was just as strong as the endlessly-discussed age dimension. And the same bitterness will, surely, be harnessed again until the root cause is addressed.

There is another, final, side to this class system à l’Anglaise. It seems to breed a perspective on the world that is zero-sum. Your class system is a form of ranking. For one to go up, another must go down. Perhaps this is why sports are such an obsession. There, too, only one can win. It was striking for this Dutchman to see an innocuous school dance be concluded with the designation of a winner. The result: all the other eight-year-olds went home slightly or clearly annoyed for not having won. Why not just let them dance? There seems to be in English culture—with its adversarial courtrooms, and its parliamentary front benches two swords’ length apart—an almost reflexive need to compete, to conclude a process by declaring a winner. The expectation that English children will learn to put a brave face on the hurt of losing doubtless deepens the scars.

The English consequently struggle to understand the “one plus one is three” concept of co-operation so fundamental to the EU. The word “compromise” has an almost negative ring in English popular culture; the idea gets dismissed as “fudge,” rather than a worthwhile outcome that can help everyone save face.

Building barriers: Britain’s school system benefits elites. Images: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES, LUKE MACGREGOR/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Could there be a causal relation between English hostility to the EU and this wider adversarial culture? Does it make English soil especially fertile for those press barons to plant their seeds of slander? I began to wonder about when this hostility began to hurt. I was surprised by this feeling since, until then, I had never given much the European side of my identity much thought. I have often heard Muslim friends say that it was only the attacks of 9/11 that had made them Muslim. Suddenly everybody regarded them as Muslims and so over time, they began to feel as such. Something similar happened to me when the EU referendum campaign started.

I began to realise that there are powerful people in England who actively want the EU destroyed. They are full of aggressive contempt for everything the Union stands for. Even David Cameron could not bring himself to go to Oslo with other EU leaders to receive the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. Given the deep competitiveness of the English, it may be that they need the EU to feel superior; we may have lost the empire and be less than 1 per cent of the world’s population but… at least we’re not “Yurup.”

Hear Joris Luyendijk discuss this piece on the Headspace podcast.

This attitude then justifies the enduring ignorance about the EU, its member states and European culture generally. “We don’t even know who they are,” shrieked Brexiter Andrea Leadsom during a televised debate about the EU’s so-called five presidents. You could tell she thought this was a really good argument to use: we don’t know who they are, so that must be their fault.

The superiority complex feeds a sense of entitlement, which Cameron played to by demanding “concessions.” The word says it all. Apparently membership is a favour of the English people to the EU and in exchange there must be rebates, opt-outs and special status. Every “Remain” as well as “Leave” supporter that I have spoken to automatically assumed I would be against Brexit.

Consider that Brexiteer line—the EU “needs us more than vice versa.” It’s abject nonsense, as was the presumption that after the Brits voted to leave, other EU countries would follow.

In October last year Peter Foster, who is the Europe Editor and an increasingly-rare measured voice on the Daily Telegraph, wrote an article calling on Theresa May to “accept publicly that the European side has as much right to guard their interests as the UK does.” He then continued that, “It might also be worth acknowledging, that, on balance, the EU27 also has more power to protect its interests in these negotiations than Britain does.”

Just imagine the French centre-right newspaper Le Figaro or its German equivalent Die Welt publishing an opinion piece pleading with its readers to understand that “the British people have national interests, too.” The thought would never occur. That is the difference between England on the one hand and serious European countries on the other.

This, then, was how, for the first time in my life, I began to feel European. Though no pro-EU federalist, I was suddenly being defensive over something I had never actively supported. In fact, I think there are good reasons for the Netherlands to leave the EU, just as there are good reasons to stay. The EU is a dilemma full of trade-offs. But what I do think is that if the EU is to become truly democratic it needs to conduct an honest and open debate about what it wants to be, and then build the structures to go with it. An existential debate of that kind followed by either dismantling or reinvention requires good faith. This is almost entirely missing from the English side where “Remain,” too, campaigned on the promise that the UK could veto any further integration. Hence my support for Brexit.

Ever since the referendum, friends from across the world have been enquiring whether it is true that the British have gone mad. Without those six years in London, I would have unhesitatingly said “yes.” “A temporary bout of insanity” still seems the preferred explanation in much of Europe and among many British Remainers. But years of immersion in English culture and society have convinced me that actually, the Brexit vote should instead be seen as the logical and overdue outcome of a set of English pathologies.

Which brings me to my real anxiety. It is extremely difficult to see a scenario in which this whole Brexit saga could end well.

The Tories are seared by Europe, as they have been for a generation, only now with more intensity; Labour looks incapable of overcoming its own divisions on the question. Neither party dares to speak the truth to millions of people who have voted for a “have your cake and eat it” option that was never on the menu. How to carry out the will of the majority when the majority voted for something that does not exist?

Legally, politically and logically the EU cannot give the UK the kind of deal that would draw this chapter to a happy close. Britain will pay a horrible price for a hard Brexit. The alternative should be a sweet soft deal, except that this will then encourage every EU member state to demand their own special arrangement, and that would be the end of the EU. The fact that even Remainers keep exhorting the EU “not to punish us” demonstrates just how incapable the English are of reckoning with anyone else’s point of view.

The one real alternative is that Britain reverses course, gets on its knees, and begs to be let back in. This could be the most dangerous outcome of all. While the imagination of many “Leave” voters remain in the grip of the tabloids, any concession to the reality of national interests risks inflaming rage and cries of betrayal. As for the EU, it is first and foremost a rule-based organisation. If the rules around Article 50 were bent to allow Britain back in on special terms, then the whole edifice is undermined. Scotland should be let in if it wants, and Northern Ireland too. But England is out and must be kept out—at least until it has resolved its deep internal problems. Call it nation building.

Now read Stuart Ward on how Britain’s imperialist mindset clouds its self-perception.Go to comments


  1. Adrian B.October 6, 2017 at 21:04As a European first, British second, and English last, I agree with almost all you say. Earlier today, I wrote the following, as part of a longer piece: “Humans instinctively look for patterns, everywhere. No doubt, this is linked to the survival instinct. Observing patterns helps with predictive powers. For all of us, the future is open and uncertain. But understanding the odds, and reading the game well, provides an edge. An edge can make all the difference. Before the referendum, I knew it could go either way. And still the outcome was completely unexpected. Not for the first time, the mind was way ahead of the heart. For some time before the referendum, and certainly after it, there has been a seismic shift in our nation. A slipping of social and political tectonic plates. A sharpening of weapons. A hardening of attitudes. An alignment of wholly different philosophies across a fault line in the fabric of society. A temporary suspension of ancient hostilities between right and left. To make way for the birth of new and more intensive hostilities between Leavers and Remainers. A broken economic model, an ever growing inequality between the rich and the poor, those who are comfortable and those fighting the poverty line, have given impetus to protest. And rightly and inevitably so. The problem now is that the common good has been lost in the pointless trading of abuse and insult. The trivialisation of matters of national and international importance lend a kind of surreal quality to what are real questions requiring real solutions. All the old certainties about Britain, its general pragmatism and tolerance, its inclusiveness and diversity, its compromise and common sense, are gone. We are now engaged in a bitter civil war of ideology. Words and hearts and minds. The people who won are so angry, sometimes because they have been losing for so long, and they are very dismissive of the people who lost. Slowly, inexorably, the people who lost are striking back at the people who won. Be very clear: this is a war, the chaotic state of being that the European project was designed to prevent. It is often said that the pitch of the battle is between the reason of the Remainers, and the emotion of the Leavers. But that simply isn’t true. After the referendum, like so many others, I was inconsolable. I grieved. And still I grieve. This is not the product of reason, but emotion. Remainers plead reason, but bleed emotion. The tragedy lies in shared values loved and lost, connections cherished and broken, good things cast aside, a whole way of life and internationalism rejected and discarded. A project that has secured peace and prosperity for so many people, for so long. Something noble, intrinsically worthwhile, bringing nations together, despite their immense differences. A great vision never fully realised. Imperfect, but like democracy, so much better than all of the alternatives. ” Something is coming to England which will drive change. It cannot remain as it is. It needs to find positive values, and build a better, more socially and economically just society. Right now, England is in the wilderness. I wish you health and happiness in your homeland.
    1. Eva TannerOctober 7, 2017 at 14:23Thank you so much for this helpful text!
    2. Timothy BOctober 7, 2017 at 23:05I have some sympathy with your argument – and share your broad position on Brexit, which I think the worst public decision of my lifetime (I am 71) but I wonder whether the changes in national attitudes that you point to are so recent – or perhaps whether the past that current attitudes are contrasted with is as mythical as the never-never land of the Brexiters’ imagination. I used to think that the England that I grew up in (I cannot speak for Scotland) was balanced, commonsensical, even-handed, tolerant etc, and I have for some time lamented what seems to be the disappearance of these qualities. But if things changed, they certainly didn’t change in June last year, and I increasingly wonder whether it was something of a myth that this was the national character anyway. Perhaps all that happened is that the vote has legitimised the expression of feelings of superiority, xenophobia and ignorant isolationism that were always there but suppressed. I have never been a nationalist, and if forced to choose a label would choose European above anything else, but never before have I felt quite so uncomfortable with being British.
    3. Timorous BeastieOctober 8, 2017 at 08:51Sad to say I agree with everything you say. I believe the seeds of what England and to a lesser extent Britain has become were sown in the Thatcher years when the dominant themes were greed is good,no such thing as society and maximise your own wealth now by ensuring you participate in your own wealth creation by buying national assets at prices discounted so far you can’t fail to then sell shortly thereafter at a huge personal profit . As a Scottish resident things are not so bad here but as witnessed by the recent strong rise in support for the Conservative party in Scotland (already visibly wilting) we mustn’t be complacent.Hopefuul we can find a way to stay in.
    4. Pieter BrusselsOctober 9, 2017 at 11:42Thank you for sharing your intellectually superior ideas through these eloquently expressed feelings.
    5. WSOctober 10, 2017 at 17:55Far too much hate in this article. Loathe is a very strong word. The EU is fundamentally undemocratic its primary legislative body the Commission isn’t elected and it’s parliament is structured around patronage and public funding for selected groupings designed to concentrate power at the centre of the spectrum. The EU has sought to concentrate power for itself and weaken the nation states first by taking over trade policy, then external borders using Shengen and latterly monetary and fiscal policy. In his State of the Union speech Junker indicated more powers will be centralised, with veteos and opt outs being further diminished. It’s also worth remembering that the real influence in the media is the liberal elite, the billionaires who through political patronage and control over technology exert vastly more influence on politics than the Newspaper barons. The only mistake the UK made was getting so snared in the tentacles of the EU there is now a piece of work to free ourselves. Don’t expect the EU to act for the people or economies of Europe it needs to punish the UK before she proves a simple trade relationship is far superior to EU membership.
      1. Ben PattersonOctober 12, 2017 at 15:56This is a wonderful example of how the Leave vote rested on complete ignorance of how the EU actually works. The Commission is not the EU’s main legislative body. In fact it is not a legislative body at all! Just like most modern systems, the EU legislature consists of two chambers: the directly-elected European Parliament and the indirectly-elected Council, representing the Member States. Primary legislation needs to be voted through by both. Andthe European Parliament, elected by broadly proportional systems, is arguably more representative of the EU electorate than the House of Commons is of the British. As for the House of Lords….
      2. TyblingsOctober 15, 2017 at 12:28Thank you so much for writing this comment. You have encapsulated, perfectly, how I feel about the present situation.
      3. LindaWNovember 11, 2017 at 11:43Totally agree. An illuminating article but at its core a huge misunderstanding of British values. Our society is in need of adjustment and is in the process of re-finding our positive values to build a better, more socially and economically just society – the values we lost by becoming entwined with the EU. ‘..shared values, connections, a whole way of life and internationalism rejected.’ This is not how I see leaving the EU but what happened when over the years of being a member of the EU state! We were head of the Commonwealth, promoted free trade around the World, influenced development in Countries and cities around the World. We were a happier nation when we were connected to people with whom we shared values and language – Canada, Australia, New Zealand. In the EU we lost our voice and our confidence and became subservient as has Greece, Italy and Spain. Brexit is nothing to do with class, age, money or education it is a fight against disrespect and repression and for self-determination and if we succeed others will follow.
  2. James ODonnellOctober 7, 2017 at 08:50As a EU critic I hoped and was pleased the UK voted Leave primarily because I think with the UK still in with a 52/48 vote for, the paralysis would continue and there would be no chance of it making the transition from exposing citizens to insecurity rather than protecting them. I would trace it back to the Danish No to Maastricht when the UK lead the counterDelors resistance on the “do more with less” notion which meant EU-enforced regulation but with none of the protective tools that were needed to balance it (a smaller budget with greater needs than 1994!). Imagine the Cameron/Osborne line at the first post referendum won Summit. Sure there are risks for all with Brexit but for the EU, at least there’s now a possibility.
  3. Will HOctober 7, 2017 at 09:48It’s a great article. But there are a couple of generalisations. Firstly not all English (I hate calling myself that now) Remain supporters think that the UK should have concessions, opt outs, or a veto. The UK should have the same rules as everyone else. You can’t have a club where one member has special terms. Secondly I’m aware from a lot of street level campaigning that many EU citizens in Britain support Brexit, sometimes passionately so. In some cases they are nationalists themselves, other times they do think that the EU is better off shot of the spoilt, belligerent British (English). That the EU27 can now move on is possibly the one good thing to come out of Brexit. The English have too many hang ups, empire fantasies, a mixture of both inferiority and superiority complexes (how they love it when they sometimes beat the Germans at football, although never in the really important games, 1966 excepted). There is this reality disconnect that we can do better out of the EU, because we’re bold and British. It was the EEC and North Sea oil that saved Britain back in the first place. It is a screwed up country, with problems on so many levels, including wealth unbalances. I feel sorry for young Brits, but perhaps in years to come, and with a different mind set, Britain could rejoin the EU.
  4. David PatersonOctober 7, 2017 at 09:50It is a fascinating (and a little ironic) to see a piece written by a Dutchman that spells out – almost word-for-word – what could easily be the content of a textbook or course on intercultural communication and understanding and specifically the chapter that highlights the key differences between the culture of the Netherlands and England. For example his description of Dutch “low context” communication style and the underlying cultural values “Echoing the Calvinist… cardinal sins” Is spot on (though he missed a description of the opposite English “low context” style which abhors the risks of conflict caused by directness). As is the contrast between the adversarial and competitive nature of much of English culture and the compromise and cooperative nature of Dutch. These are very well known differences in that field. The other thing that is very well known is that such differences (especially in cultures that are otherwise quite similar) tend to become jarring and hard to deal with mainly in circumstances of stress where they become more obvious and more polarised (e.g. in the aftermath of a contentious referendum). The slight irony is that the Dutch have been disproportionately influential in this field of study and practice for many years (Hofstede, Trompenaars) and it is a little surprising that a well educated Dutch journalist seems completely unaware of the subject and surprised to find that he wasn’t quite as similar to the English as he thought. If he had read the Dutch original version of Geert Hofstede’s “Software of the Mind” before he left NL he might have understood it better.

Kazan- Kazan National Research Technical University Казанский национальный исследовательский технический университет имени А. Н. Туполева he graduated in Economics in 1982

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