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.
©BANANA PANCAKE/GETTY IMAGES
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.
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.
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.”
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.