Half a century ago, when that military circus the Royal Tournament was a national institution, there was a contretemps after a visiting Italian officer discovered that his Bersaglieri must perform in a sand arena. He expostulated: ‘My men cannot run on sand !’. The chortling response of the Tournament’s director delighted countless owners of regimental ties. ‘They ran pretty damn fast on sand in 1941!’.
Amid the pervasive war legacy, many of a generation of British people spoke without embarrassment of jerries, wops and frogs. One of the best things that has happened to this country during the intervening decades is that most people with half a brain, and especially the young, have forsworn expressions of contempt for foreigners, seeing so much to admire in their economic, social and cultural achievements. If many EU nations now face serious political difficulties so too, heaven knows, do we.
Despite my own authorship of books about World War II, neither I nor most of my readers suppose that the fact we finished up on the winning side in 1945 entitles Britain to the undying gratitude of old allies, any more than we expect the losers to go on paying moral or political reparations for defeat, provided that- like the Germans though unlike, alas, the Japanese- they renounce their forefathers’ dreadful deeds.
Yet one of the ugliest aspects of Brexit is that it has generated a resurgence of casual abuse of foreigners, and of Europeans in particular. In 1990 Nicholas Ridley was obliged to resign from the Thatcher government after giving an interview in which he denounced the EU as ‘a German racket’.
Today, however, Tory politicians and their supporters express with impunity incomparably ruder sentiments. Jacob Rees-Mogg cleverly dismissed Jean-Claude Junker as ‘a pound-shop Bismarck’. The language of some other Tory backbenchers, according to their dismayed colleague Claire Perry, evokes that of jihadis, saying ‘Begone you evil Europeans’. The vulgar abuse directed at the red EU passport, the triumphalism about restoration of the old blue British one, would have embarrassed a 19th century jingo.
Jeremy Hunt’s comparison of the EU with the old Soviet Union gained special notoriety because he had previously been considered sensible. He said what he did because aspirants to the Conservative leadership feel obliged to express such views, to secure the support of the Colosseum mob conspicuous at the recent party conference.
In such circles xenophobia has once more become respectable and even admirable. Johnson is by no means the only figure who seeks to rouse the spirit of 1940, of plucky little Britain and a bulldog prime minister broadcasting scorn and defiance from the white cliffs of Dover towards repugnant or cowed continentals. A barrage of mud pies is directed against European leaders who decline to concede what many Brexiteers seek- continuing access to the benefits of EU membership without its burdens and frustrations.
To sustain all human traffic, whether personal, commercial or international, there is a requirement for respect. Relationships are overwhelmingly influenced by who makes whom feel good. It is almost impossible to sustain a successful friendship, marriage, workplace association or negotiation, without some show of appreciation of each other’s status and circumstances, whether sincere or no.
Unless we suppose- as perhaps some Brexiters do- that we can bomb or shell other EU nations into yielding to our demands, we must hold out to them the prospect of a courteous and fruitful relationship with Britain, if compromises can be reached. To this end civility is indispensable, heedless of whether we reject their integrationist aspirations.
We might go a step further, and occasionally display sympathy for what continental Europe suffered in both world wars, incomparably worse than our own tribulations, rather than indulge a feast of nationalistic triumphalism fed by movies about Churchill and 1940.
Consider the grace and statesmanship displayed by Anthony Eden when he was interviewed back in 1968 for that great French documentary Le Chagrin et La Pitie. Marcel Ophuls’s film addressed with searing frankness his country’s experience of Nazi occupation- and of collaboration. Invited to comment, Britain’s wartime foreign secretary responded in impeccable French that it was not for him, a citizen of a nation lucky enough not to have been occupied, to offer any judgement upon others less fortunate.
We can imagine the sniggering spirit in which a modern Brexiter and/or aspirant for the Conservative leadership, would today reprise such a discussion. To sustain the confidence of Moggians, Johnsonites and Faragists in the wisdom of shaking the dust of the continent from our shoes, he or she deems it essential to assert that Britain fares better in war or peace without importunate partners; that the modern continentals are making such an unholy mess of their affairs that we should mop our brows in gratitude that we can leave them to it. We are back where King George VI left off in 1940, asserting Pooterish relief that Britain was no longer encumbered by allies.
Yet those of us who travel frequently in Europe never tire of paying homage to so much that we see and hear there. Watching the new French film Les Gardiens, about the experiences of a farming family during the First World War, one feels a glow of pleasure that we are neighbours of the nation that produces such cinema. Italy is a political shambles, but every visit there provides new reasons to love and admire its people. The Dutch give an ongoing masterclass in how to be civilized internationalists.
What kind of Englishman in 2018 can offer rational justification for condescending to foreigners in general, Europeans in particular ? Yet that is what Tory politicians and newspapers do almost daily, before expressing outraged surprise that EU leaders at the negotiating table display no inclination towards generosity- or, more frankly, mercy. We should hang our heads in shame about the number of Europeans long resident in Britain who have either already gone home, or are preparing to do so, because they no longer feel welcome here.
Ten years ago at a Anglo-German Konigswinter conference, I heard the boss of Mercedes-Benz warn his British listeners, with exemplary politeness, that if we quit the EU, we might find it cold outside. Whether or not he was right, it is certain that our future will prove permafrosted, unless we can restore common courtesy to the language we deploy towards and about foreigners. In the future that we appear to have chosen, we shall stand in desperate need of goodwill from neighbouring nations which today a dismaying number of people deem it acceptable, or even brave and clever, to insult.
Originally published in The Times on 31st October 2018