30 March, 2017

It's not EU it's me......!

Theresa May's letter (in English) is given to its Polish
addressee at his office in Belgium!
On my lap top are three news agency icons: the BBC, The Guardian newspaper and Associated Press one of the American news agencies. Each morning as I make the early morning cup of tea at about 6.30 am I open up my lap top and glance at each to look at the headlines for the UK, Europe, the USA and the wider world. Today, as I expected, the BBC and The Guardian were dominated by the various items about Brexit. Associated Press, not to my surprise, had mostly US dominated items. It did, however, have the headline that most chimed with me about Brexit; they seemed to have got it just right. Maybe it proves that a more accurate assessment of any particular situation can be made from standing back and seeing the bigger picture. In this case maybe the view from New York is rather more accurate than our own perception here in the UK and Europe. Associated Press’ headline was: “It’s not EU it’s me: UK files for divorce after 44 year marriage”.

As I read the header I shook my head in both sorrow and anger – it was exactly right. With yesterday’s triggering of Article 50, effectively setting out the divorce proceedings between ourselves and the EU, we are like two partners in a failed marriage ridding ourselves of each other. The important phrase to me, however, was “It’s not EU it’s me...” – a clever rewriting of “It’s not you it’s me”. Within that header is all that you need to know about the Brexit debacle, Brexit supporters and the state of modern Britain: namely, you are unimportant it’s me and my desires that are paramount.  Like the selfish husband or wife who sees only their interests as of importance and have no notion of the partnership, the feelings involved,  the give and take element of a marriage or of the vows that they made in entering the arrangement so, too, Brexit campaigners, the delusional wing of the Tory party, the right wing media and all those who mindlessly voted for Brexit in last year’s Referendum have consistently reflected the same selfish me, me, me view of life so prevalent in modern western society – and especially so in the UK
The Sun's headline - no more to be said about its or Brexit motives

Overnight all the pundits have been hard at work analysing the letter written by Theresa May to trigger Article 50. Presumably May and her ministers and civil servants  worked long and hard at setting out the various points that they wished to make concentrating as much on what they didn’t say as what they did. There was an immediate response from the EU and from the pundits highlighting various controversial issues in the letter such as issues of international security and the exchange and cooperation on issues of crime and terrorism.  The Sun newspaper this morning ran the disgraceful headline “Your money or your lives” – in other words give us (the UK) what we want in the Brexit negotiations or we will discontinue work with your security agencies and thus put European lives at risk from the terrorist and crime threat. The newspaper went on to say: “...the Prime Minister would be crazy not to use our peerless anti-terror security services as a bargaining chip. Some critics may be disgusted... We need to play every decent card in our hand, and security is one of our strongest.” Of course government ministers raced to distance themselves from this, assuring the populace and the EU that this was never their intention, but the damage was done and for me it shows up what Brexit is – a total shambles. The letter triggering the break from Europe is undoubtedly the most important document written by a British government for years – its precision and implications had to be exactly right both in word and spirit, no ifs no buts. By acknowledging that the letter did not mean what the Sun said it did – and certainly politicians and pundits across Europe and the UK took the meaning that the Sun did, that Theresa May was issuing a threat to Europe – the Brexit government was also acknowledging that they got it wrong, they did not strike the right note. Well, if that be the case then in my book they are either incompetent because they did not get it right or despicable because they actually meant it and are now trying to deny it having been caught with their proverbial trousers down. I’m not sure which, but I suspect it is both. And the shambles didn’t end there. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor also quickly pointed out that the UK’s demand for negotiations about both our withdrawal from Europe and the initiation of new trade deals were unacceptable. The so called “parallelism” would be a non starter. Frau Merkel told reporters in Berlin: "The negotiations must first clarify how we will disentangle our interlinked relationship... and only when this question is dealt with, can we, hopefully soon after, begin talking about our future relationship".  European newspapers virtually without exception, greeted the Brexit letter and its contents with a mixture of pain, puzzlement and predictions that the coming two years of negotiations could get nasty – especially if the UK resorts to what they perceived as “blackmail” over issues like security cooperation.
They were not wrong, for this outlook and position of threats and blackmail has characterised virtually every meeting and summit that we have had with our European friends and colleagues over the last 44 years of our European marriage. For as long as I can remember we have been unwilling to be equal partners in Europe always wanting special concessions or a bigger share of the pie. And, like badly behaved children, we have stamped our feet and sulked when we did not get our own way. The era of gun boat diplomacy that so characterised the British Empire of the Victorian age when Prime Ministers like Palmerston threw their weight about in Europe and across the world and threatened to send in a good old English gun boat if we did not get our way are still lurking in government and alive and well in national psyche.  We may not now send in a gun boat but, like the bully on the playground, we still seek to throw our weight about and find it impossible to cope when we do not get our own way; the worm in our national sub conscious, tells us, that  we, the English, (I choose my word carefully) are best. We might laugh at the old Flanders and Swann song “The English” but it still rings loud, clear and sadly believed in the ears, hearts and minds of the Tory party, UKIP, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph readers, and in jingoistic, flag waving pubs and bars across England:

The English
(Flanders & Swan)

The rottenest bits of these islands of ours
We've left in the hands of three unfriendly powers
Examine the Irishman, Welshman or Scot
You'll find he's a stinker as likely as not

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

The Scotsman is mean as we're all well aware
He's boney and blotchy and covered with hair
He eats salty porridge, he works all the day
And hasn't got bishops to show him the way

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

The Irishman now our contempt is beneath
He sleeps in his boots and he lies through his teeth
He blows up policemen or so I have heard
And blames it on Cromwell and William the Third

The English are moral the English are good
And clever and modest and misunderstood

The Welshman's dishonest, he cheats when he can
He's little and dark more like monkey than man
He works underground with a lamp on his hat
And sings far too loud, far too often and flat

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

And crossing the channel one cannot say much
For the French or the Spanish, the Danish or Dutch
The Germans are German, the Russians are red
And the Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed

The English are noble, the English are nice
And worth any other at double the price

And all the world over each nation's the same
They've simply no notion of playing the game
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they've won
And they practice before hand which spoils all the fun

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

It's not that they're wicked or naturally bad
It's just that they're foreign that makes them so mad
The English are all that a nation should be
And the pride of the English are Chipper and me

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

Flanders & Swann - brilliant - but their gentle humour has a barbed point

Yes,  all a bit of knock about fun. Nothing wrong with that we might chuckle. Except, except....... if one looks a little closer we have form on this in a number of areas. Our glorious National Anthem is a case in point. ”God save our gracious Queen.....” we are enjoined.........   Well, I’ll put aside my republican reservations about how in a parliamentary democracy such as ours, where the basic underlying principle is that every man and woman is supposed to be equal, yet we tolerate a national anthem that is asking a God to somehow “save the Queen”. In other words we are asking an entity (a deity) that arguably doesn’t exist to somehow preserve an entity (an hereditary monarch) that arguably shouldn’t exist in a parliamentary democracy based upon equality!  Why should we save her, I wonder? Does she need saving? Is there a shortage of Queens so we must preserve what we have for some sort of regal “rainy day”? But it doesn’t end there; unlike the EU anthem based upon  Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”,  there is nothing in our anthem of the virtues, ideals or aspirations of our country or our people.  Instead, if one reads all the verses, not just the first verse, which is the one usually sung,  it is not only to do with lauding and pouring rewards onto the preserved  monarch’s head it also has some very unpleasant words and ideals, encouraging aggression and pouring scorn and destruction on “knavish”  foreigners – notably the “rebellious Scots”:

God save our gracious Queen
Long live our noble Queen
God save the Queen
Send her victorious
Happy and glorious
Long to reign over us
God save the Queen

O Lord our God arise
Scatter her enemies
And make them fall
Confound their politics
Frustrate their knavish tricks
On Thee our hopes we fix
God save us all

Thy choicest gifts in store
On her be pleased to pour
Long may she reign
May she defend our laws
And ever give us cause
To sing with heart and voice
God save the Queen

Not in this land alone
But be God's mercies known
From shore to shore
Lord make the nations see
That men should brothers be
And from one family
The wide world over be.

From every latent foe
From the assassins blow
God save the Queen
O'er her thine arm extend
For Britain's sake defend
Our mother, prince, and friend
God save the Queen.

Lord grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
Victory bring
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God save the Queen

The undercurrent of anti-foreigner feeling is alive and well in the UK and especially so in England. The Brexit campaign brought it out into the open with a vengeance bringing a rise in hate crime, a rise in general intolerance and a suspicion of our neighbours. Watch English TV any and every week and you will not have to wait long to see a programme harking back to the World Wars – their unsubtle message invariably the same, how the good old brave and fair minded British saved the world from itself and brought  light and salvation to those poor, demented and wayward foreigners; these films and programmes will repeat time after time the message that the Frogs, the Krauts, the Wops and the Diegos are inferior, rather pathetic, not to be trusted and responsible for most of the world’s ills. Watch our football fans abroad and how each game is seen as a battle to overcome these European teams who so often are better than us – too often it brings games not only on the pitch itself but pitched battles on the streets of host cities and xenophobic headlines in the right wing press.
Punch's view of how to treat foreigners

England and the wider UK have a proud and glorious history but as a nation we are blind to our weaknesses and failings and with a misguided sense of our worth. So much of our history and how we today see ourselves is self centred. Maybe we can explain it because of our island geography – we always have been a little removed from mainland Europe, we have rarely had to suffer the invasions and the great sweeps and movements of people that most other European nations have experienced. Our island home has been both a barrier to the impact of other powers and influences but has, at the same time, given us a warped view of the outside world giving us too often an air of superiority. This is not to deny the huge contribution that Britain has made to the safety and well being of Europe through the ages  but it also hides the absolute fact that there are many parts of our history of which we should not be so proud. In short we have not always been and are not the good guys we like to believe ourselves to be.  To paraphrase Flanders and Swann’s song: “The English are noble, the English are nice, And worth any other at double the price”.......well, not always.

This unfortunate sense of superiority, even though our history records many things of which we might rightly be proud, is what underpins the Associated Press headline and our relationship with Europe in general and the EU in particular over the past 44 years of our marriage.  It has not been 44 years of wedded bliss; like it or not we have had and still have an arrogant “Me, Me, Me, self importance and ego centric attitude towards our near neighbours and assume that they must agree with us on our terms. This is not a recipe for a successful partnership of any kind where one partner has to constantly acquiesce to the other's demands, needs and desires! Maybe, if we had spent the last 44 years talking to our friends and neighbours in the EU rather than talking at  them they might just have been more willing to see the world in our terms. We have brought this catastrophe firmly upon ourselves; we might like to think that we are in charge and demanding our exit from Europe but I suspect that deep down, although we might be missed economically there will be some communal sighs of relief in Paris, Berlin and Brussels – and rightly so.

A few months ago shortly after the Brexit voter a senior politician from Europe had the temerity to suggest that any negotiations on Brexit between the EU and the UK might be conducted in French or German – after all it was we, going cap in hand, who were seeking to withdraw, from Europe. For me this seemed a perfectly reasonable idea; after all if I lived next door to a man who was not English and I wanted to ask his advice or to borrow something of importance then the least I could do, it seems to me, is try to address him in his own language. But this is England 2017 and the suggestion made by the politician simply drew a howl of protest from the tabloid press, UKIP and the delusional Tory Party; “We are English – foreigners should learn our language!” squealed the tabloids”

It speaks volumes of our relationship with and our respect for other nations when our schools and universities are struggling to teach foreign languages mainly because as a nation we, and our children, perceive it as not very useful or too difficult. In a survey done a year or two ago it was found that only 48 of Britain's 1,900 diplomats are judged to have an ‘extensive’ grip of a language, meaning they are close to communicating like a native.  Another 145 have an ‘operational’ grasp, meaning they can live a day-to-day life in the country but may struggle with technical or academic information.  Fifteen are recognised as having language ‘confidence’ – defined as being able to read road signs and book a hotel room.  But incredibly  some 1690 staff, or 90 per cent of the Foreign Diplomatic Service, have no recognised language abilities for the country to which they are posted! We lag far behind most other countries – for example in Australia 50% of their diplomatic staff abroad are local language speakers. In India, whose government recently declared France the preferred bidder over the UK to build fighter jets just one UK diplomat could speak Hindi. In Pyongyang, North Korea, five British diplomats are posted there and are encouraging the regime to drop its nuclear programme. Sadly, they must be finding this somewhat difficult since just one has a beginner’s level of Korean. A number of British embassies, including in Cuba, Egypt, Malaysia and the Philippines have no diplomats recognised as speaking the local language. There are no diplomats registered as speaking Latvian in Riga, the capital of the European Union’s fastest growing economy. There is only one Arabic-speaking diplomat registered in each of Britain’s embassies in oil-rich Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

Despite these embarrassing   figures the government, in its wisdom, decided to close down the Foreign Office Foreign language School. One assumes the reasoning behind this is that everyone else must speak English, because as everyone knows that we are the best and speaking English is the best.....it’s what “good chaps” do!

I suppose, that when one looks at the letter sent by Theresa May to trigger Article 50 and realises that it is written in English yet it is addressed to Donald Tusk who is Polish and who represents an organisation based in Brussels in Belgium it tells us all we need to know about the respect that we have for other nations, their peoples and their language. But, why worry, we are leaving Europe and going into the big wide world where presumably foreign languages don't matter(!) we are superior, everyone must respond to us and our needs, learn and use our language, see things from our point of view, and where necessary touch their forelocks because  as Flanders and Swann suggest and everyone knows, “The English, the English, the English are best”.

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