A Europhile Brexiteer takes the Grand Tour
A journey through Europe was an opportunity to gauge reactions to the referendum
We just did the Grand Tour — again. All the way from Royal Leamington Spa to the Ionian Sea and back, a little under 4,000 miles. Our 18th-century predecessors used to take three years over it; we did it in a little over three weeks. And whereas they did it once we were doing it for the nth time and there was no need to go to Florence and Rome. Instead, we travelled by way of Lucca and Lecce, Matera and Mantua, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Baden-Baden. Our route roughly duplicated that which I first travelled with my parents so long ago that there were no tunnels under the Alps: we crossed from France to Italy over the Mont Cenis pass (Cenisio on the far side). In both cases we came back over the Brenner Pass, which has no tunnel and is just a long grind. I was particularly curious to see if there was anyone still on the Mont Cenis pass since the Frejus Tunnel was built underneath it. And there are, of course — bikers, relishing the turns and gradients and the absence of large vehicles. When they get to the top and take off their helmets it turns out that they are by no account young people.
What was different about this version of the tour was that it was our first since the Brexit referendum of June 2016 when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. For decades we had travelled Europe in the knowledge — a knowledge permeating the ether of our minds and relationships — that, whether we liked it or not, we were in the process of “integrating” with other European countries. Now we were engaged in the reverse process. Even if one didn’t want to think about the subject it would have been very difficult to avoid reading it into many things, from attitudes to exchange rates. In this context it must be noted that the Tour was not by any means our first post-Brexit European expedition. We had actually spent about 20 per cent of our time on the continent in the year since the vote, including a long trip south from late summer 2016 into the autumn. So far as I know, there is no equivalent European word for the North American “snowbird”, but the phenomenon is common enough.
I should also remark, as an ex-social scientist, that one can’t build anything solid out of anecdotes about Brexit conversations, though they are often suggestive. For example, the first night we spent in France after the referendum was in Evreux in southern Normandy. We talked to the two old ladies at the adjacent table in our hotel’s restaurant. They were Parisians who had spent their lives in Paris but had now moved out because the city was “uninhabitable”. They were surprised to see us because they believed that the port of Calais was now closed whereas we had come through it, uneventfully, some hours earlier. Actually, this confused two news stories: Brexit and the closure of the “Jungle” of Calais refugee camps. They entirely sympathised with Brexit as it would enable the British to keep out “undesirables”, which their own state had failed to do. It was not worth pointing out that the undesirables they had in mind were almost certainly not people who had exercised their “freedom of movement” within the EU.
Actually, this has turned out to be our longest conversation on the subject, which is usually only briefly remarked or alluded to. A German innkeeper makes a heavy joke about it and then says rather sadly that he wishes our countries to remain close. A friendly Belgian couple discuss the matter overtly, but very moderately, seeing both sides of the question. And in Italy it’s never mentioned: one talks to Italians about food, football, tennis, art and architecture, but somehow politics seems permanently inappropriate as a topic of conversation. Even Italian political scientists preferred not to talk about politics. So when I discuss Brexit in relation to the Grand Tour my most interesting source is introspection. What do I feel about “Europe”? The senses of property and identity involved are complex, ambiguous and contradictory.
So let’s start with the simple, Pavlovian, responses and the English person’s drive south from Calais, the sense of freedom and “other” in the unspectacular countryside of the Pas de Calais and Champagne with its battlefields, slag heaps and wooded ridges. We always switch to French music as we drive; Charles Trenet features prominently. This first part offers the pure pleasure of anticipation, of the warmth, the landscape, the flavours and the people to come: the first night in a modest French town, walking the walls of the town to watch the sun go down and raise an appetite for dinner. Beyond that, our second and third nights on this occasion were among the mountains where we normally ski, looking at the marmots and the edelweiss on slopes and meadows which seemed both familiar and unfamiliar. We are the first guests of the summer and the landlady of the hotel is desolée that the restaurant is not yet open, but she cooks us a meal anyway and we talk; as it happens, we both have grandchildren who would be described as of “mixed race” if you insist on talking about race.
Similarly, on the Italian side of the mountains, the proprietor of the restaurant my wife has picked from the evidence is molto dispiace that he is full, but he does find us a spot and he ends up sitting at our table and proposing that we all go together to the Foro Italico next year. Italy is always surprising: there are the artistic surprises to be found even in quite ordinary churches and the musical surprises: in Jesi we went to a concert by the Bersaglieri brass band who (famously) can play while running and this is how they start the show. Or the gastronomic surprises of simple, Salentan peasant food — wild onions and “everlasting” bread. Or the highly unsurprising Puglian afternoons, cycling through the olive groves and swimming from the rocks. The continent of Europe is infinite and infinitely lovable. Lyrical Europe: it was all mine until Brexit took it away.
At this point I should confess that I not only voted for Brexit, but wrote and spoke in favour of it — on radio, television and in live debate, a very minor, multi-media show equivalent to peeing in the ocean, but there can be no hiding which side I was on. My wife and I both voted, as we did in the referendum on the same subject in 1975: as on the previous occasion we voted in opposite ways. In 1975 she voted against UK membership of the (then) European Economic Community essentially because she was anti-capitalist and I voted for it on equal and opposite grounds. In 2016 I voted against while she thought it was too late to change the situation and voted to remain.
Because I was often afforded little time to express my views I boiled my opposition down to three basic arguments. The first is that the unification of Europe is a deeply ideological and historicist project which is incapable of debating itself properly or of tolerating free thought. It is one of those many human crusades which tells you that the project is right, the project is the future, dissent is backsliding. It is a sub-class of the Whig Theory of History with strong similarities to its Bonapartist and Marxist antecedents. The doctrine or analogy of “Jacques Delors’ bicycle” says that if the pace of integration ever slackens we will fall. It is a doctrine which explains why the EU does things so extraordinarily badly; for example, it explains the biggest mistake of all, the inclusion of far too many countries in the single currency and the consequent sabotage wreaked upon the economies of southern Europe. No lessons have been learned: the current President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, still talks the language of ever-closer union.
The second argument develops the first: it is that the destiny of Europe according to this project closely resembles what sociologist Michael Hechter called “internal colonialism”. This posits a form of political union which concentrates political, economic and cultural power into a geographical “core” with the result that the remaining “periphery” then suffers from decay and a sense of subjugation. The thesis was developed to explain what happened to the United Kingdom (including Ireland) from the 18th century onwards, but it can be applied to the United States and — even more clearly — to Italy.
A version of the Whig Theory has informed us that the Risorgimento which united Italy was both good and inevitable, but this is winners’ history rather than good history and has been seriously challenged by the late Denis Mack Smith and, more recently, by David Gilmour in his book The Pursuit of Italy. Imagine an Italy which was not united: a Republic of Venice which was a prosperous commercial land and not just a damp tourist attraction. Or a Piedmont or Lombardy as rich and independent as their Swiss neighbour. A Kingdom of Naples (“the Two Sicilies”) — as southern Italians never chose a republic — as satisfying to the imagination as it was in the 18th century. Even ignoring Fascism, the record of united Italy is one of corruption, gangsterism and incompetence, a kind of cultural heaven living with civic hell. The danger is that Europe will become a Greater Italy.
Finally, I always tried to mention the truthful observation about human relations at every level offered in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbours.” It is much easier to love your neighbours when they knock on the door when they want to talk to you than if they acquire their own key and turn up whenever they feel like it. Or to love the Germans when they are not making your laws. Or to continue to love the Italians when the Camorra have no easy access to your banking system. Or to refrain from anti-Polish sentiment when gangs of Poles are not fishing your rivers to extinction. The “good fences” argument applies most clearly to migration. It is a fundamental principle of the EU that the citizens of 27 other countries have the same right to live in my country as I do. Of Americans who think that voting for Brexit was chauvinistic or even racist I would ask, “What percentage of US citizens would vote for a law which said that all ‘Americans’, from the Yukon to Tierra del Fuego, have an unequivocal right to live in the United States?” The US is a spacious land with plenty of room for immigrants compared with the UK.
And then there are the appeals to the “solidarity” and “cohesion” of Europeans. A German politician asks angrily and rhetorically whether the British really prefer Muslim Pakistanis to white, Christian Poles. To which I have to reply that when my granddaughter was seriously ill and in great pain last year it was her uncle from Pakistan who could calm her. And I might add that the three members of the cricket club of which I am chairman whom I find most helpful are all from Pakistan. (Poles and Germans don’t play cricket.) I co-grandparent with people born in Amritsar and Nairobi. My various relatives have lived on every continent except Antartica, whereas I’ve never been to Bulgaria and don’t know anyone from there. So to what aspect of my sense of allegiance is the presumption of “European solidarity” addressed?
To analyse the possible relations between Lyrical Europe and Political Europe raises questions which are both complex and emotionally charged, as questions of identity always are. One of the more straightforward observations which can be made about this is that there are bound to be fundamental differences between the generations. After all, I travelled around continental Europe for a decade and more when it was unequivocally foreign. We were stopped at borders and had our passports examined (and even stamped); we changed money and pulled a new phrasebook or dictionary out of the rucksack when we arrived in a new linguistic zone. (I still treasure the tiny dictionaries I carried with me, testimony to my then excellent eyesight.) All of this seemed natural, expressive of boundaries which were real and secure. There is no way that my youngest son, a former resident of Spain who is usually taken for a Madrileño when he opens his mouth in Spanish-speaking countries, is going to look at it as I do: he sees his right to live and work in Spain, something he had taken for granted, being taken away from him.
Incorporated into people’s sense of identity and sovereignty are senses of property — and of lost property —which I find both fallacious and dangerous. Americans take great pride in the size of their country, though most will never experience much of it and, for the most part, what they do experience is “the tyranny of distance”, as the historian Geoffrey Blainey described it in the Australian context. Argentines get emotional about the “Malvinas”, a bunch of damp islands which they have never seen and whose existence is entirely irrelevant to their real pleasures and problems. Serbs obsess about Kosovo. All of this is the irrational sense in which sovereignty is understood as a kind of property. I don’t get it: I am an Englishman, from a land of traders, emigrants, wanderers and imperialists. I positively love being somewhere else, on someone else’s territory. I want to be in a Puglian Puglia, not one that belongs to me as a “European”.
That is because there is an important alternative sense of property. To adapt John Locke, this kind of property is accrued because you mix your life with people and places. There is a “my” Italy because I slept on the beaches and in the haystacks of Italy when I was a teenager and because I learned Italian from the lorry drivers and salesmen who gave me rides. And because I go back so far with Italy that I remember a conversation with a respectable Torinese gentleman in which I asked him where I could find a pizza and he replied by remarking that only the scum of the earth ate pizza. (He lost that particular cultural battle.)
And there is a “my” France. I adore France and many of the best times of my life have been enjoyed there. Yet I regard the political and intellectual elite of Paris with consistent repugnance. We Grand Tourists can love without any sense of a need to integrate.