Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between

Watching the fire on the horizon

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fireIt’s always a jolt coming home from a holiday. The wheels thud on the tarmac – a moment of relief that the plane has been designed, engineered and flown by experts – and then all those mundanities flood back: piles of washing to be done, the overflowing inbox, catching up on what’s been happening in the news whilst you’ve been away.

Hmm, the news. I was in the UK for little more than 24 hours of Brexit fallout before leaving for a week in Italy with my better half, and I’ve been doing my best to keep up. Even though this mess is going to be with us for years, everything seemed to be happening at lightning speed. In the Naples passport queue on Saturday afternoon there were some jokes – and some genuine uncertainty – from the Brits about whether we could still use the EU Citizens’ line, as if the referendum had been some sort of magic spell to cast the demon EU instantly out of us.

Even among those who warned Brexit would cause chaos, I think few saw this week coming with quite the ferocity that it did. There was a point that every time I checked my phone, someone new had resigned, put themselves forward, backed someone, betrayed someone. This was ‘taking back control’ only to find that the flight stick wasn’t connected to anything, and the plane was in a flat spin. And it was costing me loads in roaming data. That’s not something that’s going to get any cheaper now, I thought.

There used to be something reliably entertaining about a political crisis, watching the cut-price princes in their sub-Shakespearian grasping. It was more dismaying this time. On the train to ‘fair Verona’ I was reading about the Labour Party imploding.  From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.  All I could conclude was A plague on both your houses.

Whatever party, whichever faction, precious few seemed able to locate the national interest, let alone act in it. But maybe the ‘national interest’ is the problem in the first place.

I’ve always been an uneasy patriot. The Union Flag is a nice piece of design, but you’re not that likely to find me waving it. And we’ll need a new design now anyway once Scotland goes. I reach for a George Orwell / Billy Bragg sort of patriotism, and there are so many details that I love about my country and compatriots even if the greater whole often makes me feel more dissident than disciple. But this week, in Europe, I’ve rarely felt so embarrassed to be English (and specifically English at that). If anyone brought up Brexit, I was at pains to explain how I had voted, that I was a European, that I was sad, that I was sorry. How bloody English of me.

This feeling of embarrassment was strongest in Sorrento, with the reminder that the type of Englisher that so many of our European neighbours meet are those lobster pink baby boomers who can’t even make the linguistic effort to say grazie, buongiorno, una birra per favore.

But that’s pure snobbery on my part, right? Isn’t that the sneering privileged attitude that got us here in the first place? Shouldn’t I know better than that to judge like that? Shouldn’t I pay attention to the evidence that tells us that people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviours are shaped by their environment? And who am I to assume which way these people voted, just because they look demographically like Brexiters? But that’s what the referendum has wrought – suspicions and division. Because my attitudes, beliefs and behaviours are shaped by my environment too.

All the same I was silently pleased as I walked past a bar full of glum Englishers to see Iceland minutes away from victory in the football. It all seemed such a perfect metaphor for our national entitlement and incompetence. Iceland were underdogs, apparently without fear. The English, they want to be underdogs and dominant all at the same time. It ties us in knots. Like the spoilt Boris Johnson, we want to be pro cake and pro eating it, and end up with neither. (And no, I don’t have a metaphor for Wales.)

We have told ourselves stories both of world-conquering Empire, and about when we stood alone against European fascism. Except we didn’t stand alone. We were ‘alone’ because after a decade of shameful isolationism we had stood with our continental allies. And in return the Polish, Czech, French, and Belgian squadrons defended our skies with us. And now they get death threats and beatings from plainclothes blackshirts.

The most chilling comment of the week came from Marine Le Pen. “Look how beautiful history is,” she said to Farage. If you’re a fascist, you might agree with her. Crises are rarely kind to progressive causes.

History is beautiful, and terrible, and only selectively remembered. Italy alone was fragmented until the 19th Century, and this week we saw the 100th anniversary of the Somme. As an American writer (I can’t find the reference) once said, Europe is a charnel house with art.

But ‘what art!’ the nationalist might say, as if preparing a version of Harry Lime’s bogus cuckoo clock speech, the Ferris wheel creaking and tottering.

What philistinism too: the dull brutality of fascist art, the denunciation of innovation as degenerate. And visiting churches in Italy, where even humble chapels are adorned in the most astounding frescos, it was hard not to think of the English reformation and the break with Rome by Henry VIII (Rexit if you will). You don’t have to be a Catholic or even a fan of religious art to acknowledge the social and cultural vandalism that was unleashed in sixteenth century England in part in the name of removing the taint of foreign Papist influence. (Indeed the EU as a Papist conspiracy has been a theory held by some of the more swivel-eyed Eurosceptics.)

Italy knows a thing or two about political chaos. It also knows what can fill the vacuum that it leaves. In Naples you can buy T-shirts with Mussolini’s face on that say Molto nemici, molto onore (many enemies, much pride). Verona was centre of Axis control, resistance interrogation, and Jewish deportation in the war. In Padua there is fascist architecture among the Romanesque and Renaissance.

Does Brexit presage fascism in the UK – or perhaps somewhere else in Europe where the nationalists are straining at the leash? Unlikely, but the rhetoric that has led us here – the conjuring of half-imagined greatness, of national exceptionalism, of independence over interdependence – it’s all sinisterly familiar. Despite the saying, history doesn’t quite repeat itself: but it does replicate, mutating as it passes down the generations.

I spent my 40th birthday in Pompeii (insert your own joke about contemplating former glories and ancient ruins). I found myself thinking about the trouble the Romans had with the barbarians at the gates. This week Istanbul and Dhaka reminded us that barbarians are real. Discussions about the reasons for their barbarism are for another time, but sometimes the barbarians aren’t only at the gates. Sometimes they are already inside the city walls, until a fire in the plaza gives them permission to crawl out of their dark alleyways and attack other citizens because of the colour of their skin or the sound of their voice. And sometimes barbarians don’t look like barbarians at all. They masquerade as the people’s tribune, and with the very best Latin they incite the bonfires for nothing more than personal ambition, and are surprised when the city burns and their ambition with it. Or perhaps the barbarian is the treacherous consigliere who decries the experts for pointing out an impending disaster. I would have hoped that the people have had enough of these barbarians.

Too strong? Maybe, but it comes from the sense of how wasteful this feels, how unnecessary, how poorly thought through, how reckless.

And now where? Full Brexit, Brexit-lite, the EEA? The Norwegian we met at the opera in Verona (no, I’m not doing my image as one of the sneering privileged any good) didn’t have much to offer in the way of comfort. And that’s assuming we manage as good a damage limitation as to get us Norwegian terms. He just seemed surprised by the whole thing. He had thought Cameron was a clever man who had a clever plan. But he didn’t really care about Britain’s fate – why would he? He was more interested in the tragedy of La Traviata. Throughout the opera – held in the old Roman arena – a lightning storm played in the background, like fire on the horizon.

In an attempt at a defence of the Brexist mindset, it’s easy to understand how all this chaos, costly though it is, could be seen as a necessary catharsis (or praxis I suppose for Lexiters) that will enable a better future. I sincerely hope they/you can be proved right. I suppose we will never know. Once the dust has settled we will not have a counterfactual to compare it with. It will become more history that we only half-learn. I had hoped that a Remain victory could be used as a platform for reform of the EU (and real, collective reform, not just countries wanting special treatment in the Cameron model). Italy is comfortable in its European skin in a way Britain never has been, but they have their discontents too. Their Eurosceptic Five Star movement is run by Beppe Grillo, an actual comedian rather than some of our politicians who just look and sound like clowns.

Catharsis, praxis, definitely a crisis. Perhaps in the Hippocratic sense – the point in the progression of disease at which either the illness triumphs over the patient, or natural processes bring them back into recovery. The patient will certainly be changed. Sajid Javid said this week: “we are all Brexiters now”, one of many utterances that will be designed to exert a new normal, to whittle away the resolve of the 48%, as if a 4% lead is suddenly unanimous resolve.

But what do we do if we’re not ready to accept that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia? I don’t mean kidding ourselves that the result can be reversed in the immediate term, but trying to find a sense and opportunities for practical action as the smoke clears.

The 48% have been told to accept the result and move on, but if half the Tory party and the Faragists have been banging on about Europe for years, why shouldn’t it be our turn to do the same?

This from Winston Churchill, quoted in 1948, has been doing the rounds this week:

“We hope to reach again a Europe united but purged of the slavery of ancient, classical times — a Europe in which men will be proud to say, “I am a European”. We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and that without losing any part of their love and loyalty to their birthplace. We hope wherever they go in this wide domain, to which we set no limits in the European continent, they will truly feel “Here I am at home. I am a citizen of this country too.”

I have felt that for a long time. I felt it this week. I am determined to go on feeling it. But, against my wishes, it will be less true.

So I’m now back in this smaller island – that thudding return to the runway with a little more impact – and I still feel angry and frustrated. I will be more protected from the fall-out than many – in case you haven’t noticed, I do know my privilege. But none of us are immune from this national diminishment. If 17 million people do not wish to be European, fine. But what right do they have to remove the European citizenship of the rest of us against our will? (Serious question to my lawyer friends.)

For those with power who have brought us this to this point – the architects of the referendum, the Brexiters (declared and secret), the Remain campaigners too frightened to make the positive case for Europe, the immigrant-baiting press, the politicians who ignore inequality – they shouldn’t be confident that this anger will go away. It will only be added to the anger and frustration that helped incubate this vote. And they should think about what one of Italy’s most famous politicians, Niccolo Machiavelli, said:

 “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

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