An ugly wave of racism has been unleashed in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and, given the explicit appeal to anti-immigration sentiment used by the UKIP and Tory elements in the ‘out’ campaign, it is easy to explain the outcome of the vote as a simple expression of xenophobia.
Yet the left Brexit (Lexit) campaigners are adamant that this is not the case and their arguments are backed up by some evidence. This documentary, for instance, shows sincere, thoughtful, class-conscious working-class people (in this case, veterans of campaigns against pit closures in a Yorkshire village) repeatedly and convincingly insisting that they are not racist, by which they mean that they are not hostile to immigrants. On the contrary, their hostility is directed squarely at ‘Europe’ and the neoliberal politicians in the UK (including the Blairites) they see as in league with it.
What has struck me throughout this debate has been the extent to which Lexit supporters, like others across the British political spectrum, insist on seeing ‘Europe’ not as a terrain in which different players (including the UK government) advance and negotiate different positions – part of the same broad political field in which other decisions are made, whether at local, regional or national levels – but as some alien, autonomous body, impervious to pressure from below, which imposes its diktats from afar.
In puzzling about why this should be the case, it occurs to me that this may be partly the result of a very different kind of xenophobia. Not the racism directed at refugees and immigrants who are seen as undercutting native workers in the labour markets, or claiming shares of increasingly scarce public resources, but another, peculiarly British, kind of xenophobia directed at what might be called the European officer class.
Popular perceptions of Eurocrats bear many striking resemblances to portrayals of German officers in films and television programmes from the mid-20th century that are still shown today: cold, clever, bullying, unfeeling, sticklers for the rules and possessing a power that cannot be challenged directly but must be subverted by courage, ingenuity and humour.
Dad’s Army, the sit-com set in World War Two is still shown on BBC2 most Saturdays (the last episode was shown on June 18th, five days before the referendum). I imagine there are few British people who do not know by heart its theme song ‘Who do you think you’re kidding Mr Hitler, if you think Old England’s done?’ and, in their heads, echo Bud Flanagan singing ‘We are the boys who will stop your little game. We are the boys who will make you think again’. And any channel-hopper looking for an alternative to sport on television on a rainy weekend afternoon is liable to come across yet another repeat of The Great Escape, Mrs Miniver, The Dam Busters or another of the countless films set during the war, which formed the perceptions of ‘Europe’ most obviously for those who grew up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (and who, perhaps not coincidentally, were most likely to vote ‘no’) but must also have penetrated the consciousness of younger generations.
‘Allo, ‘Allo, with its crude stereotypes not just of Germans but also of French and Italian people, is not shown so regularly on the main channels these days, but there must be few people over the age of 30 who are not intimately familiar with it and its cast of characters. Its portrayal of the Italian Captain Bertorelli buttresses that of southern Europeans in other programmes (like the Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers) to confirm a notion of incompetence and incomprehension that might (I am guessing here) not just characterise the British stereotype of Mediterranean people but also resemble some German ones too – for instance the idea of Greeks (who statistics show to be the hardest working people in Europe) as lazy, profligate and corrupt. In the UK referendum debates Greece was much discussed, as a victim, with some elision between the idea of a bullying Germany and a bullying ‘Europe’. This can be read in part as solidarity with fellow victims of austerity against neoliberal aggression. But it also has parallels with earlier popular British reactions to what was seen as German aggression, such as the widespread sympathy for ‘poor little Belgium’ when it was invaded in 1914.
Put together, this confusing jumble of stereotypes creates an idea of Europeans that is simultaneously sinister and comical: to be taken very seriously as a threat to independence and democracy; but not to be taken seriously at all as fellow members of a forum in which intelligent debates can be held and decisions made. Underlying this is an unspoken assumption of British moral and intellectual superiority.
This is an attitude I have come across again and again since I started working on European research projects in the 1980s. Though grateful for the money, and for the chance to meet in beautiful and historic locations, many British academics I came across showed a sneering condescension to their European colleagues. In several fields it was assumed that non-British ideas would not be new (obviously anything original and worth saying had already been published in English-language journals) and that only the UK partner had the overview. The view was often expressed that any old thing would do for a European report. It was something that one was contractually obliged to deliver but not worth wasting original thought on. Some thought that their main role was to put others’ work into good English, writing superficially and journalistically, correcting linguistic errors, highlighting empirical results and avoiding theorising (the notion of big theory as somehow unBritish still has a strong hold in some quarters).
Things have changed quite a lot in recent years, I am happy to report, but a lot of this is due not so much to new and enlightened thinking among native-born academics but to the way in which younger generations of scholars across the rest of Europe now write and speak English so fluently, and are so well-read in the English-language literature, that they can no longer be patronised. It is perhaps in no small part due to this development that few academics figured in the Lexit camp; most now have first-hand experience of collaborating with colleagues from other countries in ways that have generated mutual respect and, at least in the social sciences, an understanding of the need for solidarities.
In other occupations people have less direct contact with continental counterparts in their daily working lives and their views are more likely to be shaped by experiences on foreign holidays, where their encounters are with people whose jobs are to serve them, or with officials.
It is particularly ironic that we may be seeing the triumph of a brand of xenophobia that sees European politicians as a combination of dangerous totalitarians and ridiculous buffoons at this particular moment. Because what we are faced with in the UK right now is the prospect of a government run by precisely such dangerous totalitarians and ridiculous buffoons. In a reversal of the adage that says tragedy comes first, repeated as farce, might we now see Chaplin’s farcical Great Dictator about to become a tragic reality?