This boil-in-the-bag Britain: We turn Eurosceptically squeamish without noticing how we have botched our identity

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The Independent Online
ASERIOUS, topical, critical intelligence lurks behind the amiable and odd BBC television series Pie in the Sky. The series concerns a policeman turned restaurateur - played by the incomparable Richard Griffiths - who is obsessed with the ideal of authenticity. In both his roles this ideal is constantly thwarted and abused. He cannot be an honest copper because his superiors are a repellent bunch of smoothies, low-lifers and trimmers. Equally his real food aspirations have to be pursued in a world that injects steam into stale bread and whose idea of haute cuisine is boil-in-the-bag sole and sauce. He is an idealistic loner destined to live in a trashed-out, sold-out world.

In the last but one episode the lurking intelligence made the point with two superb, haunting shots. In one a shabby caravan is parked in a field, a luscious green field that happens to be surreally packed with electricity pylons. In the other there is a horrible housing development complete with laughable Tudor details; behind, on a raised bank, InterCity 125s race deafeningly past every few seconds.

This England, said these shots, is a wrecked land, defaced by lines of power and communication in which the people have become either transients or willing prisoners in a hell of historical pastiche. This England is a pale echo of its former self. This England is untrue, unreal.

The series could be a deliberate critique of our European policy. For, beyond the quotidian, superficial fun of the politics, national identity is what the clash between Europhilia and Euroscepticism is about. And national reality will decide the battle.

The extreme Europhile tends towards the view that the past is past and the future lies with the big trading blocs of the Americas, Europe and Asia. Our identity is European and can be understood only in a European context. Soon, though this cannot yet be stated, supreme authority will reside in Brussels and an essentially protectionist superstate - now with a large enough home market to go it alone - will fight the necessary trading wars.

The extreme Eurosceptic position states that our true strength lies in our isolation from Europe. Historically, we have always benefited from a system of competing nation states - 'strong, mutually antagonistic governments everywhere', as Evelyn Waugh's Lord Copper put it. And, just 50 years ago, when those continental democracies were subverted by dictatorship, we stood alone. The past is never past. If taking years to build the Channel tunnel rail link makes us a laughing stock, then, fine, it just goes to show that we are eternally, irredeemably different.

There is a third position which might be called the Singapore Solution. This argues that Brussels, as the over-bureaucratised capital of an industrially sclerotic Europe, will eventually self-destruct. Our best option is to turn ourselves into a low-cost, fast-moving, offshore trading economy like Hong Kong or Singapore. But this is too culturally improbable to be taken seriously. It is best to stick with the primary Euro-postures.

Either of the extreme positions can find ways to claim to be the sole defender of the authentic Britain. But in general the hard Europhile is impatient with nostalgia and drawn to the visions of efficiency and transnational scale provided by Brussels. Westminster, with its fake Gothic and plush charades, is an embarrassment. In contrast, the hard Eurosceptic sees British sovereignty as uniquely valuable in the world. We have seen and done it all, we know, we have wisdom. Brussels, with its coffee lounges and empty contemporary pomp, is a corporatist and potentially totalitarian threat.

In such a conflict we can forget reason. Nobody is coolly arguing their way to these positions. Both sides are driven by images and unstated, probably irrational attitudes. You may not be either a hard Europhile or a hard Eurosceptic. But where you stand between the two will certainly be determined by your own unreasonable sense of national identity.

At the deepest levels of unreason the Eurosceptics are in power in Britain. I was told last week by constituency workers that the Tory membership is 'more or less' 100 per cent Eurosceptic. Equally, the only European story that stands any chance of making it into the tabloid press is one that is derisively, abusively anti-Brussels. One leader in the Daily Star last week was so virulent that, as the British Tories in Brussels were reading it, they made unconscious movements of shamefaced concealment.

This populist Eurosceptical rhetoric is the visceral, atavistic driving force of current British politics. John Major has to bow to its power with evocations of summer evenings and cricket as symbols of an irreducible England beyond the reach of Brussels. John Smith, meanwhile, dare not expose the true depths of his own Europhilia for fear of inflaming the Euro-loathing of his own voters. Even advertisers find it easy to show the smart Brit outwitting the stupid Germans in the race for the sun loungers.

Visceral Euroscepticism is a force that evokes the image of Britain as an island of common sense amid a raging sea of gesticulating, untrustworthy or viciously militaristic foreigners. It finds expression whenever any real or invented Brussels idiocy is exposed or when Torvill and Dean are robbed of gold by what is assumed to be the corrupt perversity of the foreign judges.

Yet, alarming as this may appear from Brussels, it is, in truth, paper- thin. Vicious, popular Euroscepticism is a profoundly artificial creation. In part, it arises simply because there is a right-wing government in power in Britain and the majority of both MEPs and Euro-officials are left-wing, so whipping up a degree of anti-Brussels feeling is no more than party politics as usual. It is worth wondering how different the words of the columns and leaders would have been if, for all these years, the right had been

in the ascendancy in Brussels.

But, more important, Euro-loathing is easy. The British have been irritated for the past 50 years by their relative decline and by being outperformed by the very nations they thought they had defeated. Something seems wrong with the country: it is an irate, discontented place. What could be easier, in such a climate, than blaming foreigners?

But this is scarcely deep stuff. The Second World War generation is dying and the young are travelling. Old scars have healed over and, actually, Europe looks rather nice. Deep in the irrational realm where European inclinations are decided, the gulf between scepticism and philia is narrow. It might only take the most fleeting of images to shift the balance.

And this brings me back to those bleak visions from Pie in the Sky. These and, indeed, the reality they capture, are bad news for the Eurosceptics. They signal a truth which we all know perfectly well: that, in the post-war years, Britain, either going it alone or as a semi-detached member of a looser economic community, has botched her identity. All too easily Britain subjected herself to a needlessly savage process of standardisation. Large swathes of the country are now indistinguishable from one another. Except in places where there have been extreme and, usually, over-contrived efforts at conservation, the country has become a motorway landscape. And as for our cities, well even the French with their love of big, modern architecture, gape in disbelief at what has been allowed to happen to medieval, Georgian and Victorian London.

And it is all done in the name of efficiency. Look how well our farmers do, look at the mad inefficiency of the Common Agricultural Policy, see how the selfish French resist Gatt. But where do you want to go on holiday? In an East Anglian prairie or the Dordogne? A year in Provence or in 100 acres of oilseed rape? OK, food must be efficiently produced and motorways must be built, but did we really have to sacrifice quite so much? Did it really have to be so cruelly done?

Worst of all, we turn squeamish at the idea of the dilution of British culture by European, but we seem scarcely to notice that we sold the lot to America some time ago. The basic, daily sight of modern, urban Britain is of a kind of mindless DIY overlay of a superficial Americanism on to a probably listed but totally concealed ancient base.

When all that is combined with the fact that public estimation of our institutions, even the Westminster so precious to the Eurosceptics, lies lower than ever before, then it becomes clear just how paper-thin our raging Euroscepticism is. The truth is that the ideal of national authenticity on which it really depends has become a joke. We do steam our stale buns and we do think boil-in- the-bag fish is pretty smart. What have we got to be so superior about?

'Pie in the Sky' is on BBC 1 on Sunday evenings.

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