“Bonjour,” the waitress greeted me cheerily as the Breton sun shone down on the outside table at which we sat. To my absolute horror, I realised that I just didn’t want to answer.
I was desperate for an espresso, having slept fitfully on the overnight ferry, and facing the challenge, with my wife, of keeping our two children entertained until we could check in at our holiday cabin.
But I didn’t want to order it, because opening my mouth would have made it clear that I’m English.
I have enough French to get by, but I’ve never been sufficiently fluent to disguise my origin. That was never a problem. Until now.
Now, every time I open my mouth when I’m away from these shores I worry that I will be tagged as a Brexiteer arsehole, in the same way that Brexiteer arseholes like to label our European neighbours as job-stealing Johnny Foreigners. Or at least, I worry that their cloddish behaviour will reflect on me.
Happily, I’ve yet to encounter any evidence that it does from the Europeans I’ve encountered. They seem, as a rule, to be an awful lot nicer than the people who currently represent this country politically, and who are defining the way it is perceived in a very bad way.
But I just can’t shake the embarrassment those people are causing.
I’m not particularly talking about Nigel Farage and his loons here, by the way. He, and they, are just pub bores. Every country has them. France’s (Marine LePen) got down to the run-off for president. America’s (Donald Trump) is in the White House.
Our example, by contrast, has never got any closer to power than the confines of a TV studio. Even the voters in Thanet – who were dozy enough to elect a Ukip council – turned down the opportunity of sending him to Westminster when he gave them the chance, and he was too gutless to stand in the last poll.
No, it’s the people who are in power, and some of their supporters, that I’m referring to.
You can start right at the top with a woman, Theresa May, who has left the millions of EU citizens who live here, and who contribute hugely to this country, in limbo. In another life she’d have been the disappointing deputy leader of one of Berkshire’s local authorities. In this one, she’s causing a huge amount of unnecessary uncertainty and unpleasantness, while doing real damage to this country and its reputation in the process. And that’s just the start of it.
Consider the people she has appointed to her cabinet. Alongside her is boorish Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary; his fellow liar liar pants on fire Michael Gove, laughably made Environment Secretary; and the man charged with negotiating the UK’s new trading relationships, Liam “chlorinated chicken” Fox, back in office despite having broken the ministerial code during his stint as Defence Secretary.
Their witless tub-thumping, egged on by a right-wing press that has been plumbing new depths, can do nothing but harm to the UK’s prospects of securing a sensible settlement with our European partners. Note to the Daily Telegraph, Europe is not “desperate” to do a deal with us. Even if it was, how precisely is negotiating helped by shaking a fist at everything European except the Ryder Cup? People don’t tend respond too well to that. Britain never has.
The singular achievement of this bunch of reptiles is that they’ve managed to make David Davis’s ham-fisted conduct of the Brexit negotiations look halfway respectable when “mess” is the most appropriate description for what he’s been getting up to.
But it’s not just the Cabinet, now, is it? There are also the back benchers who have attained renewed prominence through Brexit; people such as Iain Duncan-Smith, the hammer of the disabled. Or Peter Lilley, whose singular prior achievement was to spark a venomous media campaign against single mothers. Having been brought up by one who worked hard to put food on the table, he’s close to the top of my little list of biggest British political berks.
That list isn’t so little any more. How could it be, when the biggest concern of a depressingly large number of MPs appears not to be how the UK can secure a trade deal to keep its people in jobs, but whether Big Ben is still going to bong while maintenance work is being completed. At their head is Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who would be modelling for the re-heated version of the Beano’s Lord Snooty strip in a more sensible era, but in ours is talked about as a realistic contender for the Tory leadership. That is, when May finally steps down in favour of a job ensuring the bins are emptied in Maidenhead.
Meanwhile the tabloids whip up talk of plots to do Britain down on the part of evil Eurocrats, while the NHS cries out for nurses who, understandably, don’t want to come and work here anymore.
I’ve never been from that part of the left that holds the UK up as the embodiment of all that is bad in the world. Its self-flagellation has always struck me as almost as silly as the Moggster’s claim of standing up in the bath whenever the national anthem is played.
I prefer to take a grown-up view of the country we inhabit, which, like most others, is a mix of good and bad but with, up until recently, more of the former on balance.
Thanks to that sorry lot, however, you bet I was embarrassed when I looked back across the Channel from where I sat.
I fear, now, that it will take more than a few T-shirts for the millions of people of goodwill on these shores to convince our European friends that we disavow them and their works, that we have nothing in common with them other than sharing an island and a passport, and that we’d still like to be friends. Pretty please? With sugar on top?
I know Cool Britannia now looks like Cruel Britannia, especially if you have relatives here. But please believe me. We’re really not all like that.
I ordered the espresso in the end. I needed it. If you’ve ever spent the night on an overnight ferry with two kids you’ll know why it was necessary. But I couldn’t do it without blushing. Patriotism? It’s impossible to be patriotic while the reptiles running the place are baring their yellowing teeth.
I fear it’s going to take more than a few T-shirts bearing the legend “Don’t Blame Me I Voted Remain” (someone tweeted me with a pic of that one) to do something about the perception of Brits as Europe’s biggest jerks.
So, shall we get the ball rolling?
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