What has become of public discourse in Britain? Are we so dumbed down that we cannot now have a grown-up debate about a serious matter? Has social media made us crude and dismissive in our judgements? And has the personal supplanted the political?
I take as my evidence for this the reaction to the intervention in the Europe referendum question by a public figure who’s extremely rich, well-bred and somewhat remote, an instantly recognisable national figure who has led a gilded life. No, not Prince William, but Emma Thompson.
On one side, the Oscar-winning actress says that England is “a cake-filled, misery laden, grey old island” and that it would be “mad” for us to leave the European Union; on the other side, a selection of Tory MPs and rent-a-Europhobes have called her an “overpaid Leftie Luvvie” and an “elitist Metropolitan snob”.
How elevating. How mature. It’s a good thing that it’s a matter of such little consequence whether Britain is in or out of Europe.
As it happens, I agree with Thompson. Not on her peculiarly downbeat characterisation of Britain as a “tiny little, cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe” (of which more later), but on her belief that Britain’s future lies as part of the EU. Hers is an emotionally driven response – “we should be taking down borders, not putting them up” – but is no less admissible for that.
Many of those who are of the “In” persuasion, start from a position of sentiment, and given that the European Union itself has its origins partly as a psychological bulwark to halt the rise of the nationalism that had created two world wars, it is understandable that the concept of a confederation of nations of which we are a part plays to our hearts as much to our heads. “I feel European,” says Ms Thompson, and I know exactly what she means.
So her views, while antipathetic to the cheerleaders of Brexit, should not be dismissed as the rantings of an unreconstructed Leftie.
Thompson has spoken before about the plight of refugees, and hasn’t been shy about taking an unpopular view, saying last year that the UK’s response to the refugee crisis was “shaming”. There’s a natural resistance among the general public to give credence to the political opinions of a household name (again, I’m not talking about Prince William). But Emma Thompson doesn’t just talk the talk: she and her husband have adopted a son from Rwanda; she speaks up for Action Aid; she joined in a local protest against the opening of a new branch of Tesco. She’s politically engaged, and uses her fame to get publicity for her causes. Nothing wrong with that.
Where anyone sensible would take issue with Thompson, however, is in her portrayal of Britain as a depressing, grey little place. I don’t know exactly where she lives, but it’s not a portrait of the country that many of us would recognise.
Ok, the weather’s pretty terrible. But culturally, economically, architecturally, socially, strategically, or in terms of diversity, openness and opportunity, there’s not another country in Europe – and probably not the world – which can touch Britain.
No wonder they want us to stay with them in the EU. No wonder HSBC wants to remain domiciled in London.
Whatever. This is not an argument to be had on such terms. Which way we jump on Europe rests on the careful exposition of nuanced political and economic points, and not on the hurling of insults over an ideological divide.
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