I do not generally write about British matters here. I have spent the last half of my life in Hong Kong so I don’t really feel qualified. However for the last week anyone who even looks like a Brit has been subjected to a barrage of questions. So here, in case you are wondering, are my answers.
Do you feel British or English? English. British is a passport. On the whole I agree with the old Flanders and Swann song (which can be found in full here) that “The English are moral, the English are good, and clever and modest and misunderstood.”
What do you think of Brexit? It’s a catastrophe. People seem to have forgotten what the first half of the 20th century was like. The primary purpose of the EU is not to make people richer, it is to provide Europe with an international system which does not include regular punch-ups. The alternative is World War Three.
Whose fault is it? My generation, I fear. I notice that support for exit was overwhelmingly concentrated among older voters. Most young people are appalled by the result. So my lot provided most of the Brexit votes. Nor does it stop there. The people who had the pleasure of licking Hitler are now known as the Great Generation. We who came next were the Lucky Generation. We caught the first full flowering of the Welfare State, before it was diluted by the rich people’s backlash and before our elders had forgotten what things were like before. We flourished on National Health orange juice and free milk at school. Cheap school dinners (which would now I suppose be called school lunches) were designed by nutritionists and there was no nonsense about choosing chips with everything.
We all grew up much bigger than our parents. Education was free as long as you kept passing the exams and people who had no previous family connection with university could and did reach the third year of a PhD without paying a cent in fees. We came of age in the 60s, which was a fun time to be young. The 70s and 80s were a rough time if you were a miner or factory worker, but the bright and well-organised could continue to fulfill Harold Macmillan’s tactless observation that “many of our people have never had it so good.”
And the result of this was that most of us took very little interest in politics. This left the field clear for ambitious creeps who had never done anything else. I suspect Nigel Farage was taking a wild guess when he accused members of the European parliament of never having had a real job, but he could have said the same thing with complete confidence of the UK parliament. A political career now starts in your 20s with work in a party research department, think tank or NGO. As a result for many politicians the idea of actually doing something useful with the power that comes their way comes second to winning. Standards of conduct have declined, though not perhaps as much as they have declined here. The Brexit campaign was the apotheosis of this approach. Not 24 hours after the result was announced the leaders of the campaign were withdrawing the promises which they had dangled before a gullible electorate. I recommend a stunning piece of writing in the Guardian which you can find here.
If you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, consider at least this wonderful quote from Kipling:
I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
So my old home is a mess. Looking at the list of places which voted strongly for Brexit I see many familiar names from my time as a journalist reporting industrial decline: places where old ways no longer worked and an indifferent central government had made no serious effort to put anything in their place. Communities have been wrecked. Bitterness is understandable.
Still, some perspective, please. This may be a demonstration of the things that can go wrong in a democracy, but my old home still avoids the things which can go wrong under other systems. The UK does not have a mysterious secret police force that can keep you in solitary confinement for eight months. It does not jail refugees for two years for collecting and selling empty tin cans. No lawyer or politician of any stripe has called for Scottish nationalists to be prosecuted for treason. There are real elections with dramatic consequences, as I suspect we shall shortly see. But not in Hong Kong.