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Thursday, 15 December 2011

“Auf Wiedersehen, England”

Brentford Town Football Club have a German manager, Uwe Rösler. Last week they visited my local club and the match had the usual level of tedium and occasional drama and in the end ‘my’ team won (a penalty shoot-out). I should have left feeling suitably elated – but I didn’t. What I took away from the game was the shock of hearing the home supporters engage in a series of abusive comments at the opposition manager that ranged from the xenophobic to out-and-out racism.

Most of this invective was done under the habitual English guise of humour – ‘banter’ – but it seemed to me that the echo of those mock-German accents culled from decades of post-War UK cinema , TV and tabloid headlines – ‘ve have vays of making you play’ – and the crude barking of stereotypical phrases like ‘Jawohl’ when the manager shouted to his players, betrayed an ugly and unthinking anti-German malice that would not have been tolerated against players of any other ethnic origin, or indeed against managers of any other nation. Supporters can sometimes be rude – in a friendly or unfriendly manner – against opposition managers, but this was something else.

That it happened during the same week that Europeans – including the British - became even more aware that their collective economic fate now lies in the hands of Germany is probably just a co-incidence – anti-German feeling is a regular, sickening feature of populist English culture. But as I slowly digested the debacle of David Cameron’s performance in Brussels a few days later, my mind kept going back to that evening at Barnet Football Club where I witnessed this longstanding English prejudice in all its nakedness and shame.

I would suggest that this anti-German feeling is fuelled by deep unconscious envy. Germany’s post-War economic recovery and social transformation was impressive enough, and then in 1989 it took on the unprecedented financial, social and psychological task of integrating a divided nation. Its work ethic, its technological achievements, its ability to integrate several millions of immigrants with relative success, its capacity to make an honest accounting of, and restitution for, its national crimes – all this is evidence for the way in which Germany has become a stable, mature and self-reflective success as a nation and the dominant democracy in Europe. (And they are also rather good at football: much more successful over the years – in spite of 1966 – than England, and maybe it is this above all that, at least in the popular imagination, the English can’t stand, and leads to such crude mockery and contempt).

Contrast Germany’s success as a country with the UK story of post-War decline – the dissolution (and destruction) of our manufacturing industries, our loss of control over the old Empire, the contraction of our military capabilities, the perpetuation of class divisions and glaring inequalities, the coarsening of public discourse...add to the list yourself. It seems we have yet to make a true reckoning of our decreased stature and significance in the world. In place of this truth-telling (and generations of politicians of all parties have colluded in this) we have a distorted and false picture of our collective national identity.

Our relative impoverishment – materially and in the quality of life, in the capacity to devise integrated transport systems, in social and health care, in education – is palpable whenever one leaves these shores and travels or spends time in what we still quaintly think of as ‘the Continent’, or – more tellingly – we islanders still think of as ‘Europe’. We might have joined the European Union in myriad practical and beneficial ways – but the Brits still haven’t joined ‘Europe’ in their minds. David Cameron has just acted out years of this systemic psychological failure to re-configure ourselves as a European country.

I am – as might be evident from some of these remarks – passionately pro-European; and so I consider Cameron’s ineptitude a symbol of a basic fault-line that runs through the UK’s national psyche. The jokey tag that has become so popular in recent decades as a mark of this country’s pseudo self-assurance – ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ – has come home to roost. The fact is that, in spite of its current difficulties, ‘Europe’ will continue to thrive and prosper without us. But the UK won’t (can’t) thrive or prosper without ‘Europe’ – there is only so long that a nation can sustain itself with fantasies of past greatness, delusions of self-importance, and the unconscious omnipotence that in a transnational global economy we can steer and save one part of the ship while the other decks are overwhelmed by the tides of history.

Angela Merkel may not have the right formula for rescuing the European economy, but Cameron’s proud isolationism brings to mind George Orwell’s insight that ‘The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time’.

Call me a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ if you like – the Soviet euphemism widely used during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns in the 1950s as a way of accusing Jewish thinkers of lack of patriotism – but as a Jew whose soul is knitted to the historic vibrancy of life in Berlin and Vienna and Prague and Budapest, and all the rest of the countless places on ‘the Continent’ where Jews lived and thrived (and, yes, suffered) but contributed their unique intellectual heritage and giftedness to the general well-being of so many societies and nations, I have been hugely saddened by Cameron’s ‘little Englander’ stance. As a European British Jew in the second decade of the 21st century I still have a psychological and spiritual - existential - commitment to that transnational diasporic vision of the creative inter-connectedness of pan-European life.

And it is of course a rather extraordinary historical irony that it is Berlin (again) that must embrace its special destiny – this time round to lead Europe to a more hopeful future. But this time, if it fails, if the German-led European project fails, xenophobic nationalism (not just in the UK) is just itching to return. And who will history’s victims be, I wonder, the next time round?


  1. Howard - another thought provoking and rather depressing post.
    Nick Kramer

  2. As fine a piece of writing as it is, I feel I must take issue with some of the comments in this blog. You refer to Cameron's "proud isolationism" and criticise his " 'little Englander' stance ". As far as I am aware, Cameron has not given any proud isolationist speeches, or indicated that his veto derived from any "little England" principles. He has said that the treaty did was not in the interest of Britain on the grounds that it imposed onerous levies on the financial sector. You may disagree with Cameron on that, but it hardly constitutes an expression of isolationism.

    Moreover, I find something quite sinister in the many accusations of British backwardness and insularity that have resulted from this veto. Cameron has not taken Britain out of Europe, he has vetoed some proposed changes to the current treaty. The veto relates to proposed changes to financial aspects of the treaty and financial reasons were offered to justify it. The reaction from the supporters of the changes has been mockery, charges of xenophobia, and implications/threats of Britain being excluded from further EU decisions (in many cases, making no reference at all to the reasons given for the veto). This speaks very poorly for the democratic nature of the EU. A far more reasonable reaction would be to recognise and respect any member's right to a veto, address the concerns behind it, and work all the more enthusiastically on a suitable, inclusive, compromise.

  3. 1. Cameron's veto is a normal negotiating stance. This is how the EU works. What is all the fuss about?

    2. Maybe the attitude to the Germans has something to do with their twice unleashing all the devils of hell upon the world. Lo tishkach.