The apocryphal newspaper headline — “fog in the channel, continent isolated” — famously said something about the British mindset. It’s hardly surprising that we are insular — we are literally an island after all — but this insularity is something that curiously crosses all barriers in British social and political life, whether of Left or Right, middle or working class, and on almost every issue.
This is true even for British liberals who, reeling since the night of 23 June, 2016, have made the continent a sort of spiritual home as they’ve become alienated from their countrymen.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Right-thinking Britons see their country as an embarrassment sliding towards populism, a sad contrast to the moral superpower that is Germany and France under centrist leader Emmanuel Macron. Yet the Continent of the Anglo liberal imagination is as unreal as the supposed nostalgic Britain of yesteryear loved by Leavers.
Britain, many people fear, is moving away from the European dream and towards fascism. It’s such an established meme that even the most recent BBC Agatha Christie adaptation was a thinly-veiled analogy about 1930s fascism and Brexit.
Yet people keep on coming to this Nazi hellhole, with the fabled “Brexodus” of migrants leaving the country actually seeing an extra 212,000 people arriving last year, and with record numbers of foreign students, too.
The fascist Brexit Britain theory is held among a minority of Remainers because they’re measuring the country by a theoretical ideal rather than comparing it to other — real — countries. So while the hate crime “surge” following the referendum mostly involved very minor incidents, Italy saw a number of openly racist murders during the late 2010s.
Whether they’re connected or not, Italy has also had a populist Right-wing government in power for most of the past four years, and the Lega may well return — at around 33% in the polls, it is by some distance the most popular party. Italian politics has been, as long as anyone can remember, chaotic and unstable, which makes me wonder if Mary Beard’s Italian colleagues who make her feel “embarrassed” about Brexit have been paying attention to their own country.
A central theme of fascism is a love of violence against ideological opponents, and so a visitor from outer space with a vague understanding of our human political philosophy would probably conclude that there was only one fascist state in the EU — France, where the brutality of the police is on a scale that would be unfathomable in England.
Among the recent victims of the gleefully violent French police is a teenager who lost an eye in Strasbourg and an elderly woman in Marseilles who died from her injuries after being hit by a rubber bullet. Just this month prosecutors launched a probe after a video appeared to show a policeman firing point-blank at protestors with a riot control gun.
France is quite far down from Britain in the Freedom International rating, and treats minorities like Roma in a way that would do more than embarrass liberal Brits.
Right-wingers often complain that the horrific behaviour of the French police towards the gilets jaunes has received scant coverage in the BBC; certainly if Hungary or Poland treated their citizens like that, I’m pretty sure it would be on our news more. But then France has always been a politically violent country.
The last mass murder of protesters in England occurred in 1819, when 18 people were killed by authorities in Manchester; in France police in Paris killed up to three hundred unarmed protesters in 1961.
Had anything even vaguely comparable happened during the US Civil Rights era it would have been the subject of about 500 films and even my children in an English primary school would now be learning about it now. But then Anglo liberals are fascinated with the Anglo world; not so much by the continent.
France is different to England, in some ways far more traditional; for example, the same-sex marriage campaign there was opposed by enormous protests, while, like many continental countries, it has a 12-week limit for abortion, when even talk of a 20 weeks-limit would have the Anglo commentariat dressing up in those Handmaid’s Tale outfits.
Germany also has strict laws on abortion and its rate is around a third that of England, while it only passed same-sex marriage in 2017, against the wishes of liberal idol Angela Merkel.
But no one cares, because a certain type of Anglo sees Germany as flame-carrier of all that is good and forward-thinking, locked in a battle with the forces of darkness towards the east — Hungary, Poland and especially Russia.
Yet Germany is, if not Russia’s ally, then a close trading partner; it has far, far better relations with the country than Britain does, largely built on energy supply, and Germany’s support for the Nord Stream gas pipeline makes it far easier for Moscow to exert pressure on the west. Europe’s biggest economy also gives far less in international aid than Britain, which donates more than any other country in the continent and is, proportionally, the sixth-most generous.
Even more so, Scandinavia is seen as an ultra-progressive paradise to British progressives, especially those who — like me — enjoy Borgen. Yet neither Denmark nor Sweden are as social democratic as Anglos believe, with large private sector involvement in areas run by the state over here; in Denmark even the ambulances are privatised, while Sweden is fiscally more free market than the US, and has three times as many private health operations as Britain (proportionally).
Denmark also has immigration restrictions that would have British academics in full “Toby Young has said something” outrage mode — and these were put in place by its centre-Left party.
Are the Danes racist bigots? By any measurement they are among the most tolerant, liberal people on earth — they just don’t share the Anglo elite’s belief that immigration controls are necessarily immoral, a worldview that makes us quite unusual globally.
The Nordic countries generally also have fewer females in top jobs compared with the United States, and a smaller proportion of women studying STEM subjects than Islamic countries like Malaysia and Oman.
British progressives see patriotism, and particularly its violent, heroic element, to be positively primitive. Because they’re not keen on the idea of dying for their country they assume other liberal nations are like them — and yet the Swedes and Finn do not feel the same way and are positively gagging for a chance, way ahead of any other non-ex-Soviet European state.
Although Britain has fallen to fascism, it curiously remains by most measurements one of the least racist countries, the least worried about inter-racial marriage, or living next door to people of a different race.
Britain is also unique among European countries in having a tiny education gap between the children of natives and immigrants, whereas in every continental country it is large.
Europeans are far less pro-immigration than Americans are, while Britons are among the most pro-immigration of Europeans, and public attitudes towards immigrants have softened further since the referendum.
Americans and Britons also have stronger sensitives about race than continental Europeans. Recently Italian football authorities decided to take a stand against racism in the game, so they hired artists to paint… monkeys. Many Italians are of course embarrassed by this, but something like that would never have seen the light of day in England.
On a similar note, every December lots of Anglo-liberals are shocked to learn that the Dutch have a festival once a year where people black up as Zwarte Piet, “Black Pete”.
Although it is true that the Netherlands is a more liberal — and generally better — version of England, it is different to ours. It also has a far stronger religious element, which might surprise people who rarely travel beyond Amsterdam. Britain’s progressive sibling even has its own Bible Belt, where women are discouraged from wearing short skirts and swearing is even prohibited in some communities.
Perhaps no subject brings out the parochial Brit more than healthcare, most of whom believe that there are two systems in the world: our NHS, and the American system where paramedics rifle through your wallet before giving you CPR. Most remain blissfully unaware that many of our neighbours do not have an NHS. Germany doesn’t. France doesn’t. Switzerland doesn’t.
Germany and France both have the “Bismarck system”, not the “Beveridge Model” used in Britain, and have much better healthcare outcomes.
When the Home Secretary suggested that London-born jihadi Shamima Begum should be stripped of her nationality it was widely denounced as racist by UK media, American media, and even by Al Jazeera, the network owned by the not-at-all-racist Qatari state.
Is taking away the citizenship of a jihadi born in the country that odd? The Germans do it, and so do the Danes, and I wouldn’t call either of those countries fascist dystopias. Even the proposal to allow a jihadi bride with two children to return to Norway has brought down the country’s government, which includes the populist-right Progress Party.
But then the whole idea of jus soli — that being born in a state confers some natural right to live there — is far from universal. The French have long had it, and so have the Americans, yet it’s never been the norm in Germany or other countries. And why would it? Different countries have different traditions.
Despite all the despair about Brexit taking away our freedom to live, love and travel the world, not many Brits choose to live in continental Europe.
Of those who do are large minority are retirees, especially in Spain, people who aren’t taking the opportunity to explore the world but just want less winter in their autumn years. There are just 6,000 Brits in Poland, for example, about 0.6% of the number of Poles in Britain, while even the numbers in France are small compared to the French diasporas in London, and the age difference between the two groups is significant.
This isn’t a criticism – I live about 10 miles from where I grew up – but the rhetoric of Europeanism and of free movement isn’t matched by the reality.
Likewise with students and their opportunity to explore the continent; lots of young Britons would like to study in the EU, but then several non-EU states take part in the Erasmus scheme too, and the country they most want to live in is, of course, the United States.
People who worry that Britain’s relations with our European partners also need to bear in mind that Italy and France are now so at loggerheads that they’re engaged in a sort of proxy war in Libya, each backing different shady militias in that benighted country.
In contrast Britain, France and Germany have grown increasingly close on military matters since 2016, a by-product of the United States’ inevitable drift away from Europe towards Asia, with various joint statements reflecting the stronger three-nation alliance.
There are two continental Europes: the fictional one of the British liberal imagination, and the reality; both are indeed lovely places, but they are rather different to each other; and despite globalisation, the internet and all that business, the continent still remains very much isolated.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe