Professor Chris Grey in conversation with Europeans about Brexit... while some earplugs are needed for Brits.

I’ve been in France for a few days — hence there wasn’t the usual article last week (for which, apologies but also thanks to various people who have said they missed it) — and as a result I haven’t been closely following Brexit news. On the other hand, I have had numerous conversations about Brexit, mainly with French people but also Spaniards, Dutch, Luxembourgers, a Swede, and a Lithuanian. In age they ranged from early 20s to late 80s and in occupation from photographer to farmer to accountant to retired. Some had worked or studied in Britain at some point, and a few spoke English. It wasn’t, of course, a scientifically selected sample or a statistically significant one but, still, a cross-section of, say, 20 people.

The reason they all talked to me about Brexit certainly wasn’t because they see it as particularly important, and even though most of them were politically knowledgeable they don’t follow the twists and turns of the UK Brexit debate. Beyond a general sense that the British government was rather weak, and divided about Brexit, there was no knowledge of, or interest in, what Boris Johnson has said this week, or whether David Davis might resign (the things I might have blogged about, had I not been away). Nor did I get a sense of any particular familiarity with, say, customs options for the Irish border.

Rather, the reason they all kept engaging me, unprompted, in conversations about Brexit was because, now, this is what Britain ‘means’ or connotes to non-Brits (in Europe, anyway). In the same way as a few years ago a typical conversation with, say, a taxi driver in Europe would be about Manchester United or pop music or, I don’t know, Princess Diana, now when someone knows you are British what comes to their mind is ‘Brexit’.

That — just in itself — is indicative and problematic. There’s been much written about Brexit and British or English self-identity, but less about what it has done to our identity in the eyes of others. And it is not good. No one I’ve spoken to sees it as connoting some leap to freedom, or the opening up of new vistas of opportunity for Britain; still less as a template that they would wish to see their own countries adopt. And, indeed, statistical data back up my conversations: support for the EU has increased throughout the EU-27 since Brexit.

Universally amongst those I spoke to, the Brexit vote is seen as bemusing, and the explanations given for it are of two types. One links it directly to Trump’s election as an expression of the populism that they also see in their own countries. The other sees it as an expression of British exceptionalism in the sense of a belief in a special innate superiority. That view, by the way, is accompanied by considerable — if perhaps exasperated — affection, especially amongst the older people I talked to, seeing it as a kind of endearing eccentricity. But, whatever they ascribe as the reason, they invariably see it as a terrible mistake, and as a departure from the pragmatism which they most strongly associate with British identity.

Alongside this was an assumption, or at least a hunch, from all of them without exception that Brexit will not actually happen. That is perhaps because this dominant image of the British as pragmatic still holds sway. Or — which may be another version of the same thing — because they can’t believe that any country would choose to do such harm to itself. There was no particular sense of what the concrete mechanism for that would be (e.g. a further Referendum), just a vague belief that it would probably be reversed. In that, I think there is a large gap between what these ‘ordinary citizens’ believe and what political leaders in Europe expect or think possible.

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As to who is right about that, it is still impossible to say. This week’s parliamentary votes may conceivably tell us more about what direction we will go in. But of one thing I am sure. Even if Brexit is averted at the last minute, by some combination of events, it won’t be the case, as some of my European friends think and many Remainers assume, that Britain reverts to the status quo ante. There is far too much division and bitterness for that to be the case. In that sense, I think it is astute of Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton (and Gordon Brown) to recognize in recent interventions that any reversal of the Brexit vote would have to be accompanied by policies addressing some of its root causes. Just as Brexiters are quite wrong to think that the vote was a kind of time machine taking us back to 1973, so too are those Remainers who think there is a time machine to take us back to 2016.

There was a strange and sad coda to my trip to France. Returning on Eurostar I struck up a very interesting conversation with the (British) man sitting next to me, whose work is very much affected by Brexit. Our conversation included, I suppose, a bit of ‘remoaning’, if we must call it that, but was mainly quite technically focussed on various things which, in his sector, had to be done to deal with Brexit.

After a while, an elderly British couple sitting in front of us complained that we were talking too loudly. I’m not really sure that this was so, but I do have a rather carrying voice so we continued our conversation in near whispers. Yet even though, of course, there were numerous other conversations going on in the carriage, they complained again, saying that they ‘needed earplugs’ because of us. With the best will in the world, that was ludicrous. I don’t want to over-interpret it — perhaps they were just a crotchety old couple — but I am as certain as I can be that they were upset because of what we were saying about the practical consequences of Brexit.

There’s a link, somehow, between the conversations I had during my trip about how Brexit was something to do with a certain conception of Britishness — or, maybe better, Englishness — and this complaint on the way back. It’s reflected in the way that the government continue to oscillate between ‘we’ll fight them on the beaches’ type rhetoric and appearing to hope that ‘we’ll just stay at home with a nice cup of tea and hope the whole ghastly mess will blow over’.

The complaints of the couple on Eurostar seemed like a kind of metaphor for what is going on in Britain right now. There’s a sense that — as with the people I talked to in Europe — we all know that Brexit is crazy, including many or most who voted for it. But it would be embarrassing to admit it (see this Mike Galsworthy video) so it shouldn’t be said out loud and we just have to get on with it, even though we don’t really want to.

That is rather an endearing, Alan Bennett-ish, national trait when applied to weak tea and stale biscuits — ‘don’t make a fuss, dear’ — but as the basis of an entire economic and geo-political strategy it’s ruinous. Britain may push ahead with Brexit on the basis of bullish exceptionalism, or pull back on the basis of pragmatic realism. But we may just drift into it from fear of embarrassment, as if voting as we did was the political equivalent of using the wrong fork and that having picked it up we are obliged to use it, or else we will lose face.🔷

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(This piece was originally published on The Brexit Blog.)

(Cover: Dreamstime/Paulus Rusyanto.)