Monday, June 27, 2016

News from this Benighted Kingdom


I haven't written a blog posting for ages, having been very busy, and a holiday etc. But I thought I should write something about our recent disastrous political collapse – there is nothing else to call it. Many of the readers of this blog, most in fact, are outside the UK, and given the strong admiration so many feel for the English garden, and the strong anglophilia I know many garden and plant lovers feel, I know there will be many of you who will be asking “what the hell is going on?”. Not only have British voters rejected membership of what has been described (by the Observer newspaper) as “the greatest democratic achievement of the post-war era” and which has also been an immensely successful trading bloc, but also seen the most mendacious and irresponsible political manouevering at the highest level, and the collapse of the political left – to be replaced by a noisy and nationalistic populist movement. Friends of Britain must be puzzled and worried. For those of us who live here, it is a truly traumatic and frightening time.

Every country, as we all know, has a nasty, thuggish intolerant nationalistic element. In Britain it has been pretty small and apart from occasional eruptions, insignificant. There is though the so-called 'little Englander' way of thinking, in many ways no different to similar attitudes in every country. But the fact of being an island adds something, the illusion that we are apart, are different, that we can ignore our neighbours. One of the things which particularly incenses me is the way that so many people talk about 'Europe' as if it is over there, another continent which we are not part of. For heaven's sake, we are part of Europe, even if we were not politically so, even if we were as isolated as North Korea, we would still be part of the continent of Europe! Its a use of language which fundamentally betrays an island mentality, and a failure to understand our intimate connections with the rest of Europe.

One aspect of the 'little Englander' mentality, and this may be a rural rather than an urban aspect, is a paranoia that the EU is a kind of conspiracy, led by the French and the Germans to destroy Britain. I heard this from people during the foot and mouth disease crisis in farming 15 or so years ago – the EU response was regarded as part of a plot to wreck British agriculture. Far worse now is the racism, the growing hostility to the Polish and other people who have come here to work, and for the most part, have actually contributed to our national prosperity. That prosperity however has not been shared, and here perhaps is an important part of the problem.

Visitors to Britain, especially if they do not get beyond the garden-rich and rather genteel south-east and the Cotswolds, may not appreciate just how divided a nation we are. There is a lot of poverty, not real destitution poverty (starving children etc.) but a long-term grinding poverty in many of the old industrial areas, a cultural poverty as much as a material one. Whole towns without hope, their industries closed down, poor housing, second-rate education. A failure to modernise British industry in the 1950s and 1960s was followed by wholesale de-industrialisation under
Margaret Thatcher's government, which strongly favoured the finance industry. There was never an attempt to rebuild manufacturing industry. Whereas Germany has been able to re-invent its old industrial areas like the Ruhrgebiet, Britain never did. One of the ironies is that what regeneration there has been in these areas has often been thanks to EU money. Not that the voters paid any attention to that when they cast their votes last week. Voting for Brexit was just a way of protesting, against a succession of governments that have let them down.

The real culprit is perhaps the press. The popular British press is very right-wing, with lurid stories having being run on immigration for years; if you believe them you would think that we were about to overrun. This hostility, verging on outright racism, has been a drip drip of poison for years, despite the fact that the National Health Service (out most precious national institution) runs on foreign doctors and other staff, and everyone loves their local Polish builders and plumbers for getting things done. Immigration and all other problems are blamed on the EU. The anti-EU message has hammered home ruthlessly. Listening to the 'vox pop' on the television, poor badly-educated people, who probably have no idea of what the EU is about, mouth slogans about 'regaining our sovereignity' which come straight from the pages of the hate-mongering nationalistic press. They are a sorry spectacle, you feel sorry for them, but at the same time feel angry at their naivity and gullibility and the confidence with which they parade their ignorance.

There are silver linings to the cloud. The election of the first Muslim mayor in a European city, the Labour Party's Sadiq Khan, in London last month was a sign of a broad coalition, led by an increasingly restive young middle class, globalised and Europe-friendly but who are frustrated by rising inequality. Bristol ditto, with a Jamaican-heritage new mayor. Seen from this perspective, the anti-EU voters look like Trump supporters, the older, less educated, the 'left-behind' people. And then there are the Scots, who firmly voted to stay in the EU and who have seemed completely immune to the paranoias of the English. But then, the Scots were always better Europeans than the English. Many of us look forward to what must be their eventual independence.

We hope you'll still come and visit. The gardens of England, many of their plants of mainland European origin, their design frameworks often derived from Italian or French models, will still be looking lovely and rose-bedecked. You will still be able to have high tea in half-timbered houses or walk the green fields outside your country house hotel. But remember that you are in the front room, and that you may be hearing crashing and banging and shouting from elsewhere in the building as we become an increasingly fractious, divided, intolerant and badly-governed society. Just like all those politically unstable countries we used to sneer at from our stable and predictable island.

One of the best things I have read on the whole sorry tale is this from The Irish Times:
http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-brexit-fantasy-is-about-to-come-crashing-down-1.2698974

27 comments:

Saxon Holt said...

Well said: "poor badly-educated people, who probably have no idea of what the EU is about, mouth slogans about 'regaining our sovereignity' ... are a sorry spectacle, you feel sorry for them, but at the same time feel angry at their naivity and gullibility and the confidence with which they parade their ignorance."

We, here in the US, wonder how far things will go here with Donald Trump's sad following, many who would probably believe it if he took his slogan "Make America Great Again" to be "Make America Great Britain Again"

Howard said...

And the worst thing about it is that people my age - over 60 - have shot their children and grandchildren, who enthusiastically supported continued EU membership, in the collective foot. Disgusting.

Fran Sorin said...

Thanks Noel for sharing your thoughts....as only you can. As an outsider observing the events, I just feel sad...so very sad about this historical vote. It feels as 'fractious' as when Hussein invaded Kuwait 25 years ago.

Nic J said...

This is actually one of the most lucid and cohesive write-ups of the whole debacle that I - as a German-American outsider - have read. Of course, between Trump and his supporters here in the US and the terrifying, quasi-Nazi AfD or "Alternative for Germany" in Germany, we are facing similar ideological battles...

Anonymous said...

Neil,
I am sorry for your loss and sorry that my birth country has taken this step. It is, perhaps, a natural post post-Imperial response. The largest Empire the world has known (so far) didn't get to be so by being nice to foreigners. But the British Empire is long gone and the U.K. Is undergoing a political evolution that may well result in the UK being inconsequential on the world stage. So it goes.
This happens to every Empire and will happen to the current one.
As to gardens, yes they are very nice, it's true. This is partly because of the weather which is good for plants but generally appalling for humans. Roses bloom, people don't.
However, I do wonder about contemporary gardens. It seems the British garden designer has decided that Great Britain was once part of Minnesota because there are so many prairies cropping up. New Perennialists, old Perennialists. It's all lovely on the ten sunny autumnal afternoons when the grasses are back- lit by the sun but on the other days, soggy British gardens are... well, depressing.
No wonder you are upset.
Anyway, kisses from California. I wish you well.
Chris

carparkgardener said...

So many thanks for posting this, Noel. An excellent piece.

Abbie and Mark Jury said...

Thank you, Noel, for this heartfelt analysis. We are watching Brexit unfold from the other side of the world, in New Zealand, with some level of emotional detachment that distance allows. To read something written by a gardening colleague rams home the shocking reality. Every country has its own flashpoints - the EU in Britain's case - but the underpinning issues are shared by a number of countries. Hence the Trump phenomenon in USA. We would be stupid - and probably are - to think that our flashpoint could not be similarly ignited in societies where growing inequality and deeply cynical politics have built a set of circumstances similarly vulnerable to the 'perfect storm' of events.

sophie said...

I'm very sad too! I'm just a Belgian gardener and since 20 years I visit each year an area of your country and its gardens !
Be sure I'll come again, to show you we like England, which is a part of our european culture!

Caroline Vidican said...

Well said, Noel, a beautifully written piece which surely echoes the thoughts of a lot of us. I don't live abroad, I live in Dorset, I moved back here after 48 years in France in 2014. I was flabbergasted as the results came in to see that my neighbours had voted out. I am heartbroken, and wonder what is to become of us. Fintan O'Toole's article that you attach at the end of your blog is also a very sensitive comment on the present situation. Thank you.

gordonf said...

So well said, Noel! Looking at the U.K. from Canada, I have become embarrassed to claim English heritage. You explained in a very understandable manner how things have come to the current state of affairs on your fair islands; how a people who felt it was their right to control the destinies of billions of others around the world rebelled at the smallest controls over them by their partners in Europe. It saddens me how they, after setting us on our path of glorifying our differences, have apparently become xenophobic themselves. It is sad watching a nation of great people become more and more diminished.

Anonymous said...

One of best analyses of Brexit. Well written! I have shared widely. Thanks. Trudy Harpham (Brit in CH).

Garden Fancy said...

I understand that half your nation is mourning this outcome and I appreciate your personal feelings, but I have to comment that as an American libertarian, the idea of submitting to laws made by "one-world-government" un-elected bureaucrats in a foreign country fills me with horror. It's not just poor, badly-educated people who want a voice in their government; some of us with multiple degrees clearly see the folly of giving up your sovereignty in return for phantom economic benefits. After the mourning, I strongly suspect your nation will be better off -- the seemingly magical power of time and markets improves just about everything (except the power of bureaucrats).

I usually avoid the topic of politics and I'm not trying to argue with your opinions; I just want you to know that there are nobler reasons than those you ascribe to Brexiteers for insisting on voluntary, not forced, associations with others. And there is nothing shameful or dangerous about regional differences -- they do not need to be forceably homogenized; they should be celebrated and nurtured. You are obviously England -- not Europe, no matter how much you insist otherwise, and frankly, it saddens me that I should need to reassure you that there's nothing wrong with that.

Cheer up my friend -- everything will seem better when everyone has calmed down. Best wishes for you and your fine nation. -Beth

Jane said...

You are very good at hitting the nail on the head. I say this a bit reluctantly because you are also prolific and clever and never answer comments, even if there is something real to be said. But, bravo, all true, all frightening, all worrying. Gardens cannot save us if everything else falls apart but more should have been done on spreading the wealth.

Kathy Fitzgerald said...

Noel,
Having just come from a lovely visit to Cornwall--I belong to the Cornwall Weavers Guild and participated in the Royal Cornwall Show June 9-11--my impression is that the whole Brexit thing is overwrought. Imperial Britain, like the Imperial United States, is a chimera. The sun will rise tomorrow morning, people will go to work, kids will go back to school. Another government will be elected in the fall, and will be as venal and self-serving as the old one. The media will continue to pander to the lowest common denominator and sensationalize everything. The sky is not falling. And believe it or not, a good few of those "poor, badly educated people who have no idea what the EU is about" are less brain-dead and more savvy than you want to give them credit for. Just because you don't agree with them, doesn't mean they don't have a point. Lighten up, Noel. We'll all muddle through. As usual.

Liz Miller said...

thank you for this calm , reasoned piece. Remember that most Northern cities voted Remain. so many forgotten areas have voted Leave but major cities did not agree

Christina said...

You voice my opinion so well I will be sending links to American friends who have asked me "what is happening". As an English gardener living in Italy (but who knows for how much longer) I feel deep embarrassment at what we may have done to the rest of Europe too; other countries may now follow our lead (Heaven forbid!). we really need to know who our friends are and I for one believe the 'special relationship' with the US is in our minds not theirs.

le jardinier said...


Noel,

Great blog, and thank you for giving it over to the disaster of the EU referendum! I can't even find the words to say how awful that decision was. I went to bed at 10.30 on vote note, and the pundits were saying - even at that early stage - that it looked as though the Remain camp were going to edge it. I awoke to hear the news that we were to leave the EU. It is truly dreadful. I feel physical sick to be voted out of the EU. Should the over-60's even been given the right to vote on such a youth-important decision as that?? Trump in America.... Boris in the U.K.?!
Yours truly, a professional gardener, wet through, having spent yet another day in one of Blighty's 'depressing & soggy' gardens!!
Le jardinier

Jo Turner said...

Very helpful post.... you really describe the context of the referendum very well, especially for those of us abroad who are friends of the UK. I was very saddened to see the outcome, and, as are many around the world I'm sure, wondering how it will evolve. The fact of an almost equal divide seems to indicate much work needs to be done to find common ground. One fervently hopes the manipulative politicians who created this situation will lose their credibility and that the British public will instead support those who truly put the best interests of the entire population foremost. Also sounds like time for those in the conservation and environmental sectors to pull together to ensure the gains/funding/research that happened while in the EU are not eroded or destroyed.

gardendreamingatchatillon said...

Extremely well said, Noel. I am someone who has lived in England most of my working life (you may remember me as the previous Cathy Buchanan who was once - incredibly briefly! - editor at 'The Gardener' magazine?). I now live in France (mostly due to the outrageous cost of buying a decent-sized garden in England and Scotland), but I am half Scottish, half Canadian (went to school in Scotland). I really do actually feel that I belong nowhere now - perhaps in an independent Scotland of the future? However, in spite of the fact that my mother still has a dream that she'll see her own country independent before she dies, I think that Nicola Sturgeon will not take the risk of another referendum. I am eager to see if she can sort something else for Scotland. As to the position of ex-pats over here - so many of my friends (retired, on state pension) are really worried about their futures. There is a feeling that we have somehow been 'thrown on the rubbish heap'. The only thing worse than the horror of the slow-motion train crash going on in Britain at the moment is the the thought of a France ruled by Marine le Pen. Poor old Europe - it feels like the death of a kind of pragmatic idealism (if that's possible). And many of us are now in mourning. How wonderful that you addressed this complex subject in such a lucid way - and on a blog that is semi-dedicated to gardening. I know of only one fellow gardening blogger who has been as brave. I shall enjoy following your blog tremendously in the future, I am sure. (And sorry this is so long!)

Roger Brook said...

Yes you are quite right Noel. It is a monumental cock-up and the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
Don't blame all the oldies, all our septuguarian friends are deeply upset

Christine Darnell Gardens said...

Thank you Noel, I so respect you for clearly stating your thoughts. As an American, it is sad to watch your great nation head into so much uncertainty. Clearly the press played a big part, and clearly many did not understand the EU contribution . It is frighteningly similar to the "nasty, thuggish intolerant element" playing out in this country, with racism in the lead role. Grinding, continual poverty, as you so well put it, little prospects for advancement, and years of being a have-not, have made hatred and anger the impetus behind this election. I feel both countries are robbed of their potential greatness, it is awful to witness. I do not recognize my country, and I am afraid for us as a nation.
We will always visit your gardens, Noel - and look to Great Britain for innovation in garden thinking, for skill and sophistication. That will never change! Thank you for you clear voice, and your thoughts. It helps in trying to understand and make sense of the historic events happening to a dear friend and ally.

Jose Antonio said...

I liked reading your post. As a Spaniard who´s always been in love with England and its gardens I was horrified by the latest news.It has been a terrible mistake but somehow I knew it was coming. This last winter I was travelling in India and meeting many retired English teachers (I¨m a retired teacher myself) and many of them were thinking of voting out, so it´s not just "badly-educated-people". I agree that when you get older you become selfish and conservative but even so..Anyway we´ll keep visiting England and English gardens and somehow there will be a way to mend it, I´m sure of that.
Good luck
Jose

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this comment. I could not have said it better myself. I was absolutely gutted when the Brexit-side won.
The one thing worth mentioning as well may be that the gutter press in this country is owned and controlled by people who are not even British - very ironic, if you ask me.
Let us hope the incredible rise of open xenophobia and hostility towards everyone not white and English will soon subside. We may need to be brave and challenge this behaviour if we witness it - looking away and hoping it will disappear is not an option.

Catherine D said...

I am an old french gardener, and I still wish to visit your english gardens!
Afraid that "Democracy" given to everyone and anyone can break all that union inside Great Britain, anxious of the fact thats political people did not appreciate correctly the consequences of such a decision on England, and on other countries ?
But I am not sure that your Parliament finally agrees to go out the UE.
The fear is not a good friend , for others countries too.

Brian Skeys said...

We voted to come out of the EU not Europe. Parliamentary Sovereignty is extremely important, the EU is failing its poor and unemployed, look at Greece, Spain or Italy. It is insulting to call all those who voted out as uneducated and racist, some countries such as Japan value the wisdom of their older generation. We should be looking outwards to the whole world.
I think we should stay calm and carry on gardening.

Sally Baker said...

My partner and I are extremely depressed about the vote. The acceleration of Theresa May into the post of PM just seems to bring Brexit closer, so when I say depressed I mean depressed. Simon de Montfort's first English parliament, from which we date the development of our parliamentary democracy took place on 20 January 1265, 751 years ago. How could we expect to have perfect democracy in an institution which is not quite 60 years old? We should have stayed and fought to improve the way the EU is run. There are many things I don't like about the EU. We could have fought for better trade deals, reduced tariffs with other parts of the world for the benefit of both Europe and the many developing countries we trade with. I also don't like the imposition of austerity on the people of Greece, Spain and Portugal. Of course, our government was unlikely to complain about that since it has been enacting similar policies.(Perhaps another reason for the vote.) Despite all this, I believe that life is enriched culturally and economically by our membership and that we are crazy to leave the world's largest trading block. I am quite bitter about the lies and prejudices that led so many people to vote Brexit. My partner and I are considering moving to Brittany while we still can. Or Scotland may provide a refuge.

Sally Baker said...

Fantastic blog, by the way, Noel. We suffer a similar weed problem in warm and wet West Wales. Europe occupies much of my thoughts. I wish we could do something about it. Is it really lost?