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: