Jeux Sans Frontières
I think the last time I filled in a census was in 2001. We were living in a tiny Victorian terraced house in Crawley, our first son had just been born, we had a Jack Russell called Eddie, very little income and I put my religion down as ‘Mod’. An act of needless mischief as most people that year had opted for ‘Jedi’.
Now, in 2018, things are different. Our front room feels bigger than our old house, we have three sons, more animals than is sane and a half decent income. The online French census doesn’t ask for your religious beliefs, it’s constitutionally none of the state’s business, but if I had to put one down now, it would be something that reflected my reliance on cheese and wine, and it wouldn’t be the only thing that separated me from the rest of my family. There’s five of us. Four of us are French and one, me, is English. If we were living in the UK, and four us were English and one of us were French, we would be seriously worrying about our status.
Families will be split up by Brexit and, as always, no-one wants to talk about it. The criteria for citizenship and resident status will change and families like ours, but living in the UK, will be forced to justify their existence and if they don’t meet the narrowing income, health and employment rules, they’ll be out. It doesn’t matter if they were living here legally before. This is 21st century Great Britain, punitive, pernicious ideology will be retrospective. And there’s always the chance that having pandered to the xenophobes and tabloids, British citizens living on the continent will be treated the same way. Why wouldn’t they be? My family could be split up then. I could be deported. It’s a greater fear and risk for others than it is for me, but it is stressful and maddening, and the census form reignited those doubts. And no amount of airy, ‘It’ll never come to that’ from politicians who are more concerned with Big Ben and the colour of travel documents, will change that.
I never thought I’d have to become French. I like the French, I love the French even. But then I love Hob Nob biscuits and I’ve no intention of becoming one of them. Growing up, ‘foreigners’ were either dangerous or funny, sometimes both. We used to sit and watch International It’s a Knockout on the TV and we’d howl at the silly foreigners and roar on the plucky Brits, each game more absurd than the last. The costumes and the stereotyping designed to trip up each contestant. How could we know that forty years later, Great Britain would take knockabout, slapstick, flag-waving self-sabotage and use it as a template for how to conduct international relations?
Don’t get me wrong, foreigners are still funny. There were ‘riots’ in supermarkets in France this week because the price of Nutella had been slashed. I’m no expert on this. Nutella has been banned in our house, not because it tastes like melted plastic or makes toast look like soiled underwear, but because of Palm Oil. The kids have decided enough is enough on the Palm Oil front and have banned it. Fair enough. So now I have to spend a fortune on organic ape-friendly spreadables instead, but I’m happy to back their decision. Food protests have a long and glorious history in France, ask Marie-Antoinette, this is just the way the French let off steam.
If you ask me, in the ‘funny foreigner’ league table, France came a poor second to Saudi Arabia, not hitherto known as the home of comedy. Twelve camels were banned from a ‘Camel Beauty Contest’ because they’d had botox injections to make their ‘pouts more alluring.’ I’ve never found a camel’s pout alluring but fair play to Saudi Arabia. It may be a despotic, medieval terrorist sympathising hell-hole but even the fact they have a Camel Beauty Contest makes me warm to them.
Comedy does that. But there’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy.
It’s not a massive leap of imagination, given his track record, to imagine Boris Johnson all botoxed up and fighting in a supermarket. The man will do anything for any kind of publicity. He’s currently on some kind of ‘Whim of the Week’, where he comes up with an idea that’s just the right side of insanity but is uncosted, goes against current government policy and immediately gets the back up of the few remaining grown-ups in the cabinet. Last week it was to build a bridge to France. Like I said, just the right side of insanity, but it’s typical Boris. For the last two years he has aggressively and selfishly pursued a policy of reducing our trade with Europe. The insistence on leaving both the Single Market and the Customs Union may prove a disaster, not just for trade itself, but for trading infrastructure. Ports, as they are, will not be able to cope with those changes. Eurostar has already announced that its freight business cannot continue outside of the Customs Union. So, is Boris’ idea to spend much-needed money on existing problems and infrastructure? No. It’s to add another layer of problem instead. You don’t fix a border administration crisis by adding another layer of different border administration. You have to fix the original problem and then move on from there. As always with Boris, it’s about headlines and symbols. He’s now telling everyone that the money saved from the EU should be spent on the NHS right now. We haven’t saved any money from the EU and he knows full well that any money saved from the EU will be needed to prop up the economy, because the NHS isn’t even remotely one of this government’s priorities. The NHS isn’t in trouble because of the EU, it’s in trouble because of this government’s policies. But Boris formulates policy like a child with a broken toy. ‘That toy’s broken!’ he wails, ignoring the fact he broke it, ‘Get me a new toy!’
There seems to be an awful lot of ‘earmarking’ going on regarding our ‘savings’ from the EU. But the truth is, we’re likely to be paying into the EU for some time to come. Or not. Who knows? They certainly don’t. Theresa May makes a speech at Davos, but no-one knows what she said because no-one went to see it. Which is less about ‘Britain’s standing in the world’ as some people say, and more the fact that she’s got nothing to say. It’s so obvious she isn’t in control, so nobody is listening to her anymore. Phillip Hammond makes a speech suggesting that there will be very little divergence from the EU, certainly during the transition period, and it plays well to business. But the Tories aren’t the party of business anymore, they’re the party of ignoring business. Hammond, in Davos, is slapped down by Rees-Mogg speaking in front of a small gathering of decaying knitwear in Hampshire, while Iain Duncan-Smith says that cabinet ministers should stop using ‘nuance’ and be ‘on message.’ What sodding message? There isn’t one. This is the biggest constitutional, societal and economic change in generations and none of them, opposition included, have a Scooby-Doo what they’re doing or really, what they want.
They can’t even agree a policy on transition. That means that right now the government cannot see eye to eye, with itself, on how they’re not leaving the EU, while preparing to officially leave the EU. Which is something else they can’t agree on. It goes beyond comedy, and deep, deep into tragedy. Dress the cabinet up in those oversized foam suits from It’s a Knockout and watch them stagger around, directionless, falling over each other, so utterly clueless, but playing with people’s lives as they do so. It makes you weep. I hope by the time of the next census I can say that I’m French. Fighting over chocolate may be unedifying, it may be downright imbecilic, but I’d prefer to be doing that than be under the control of this damaging, selfish bunch of lunatics. Come to think of it, I’d prefer to be a botoxed camel over that too.
This blog, read by hundreds of thousands now, was started as a regular record of me applying for French Citizenship in the wake of Brexit. I’m still waiting to hear on that, but if you’re in the same situation read back on the 66 other entries for tips and hurdles. Or get in touch. A book will come. Eventually. Maybe. Here are my other books IAN’S BEST-SELLING BOOKS.