1: Monsieur So British
I can pinpoint exactly when I knew. I was staying in a hotel in Covent Garden and I was prepared for a night of election-result porn, a night of watching an increasingly fatigued David Dimbleby, surrounded by a changing carousel of stuffed shirts, out-of-depthers, the odd maverick, the desolate and the triumphant. Interspersed with poor communications from sports halls in the shires, pointless vox pops and graphics so complicated you’d need to have the mind of Alan Turing to decipher them.
I love it.
I’d brought a bottle of wine from home and I had a selection of nibbles with me, and so I settled into the uncomfortably modern armchair, whose designer had eschewed comfort for a shape that would inevitably lead to curvature of the spine. Fortunately for my terminally fragile back I wouldn’t be spending as long in the thing as planned. It was clear very early on ‘we’ had lost, a small market town who had been expected to be just about Leave, had left by a much bigger margin than expected, a repeated theme through the night. The UK had spoken. A referendum that should never have taken place, a vote held in lieu of genuine political leadership and even then with complacency had produced the result that very few who actually run the country wanted; Great Britain was leaving the European Union.
This blog isn’t about arguing the case for staying or recriminations for those who voted to leave, but I do need to nail my colours to the mast here. I voted to stay. Of course I did. I live in France and I work in the UK, which makes me the very definition of a modern European. Leaving means making my life more difficult, possibly more expensive, certainly more uncertain. Staying means things carrying on as they are which is, er, difficult, expensive and uncertain. The bottom line for me, and I know many will disagree, is that I like being European, I like café culture, Italian style, the modern German warmth, Dutch liberalism, I like it all. It feels like a family to me. Of course it’s unwieldy, demanding and at times a bit mental, it clearly needs reforming which may well now happen. But we won’t have a say in that. We brought little to the party anyway, but it seems we’ve nicked an unattended box of beers from the kitchen and stomped home because they wouldn’t put our CDs on.
Some say there should be a second referendum. I disagree with that. One was bad enough and even if the Leave campaign was fought on lies, and backed up by a media most of whom are only now explaining to their deluded readers how badly it affects them, there is absolutely no guarantee that Remain would win a rematch. People are assuming they would, but that’s the same complacency that led to losing the first one and ignores the very basic fact that a lot of people are angry, poor and angry in a lot of cases and have been told for decades that it’s the EU’s fault, or disgracefully, the result of immigration. A period outside of the EU when they find, in a couple of years time, that they are angrier and poorer and that maybe they’ve been fed a load of whoppers while the elite lined their pockets… well I live in France, they know how to deal with things like that.
If, as many are suggesting, that there a lot of vote-Leavers are now angry that they’ve been sold a pup, that the promises and the economic figures were already being denied before all the results were in, that they don’t want to be seen to be part of increasing racial and xenophobic tension and that no-one, shockingly, had a plan and that they’re suddenly in a leadership vacuum then that’s a different matter, but where are these hordes? Yesterday there was a march in London, thousands proclaiming their love for the EU. Good for them, but it means nothing. It’s as much an echo chamber gesture as believing that the friends and followers you handpick on social media are somehow reflective of society as a whole. If that march had been thousands and thousands of Leavers angry that they’d been duped, that would mean something. That would be an issue that couldn’t be ignored. But it wasn’t, and it won’t happen.
The UK now is like a favourite old local pub. So many good times and memories, important events that didn’t go unmarked, familiar friendly faces, laughter, tears and sometimes just a quiet ‘pint on your own in the corner’ comfort. But it’s been badly managed for a few years, a rough element has moved in and the good people have gradually left, unable or unwilling to fight back against the loud, aggressive voices dominating the bar. It’s a shadow of what it was, but it is still there, just about, and could be rescued one day, when hopefully a sign on the door says simply, ‘Under New Management – All Welcome.’
So why am I writing this? Clearly there’s no shortage of equally ill-informed, speculative opinion pieces but there is a point to it, albeit a typically self-absorbed one.
The Friday of the result I was travelling back home in France. It was the night of my 11 years old’s end of year spectacle and though I’d missed the musical production itself I was trying to get back, as promised, before midnight to say I’d been there. These end of year things are massive in our local community, and they are typically French. A school production followed eventually by food, the cheese course would arrive after 11, and then the wine flows, the children play and the whole thing eventually wraps up in the early hours.
I had made my tight connections and was on the last train from Paris down to the Loire Valley and I was feeling self-conscious. Look, it’s not unusual for me to stand out in a crowd, I dress to make sure I do frankly, no matter what country I’m in. But sat on a busy train late on a Friday wearing a 1960s style dinner suit, in full black tie was pushing it even for me (I’d been hosting a lunchtime awards event in London). But there was more to my awkwardness than that. I felt like a foreigner and it upset me. The UK had cut itself adrift and I felt oddly ashamed of that, I wanted to apologise to everyone, point out that it wasn’t my fault and get everyone in a big-EU group hug. I was still numb from the result obviously, but the enormity of what had happened was only just beginning to sink in. The enormity, that is, in a very selfish sense. What was I now? A French resident? A European, whatever that means, a Brit abroad?
My family all hold dual English-French nationality. My wife, Natalie, is half-French on her mother’s side, my eldest son was born in England, my two younger sons in France. I am an outsider now but no-one knows what that means. To be fair, nobody has really known what that has meant for the 11 years I’ve lived here and the bureaucratic confusion on both sides of the channel has been both brutal and exasperating. There are tax agreements, health agreements, residential and border control agreements that affect my everyday life, so what does Brexit actually mean?
In short, I don’t know. But, and finally this is the point, I made a decision on that train journey. I am going to apply for French citizenship. I don’t take this decision lightly, I am British, in fact, I am very British. In fact, the locals here in rural France call me ‘Monsieur So British’ but it strikes me that as Europe potentially pulls itself apart, as Nationalism is on the rise and old divisions tragically surface again the very least we can do as a family is all have the same passports and nationality!
I’ve been told that the process to gain French citizenship is at best Kafkaesque, an infuriating process of document research in officially translated duplicate and triplicate, time consuming, upsetting and seemingly endless until eventually I reach the stage of personal interviews and language tests. I don’t even yet know if there’s a French equivalent of the ‘Britishness Test’, in which case I may be ok, like I say I’ve been here 11 years I can shrug with the best of them and I almost never use my indicators on a roundabout anymore. It does worry me though, I’m oddly nervous, I suspect that over the course of the next year or so, as my application progresses, I’m going to find out just how really British, or English, or European, or short-tempered I really am.
I arrived at the Salles des Fêtes at midnight and the wonderful sounds of French families drinking and dancing together could be heard as I approached from parking my car further down the road, the mix of traditional musette and ‘modern’ Europop evocative of everything I love about this place. Applying to be French wouldn’t be that hard surely, I thought. I climbed the steps and entered the big hall and everyone, about 150 people, turned to look at me. Full dinner jacket and black tie, looking like Bertie Wooster after a long lunch at the Drones, even the accordion player missed a beat. Yes, this becoming French thing may take some time.
‘Full English Brexit’ is a series of blogs that will hopefully, eventually, make up the rump of my third book, that of a family on both sides of a new division and dealing with something out of their control. Please share with others and also comment if you like, though keep the politics and the abuse to a minimum. My other books are available on Amazon and in all good bookshops, here’s a link Ian Moore’s Books.