Britons, Feeling Apart From E.U., May Make It So With ‘Brexit’

In the 15 years I lived in London (I returned home to the United States three years ago), I was constantly struck by the sense of otherness with which many English people regarded Europeans. (It’s more complicated for Scots, who are by nature anti-English and thus pro-anybody else, and for younger people and Londoners, who generally feel part of a wider world.)

But travel around England, talking to older people, and you find below the surface a sense of unease, of distrust. Even people who believe that Britain should stay in the European Union, for economic and trading purposes, do not feel very European.

At every turn, Britain proclaims its singularity. Most countries fly the European flag next to their national flags; Britain doesn’t. Most of Europe uses euros; Britain uses pounds. When you arrive at a British airport, you’re given a British landing card and directed to a passport line that says “British and E.U. Passports,” even though that is redundant: British passports are by definition European Union passports. British politicians in the last 20 years have increasingly talked about British values and British traditions, about what sets Britons apart from Europeans rather than what they have in common.

Background on ‘Brexit’

British people don’t speak the same language as other people in the European Union — not literally, not metaphorically. This is a country where one of the main railroad stations, Waterloo, commemorates Napoleon’s defeat by the British, where a serious objection to building the Channel Tunnel was that it might encourage rabid animals to sneak in from France, and where Beauchamp Place in London is pronounced “BEECH-am.”

The idea that things are easily lost in translation is reflected in the opening line of P. G. Wodehouse’s “The Luck of the Bodkins,” as a Briton confronts the daunting prospect of having to make himself understood on the Continent.

“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes,” Wodehouse writes, “there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”

The so-called special relationship with the United States isn’t providing much comfort to the Brexit side these days; President Obama’s recent admonition to vote no in the referendum enraged many people who believe America should stay out of it and let their country think for itself.


Boris Johnson is the former mayor of London and leader of the Brexit campaign.

Will Oliver/European Pressphoto Agency

As for Europe, some of the British sense of dissonance comes from loss of empire and the country’s complicated feelings about World War II, a moment that showed Britain at its shining best while simultaneously stripping it of its position as a major international power. And some of it stems, simply, from an island-centric sense of otherness.

“I might be part of the E.U., but I live on an island,” said Alan Lyon, 49, who shovels cullet — broken glass — in a glass factory. Mr. Lyon’s great-great-grandfather lost both legs in World War I; his grandfather fought in World War II. “We couldn’t mention Germany or France around him, he hated them so much,” he said.

Britain’s populist tabloids have a long history of slipping happily into anti-European remarks. “Up Yours Delors” read a famous headline in 1990 in The Sun, urging its readers to tell Jacques Delors, then the French head of the European Commission, to “frog off.” (Mr. Delors supported increased European economic integration, which The Sun did not.)

Prince Harry once wore a Nazi commandant costume to a party. And in 2006, officials specifically warned fans traveling to Germany for a soccer match not to do things like shout “Sieg heil” at the referees, or to put their fingers under their noses in a way meant to evoke Hitler’s mustache. Perhaps the favorite television episode here is one on “Fawlty Towers” when a hotel owner, played (again) by Mr. Cleese, responds to a group of German guests by lapsing into xenophobic insanity, goose-stepping around the dining room and referring to prawn cocktail as “prawn Goebbels.” (“You started it,” he says when the traumatized customers object. “You invaded Poland.”)

The pro-Brexit side has successfully tapped into anti-foreign feeling by conflating the European migrant crisis with what many Britons see as a local immigration crisis caused by lax European laws and porous European borders. In their view, the country is being overrun by foreigners who not only take their jobs and welfare benefits, but also bring fundamentally different values into Britain.

Recently, Britons were appalled at the news that a German comedian who went on television and recited a rude poem about Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, is to be prosecuted under a German law prohibiting the insulting of foreign leaders. As a way to thumb its nose at both Germany and Turkey, the influential right-leaning Spectator magazine started a “President Erdogan Offensive Poetry” competition, inviting readers to submit anti-Erdogan limericks.

The winner was Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and leader of the Brexit campaign, who implied in his poem that Mr. Erdogan was overly fond of goats. Announcing the winner in the magazine, Douglas Murray, who organized the competition, said the existence of the poem (and of Mr. Johnson) showed Britain’s superiority over Germany, which is part of the European Union, and Turkey, which would like to be.

“I think it a wonderful thing that a British political leader has shown that Britain will not bow before the putative caliph in Ankara,” he said. “Erdogan may imprison his opponents in Turkey. Chancellor Merkel may imprison Erdogan’s critics in Germany. But in Britain we still live and breathe free.”

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