Justine Houyaux

Research on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Make your mind up

This post is a collaboration with Welsh blogger Gareth Rhys Davies. We started writing it in the wake of the announcement of the results of the EU referendum, and it took forever to complete. The text in italics is mine; the rest is mostly his, though we worked on this together to the point of utter confusion.

Maybe we’re still pissed off about Jemini.

The year was 2003. The month was May. The city was Riga, which Wikipedia helpfully informs us is in Latvia. And one balmy Saturday evening, the British public carried out an age-old tradition by dutifully tuning in to BBC One and raising our glasses with the now dearly departed Sir Terry Wogan.

Eurovision. It had been a while since Blighty had won the big one of course. In fact, we hadn’t seriously competed in the competition since Katrina and her ever present Waves stole the show in 1997. But, like a once great football star robbed of their youthful vigor, we had at least spent the past couple of years trading places in the mid table.

Until Jemini…

Jemini was the first time the UK ever got issued with the dreaded score of “nul points”, the Eurovision equivalent of having your trousers pulled down and getting spanked across the bare arse with a fresh sturgeon. Was it the costumes? The choreography? The fact that it was sung so badly out of tune a pack of direwolves pledged their loyalty to Britain immediately? Whatever the reason, the people of Britain took this continental dissing to heart.

Jemini in 2003

I have loved all things British so long as I can remember. I have fond memories of listening to the Beatles when I was a child, singing along the blue and red vinyls (which at the time we called records because there really wasn’t any alternative but tapes) while following the lyrics with my finger. I am one of those people who, according to the cliché, did learn English with the Beatles.

The first time I went to London was like the first time you fall in love — overwhelmingly beautiful. I was fifteen. It was that big, tentacular city where the entire world was gathered. I had never met so many people from so many origins. Like a real-life ad for United Colors of Benetton, only better, more organic, more interesting and more exciting. The city was, in my eyes, the centre of the world, and Britain, the land of promises for the future, an image of what integration and sense of community should be. The year was 2000.

Tony Blair was one of the best Prime Ministers that the UK ever had.

But he’s widely regarded as one of the worst.

For any top level politician, it must cross their mind from time to time what their legacy will be. As the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama can hang his hat on affordable healthcare for all, the death of Osama Bin Laden, and the legalisation of gay marriage. On the other hand he’s also the President with the highest tally of domestic mass shootings under his watch, and yet not one single piece of legislation has been passed for stricter gun control laws during his time in office.

Still history is likely the remember the first black Commander-In-Chief rather kindly. Compare that to Richard Nixon, whose legacy is that he was a crook who oversaw the most corrupt administration in US history, despite having significantly reduced the national deficit, signed one of the first treaties to limit the nuclear arms race, and developed the Environmental Protection Agency.

Which just goes to show that a legacy can be a tricky thing to cultivate. Tony Blair’s legacy should be The Good Friday agreement, and its resulting impact on Northern Ireland. Long considered the UK’s dirty little secret, a war torn, third world within its own boundaries, Northern Ireland had hard earned a reputation as a volatile and violent place, shrouded in the blood of a centuries-old rivalry and buried under decades of destruction. And within his first term, Tony Blair had brokered a deal that would save countless lives and bring peace to one of the most troubled regions in the world.

I must have been eight or nine when I met a boy from Belfast. He was about my age. My parents had taken me to Belgium’s state of the art dam and there was a guided tour. There was this kid, who had been sent here as part of a program that organized holidays for the children of Northern Ireland so that they could escape war for a few weeks. At first, I didn’t understand, because for a child from the continent, war was nothing more than a few paragraphs in a history book or stories our grandparents told us. His skin was even fairer than mine. He looked sad and nervous. More than twenty years later, I still think about that boy. I wonder.

Had this been a movie, that would have been it. The final shot would have been of Blair riding off into the sunset, only stopping to hand his sheriff’s badge to a small child on the side of the street.

But then 9/11 happened.

The towers collapsed. Our generation lost its innocence. We had to learn the intricacies of foreign politics the hard way. No one really understood what was at stake. We saw the images again and again, unable to put words on anything that was going on. It looked like a bad movie.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact 9/11 had on the West. Suddenly, a war that had confined itself to the hills and caves of Afghanistan announced its intentions to the world, slapping the world’s largest power in the face in the process. Enraged at the needless loss of life, and determined to avenge a terrorist attack on its own shores, the US launched an attack on an enemy that had been a thorn in the administration’s side since the late 80s. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s tyrannical despot, was finally going to get got.

Revisionist history tells us that the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war was widely rejected by the public. Indeed, talk to any regular person on the streets of Britain about Iraq and they’ll likely tell you, “Me? No, I never agreed with invading Iraq.” They’ll cite various reasons. “It wasn’t our fight.” “We should be concentrating on Afghanistan.” “We should be concentrating on the problems at home.” “It makes us look like America’s lapdog.” “The war itself was illegal.” All of which you could make a good case for.

Thousands took to the streets in London to protest against the invasion of Iraq (via The Telegraph)

But the truth is a large number of us did support it. According to a poll run by Yougov in 2003, 54% of Britons were in favour of military action against Iraq, with a paltry 38% against.  Public opinion that was largely fuelled by a rabid media onslaught. The sight of the Twin Towers collapsing became an almost daily occurrence on news bulletins across the land, while The Sun newspaper frantically warned its readers that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against Britain in just 45 minutes.

That’s the thing with newspapers like The Sun. The shun everything that’s complex, everything that would require lengthy explanations, everything that cannot be reduced to a simple catchphrase. We don’t seek for complexity. We want information to be immediate, limpid, easy to understand, and easy to forget. We want mass. We feed our emotions, never our intellect. We devour fear, because we remember it more than any other feeling, and we cannot think when we are scared. We don’t want to think. The WMDs were the first instance in which we failed to listen to the experts in the 21th century and, unfortunately, not the last.  

Meanwhile, the United Nations were concerned that both the US and the UK were perhaps a little too eager to get all down and dirty in Baghdad. In an effort to calm everyone’s tits, the UN general secretary Kofi Annan commissioned Hans Blix – the UN’s chief weapons inspector – to conduct a series of searches in Iraq. The brief was to determine if Saddam had indeed been stockpiling an arsenal capable of causing loss of life on a grand scale. Blix, who had been called out of retirement when accepting the post in 2000, conducted over 700 searches in Iraq. Out of those three cases resulted in a discovery, but even then — it was limited to a stash of nuclear documents, some vulcan boosters, and several empty nuclear warheads. Blix, uncertain as to if these were the result of recent activity or a legacy of Iraq’s previous attempts at Hulking up, requested more time to investigate.

After Saddam Hussein (via Mirror)

Alas, America’s thirst for vengeance was not be denied, and before Blix could complete his work the US and UK governments had already rocked up to the borders of Iraq, tanks at the ready and eager to overthrow a regime. In the end, no conclusive proof of WMDs were ever found in Iraq.

Images of soldiers stranded in the desert on our TV screens, for days, for months — for years. We stopped attending debates over the legitimacy of that war. It was no longer questioned. It was just part of the daily storm of information we swallowed. We were living in the prequel to every dystopia ever written. We were the real No-Future Generation.

Almost immediately as the fighting started, the mood soured. The 45 minute claim was soon exposed as having been given undue prominence in reports, and has been a major source of controversy ever since. The line in newspapers, before so bullish and gung ho, quickly morphed into pleading with their readers to support the troops, not the war. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, became a national hero with his consistent and unwavering opposition to the war (even though initially The Sun printed a front page calling him a traitor and comparing him to a snake). And the general public became ever increasingly concerned that the Iraq war was placing soldier’s lives in unnecessary risk.

Marines in Al-Anbar Province, Iraq. Image by Sgt. Michael Blaha (via Benjamachine)

The war in Iraq drove a wedge through what was already a somewhat fractious relationship between the UK and the rest of Europe. Now this may come as a shock, but the British nation has something of a superiority complex. The general feeling towards other nations can be summed up in two ways. Either they are loud and dumb (Americans, Dutch, Japanese, etc.), or they are dirty and dishonest (the French, Italians, Chinese, etc.). The only exception would be Germany, who are begrudgingly accepted as industrious and hardworking. Even then, that is tempered with a belief that Germans are a super serious nation who are unable to relax and enjoy themselves.

The presumption always was however that the rest of Europe looked up to us. We were the standard bearers. The prototype. The ideal. Everyone wanted to be us. Why wouldn’t they be? We have the Queen. And teapots. And a seat at the biggest nation in the world’s table. We won two World Wars, dammit. Bulldog spirit. Pomp and circumstance. Britishness was something to aspire to.

And it was, to a certain extent, among a certain group of people. We love the UK, but we love it for all the reasons many Brits don’t love it. We love that it is a modern-day Jerusalem, with people from everywhere coexisting. When I was a student, a professor explained the difference between the Melting Pot and the Salad Bowl immigration models, and I remember thinking, “Jeez, the Brits really get it right. If only we could do the same here.”

Oh sure, the cowardly French had refused to support military action in the Middle East. But that’s because they are cowardly. And French. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s certainly not that they hold us, the crown jewel of Europe, in contempt.

Yet it turned out they did. And it was Eurovision that hammered it home.

Now yes, you’re right. Eurovision is just an ultra camp, light entertainment, freak show that has nothing to do with anything. And the UK’s entry in 2003 was tremendously awful. But, shit, Belgium turned up with an accordion, bagpipes, sang in a made up language and still finished fucking second[1]. The UK, on the other hand, didn’t manage to register a single point. Even Latvia, whose song was so poorly written that it bounces back between past and future tenses when describing the same event like it was Schrodinger’s cat tied to a space hopper, managed to bag five.

More important than the UK’s chances in the contest however were the results’ larger implications. It was the first time the UK public at large had been exposed to the feelings of our continental neighbours. And the result was an overwhelming vote of no confidence.

The problem is, folks with a superiority complex don’t like being told that what they’re doing is wrong, even if they disagree with it themselves. And so a round of silly anti-EU stories started doing the rounds, complaining about the terrible bureaucracy that was being inflicted upon us British by those sausage-guzzling, spectacle-wearing, suits in Brussels. Yoghurt, we were told with headlines such as “Regulation gone mad!”, was going to soon be renamed “mild, alternate-culture, heat-treated fermented milk”. In an affront to our very own Queen (gawd bless ‘er), Corgis were going to be banned [2]. And, worst of all, barmaids were going to be force to cover up their cleavages, which so incensed The Sun that it ran a “Save our Jugs” campaign for months. And truly never let it be said that The Sun will not stand up for the ordinary, working lech and their right to ogle women who can’t leave because they’re being paid to be there.

Not one single one of these stories had any basis in fact by the way.

I am a translator.  I was at the European Parliament, doing what you’ll probably consider was nothing but adding up to red tape procedures. I beg to differ. It wasn’t the most exciting thing I have ever done, but I had the feeling that I was contributing to a process that would eventually amount to The Greater Good. In the end, EU members haven’t slaughtered each other since the union was created. I think it is fair to assume that it is a success. I was there, sitting through plenary sessions in Strasbourg, when Nigel Farage and his mates from UKIP wouldn’t bother showing up even if they did accept the monthly 6.000€+ (after tax), not to mention travel fees, allowances and general expenditures. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

The European Parliament in Strasbourg (via Al Jazeera)

Meanwhile the British public’s stance on the Iraq invasion only became darker. Questions were asked that have yet to be sufficiently answered. The reasons for the war became increasingly murky, with cynics arguing that it had more to do with protecting oil interests than avenging terrorism. It didn’t help that, in the age of mass media, news reports that had previously been so supportive now refused to tow the party line. The Labour government were desperate to present this as the UK liberating an oppressed people from the grasp of a dreadful evil, but as the body bags of brave men and women kept coming home, and with no quick resolution in sight, the glory of battle rang hollow. A costly mess in every way. Twelve years after the invasion started, those who supported it had largely reversed their position. Lord Prescott, known simply as John back in 2003 when he was Deputy Prime Minister, announced recently that he believes the Iraq was illegal. Such is its toxicity to Tony Blair’s legacy that even his closest comrades have now abandoned him.

British military personnel carrying the coffin of a soldier killed by a roadside bomb in 2006 (via The New York Times)

The aftermath gave birth to an era of intense political distrust. In the British Isles, regular Joes had always believed that the political classes were in some way “other”, but voters still managed to nail their colours to one of the three main banners. The working class usually voted for Labour, the left middle-class for the Liberal Democrats, and everyone else voted Conservative.  Post-Iraq however, the idea festered that regardless of whether it was red, blue, or yellow, it didn’t really matter. They were all lying to us.

The expenses scandal that exploded in 2009 didn’t help. It turned out that MPs were dipping  into taxpayer’s money for all sorts of things, such as an extravagant house for their pet ducks, or to pay for someone to clean their moat, not to mention employing family and friends as special “consultants.” Public humiliations of MPs became almost a daily ritual, with prominent ministers and even party leaders being dragged through the mud. Nick Clegg, Michael Gove, and Geoff Hoon, were among the many called forth to explain their spending habits . It painted a picture of a group of self serving elites. They weren’t there to help the country. They were there to help themselves.

It was amongst this lack of faith in public officials that the new breed of British politics was born. In the UK, mainstream politics was surprisingly straightforward. It used to be that if you voted Labour, it was because you believed more should be done to help the working class and the underprivileged. If you voted Conservative, it was because you felt more should be done to help businesses and the wealthy to boost the economy. But Tony Blair, with his pro-business, pro-Rupert Murdoch, pro-military action stance had moved Labour firmly into the centre.  And the Tories had started to support things like gay marriage , areas they would traditionally avoid like it was covered in wasps waving kalashnikovs. Both parties were run by Oxbridge alumni, all from similar backgrounds, who went to the same schools and moved in the same social circles. Soon the only difference between the sides was that one wore red and the other wore blue.

It also led to what has now been coined as “post-truth” politics. Grand statements were made by politicians with no evidence to back them up. Policies weren’t announced, or discussed, or even hinted at. Instead it became a battle of personalities. After Blair handed the reigns over to Gordon Brown, the dour Scotsman seemingly lost an entire election because he couldn’t convincingly burst into joyous rapture on cue. His replacement Ed Miliband was undone by not being able to look sexy and eat a bacon sandwich at the same time. Instead people flocked to UKIP, a single issue party that seemed to be a sanctuary for the casually racist and misogynistic, because its leader Nigel Farage was a “real bloke” who drank pints of beer.

And in the end, it left the electorate confused and uneducated as to what exactly they were voting for. The public were told that in order to fix the economy drastic cuts and belt tightening were the way forward. When that failed it was due, we were advised, to benefits tourists, foreigners who were invading our country and scamming money out of the taxpayer.

The truth is, of course, somewhat different. EU migrants actually pay £20bn more in tax than they receive, and without migration the economy will crash and burn more spectacularly than Simon Cowell’s latest X Factor winner. But, alas, after the global economic crisis had broken the country in half, and with no quick fix around the corner, the blame had to go somewhere.

That blame laid squarely on the shoulders of two groups. Those who claimed help from the state, such as jobseeker’s allowance and disability benefits. And the immigrants who came to the UK in the hope of finding work and a better life. Both were accused of vampirically bleeding the state for all they could get.

Here on the continent (because you don’t live on the same continent as us, do you?), we pay very little attention to the Brexit campaign at first. Some of my students have chosen chose it as an essay topic and I keep an eye on Boris Johnson’s antics on the BBC, waiting for him to say something funny to distract myself from terrorism and the lockdown of Brussels. 2016 has been an awful year so far, with David Bowie passing away, Zaventem airport being bombed, and, more generally speaking, a suffocating climate of complete depression.

Which brings us to the EU referendum.

The referendum. A nightmare of epic proportions unfolding before our very eyes. Conceived as a way for David Cameron to stifle the grumbling of Tory backbenchers, it was never really supposed to happen. A campaign pledge made during a general election where the belief was it would result in a coalition government between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, and knowing the full well the Lib Dems would reject the proposal anyway, it was an empty promise made by a participant of a popularity contest. But when the Lib Dem vote crumbled and left the Conservatives with an overall majority, and with UKIP rapidly gaining support, DC’s pie crust pledge suddenly became cast in iron.

And so on June 23rd 2016, the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

One happy man. It didn’t last. (via The Sun)

Britain isn’t xenophobic. Not at its core. I genuinely believe that. We have our problems with race relations the same as everyone else. But I don’t think that deep down we’re all desperate to throw on some white hoods and form a lynch mob. Instead what’s happened to the British public is the same that’s happened to electorates the world over.

We’re bewildered. And angry. And, again and again we have been told that the root of our problems lies with people we didn’t exactly trust to begin with. It’s one grand confidence trick, deployed by a group of machiavellian psychopaths so determined to scramble to the top of their own cesspool of lies that they’re willing to accomplish anything to achieve it. A murder of self serving crows so obsessed with preening their own feathers, they haven’t noticed that they’re perched on a branch that has caught on fire.

Bremain supporters (via Le Monde)

The irony, of course, is that it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The public were supposed to vote to remain in the EU, as they had done overwhelmingly in the 1970’s. Instead this was to be a power play by professional goofball, Leave “supporter”, and supposed Prime Minister in waiting Boris Johnson. A show of force as this political alpha began to mark his territory. Hence the reason why, upon receiving the result, everything went batshit cray cray. The Labour party imploded so spectacularly it’s a wonder it didn’t create a black hole. David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party. Nigel Farage resigned as leader of UKIP. And Boris Johnson, knowing full well that Britain would end up in a far worse position outside of the EU, declined to stand as a candidate for Cameron’s role and “pull a Blair” on his own legacy.

David Cameron stands down as prime minister after the referendum (via The Irish Times)

And of the country itself? Well in the end the UK has become the Mary Celeste, aimlessly drifting with no one at the helm. And the rats haven’t just deserted the ship, they’ve taken all the lifeboats too. The market’s collapsed, the pound has plummeted like a giant ape from The Empire State, and inflation rates are set to rocket. All of which was completely inevitable.

What if it simply boiled down to the fact that people fail to understand that other people are, in fact, people too? What if the underlying idea was: “look, I have nothing against migrants, but I would never befriend them, hire them, talk to them, trust them, or let them live in my country even for their own safety.” What if it was easier for Brexit supporters to hide the fact that, deep down, they’d rather let migrants die someplace else than have to live with them behind the red tape/national sovereignty argument? If it was the case, then my only thought would be: “Good riddance, Great Britain. You won’t be missed.” But it is not that transparent, is it?

The EU referendum was a vote that should never have happened. Yet it did. And since then there have been numerous reports of “Bregrexit”, or people suddenly realising that votes actually matter and maybe they should have thought about it a bit more before randomly choosing which box to cross. On the 23rd of June, 2016 Wales, the nation I proudly call my home, voted 52.5 to 47.5 per cent in favour of leave. A poll conducted just 12 days later showed that those same voters would now vote 53% to 47% to remain.

But, alas, it’s too late. The ballot papers have already been cast. And, much like Eurovision ‘03, the results have been devastating to the United Kingdom.

1. I strongly need to disagree with the tone of this comment about the joy and pride of Belgium. And the Brits wonder why no one likes them.
2. I know you guys probably see us Europeans as a bunch of underdeveloped peasants who eat little children for breakfast, but there is one thing I can assure you of: we love corgis. We do.


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