Brexit has weakened Britain

The Leavers have condemned us to a poorer and less cosmopolitan future.

by Stephen Bayley
Last Updated: 04 Jul 2016

As an olive oil, and not a lard man, I woke-up on 24 June and thought ‘Bonjour, tristesse’. Then I slept on it, woke up on 25 June and thought of John Milton. The blind poet once dreamt that his sight was restored and his dead wife was alive. And he woke up to find himself still a blind widower. Brexit was like that for me: a bad dream that did not disperse with the dawn. 

It’s very sad. There’s a marvellously untranslatable German word Sehnsucht, which suggests that feeling of otherness sometimes felt in places or before works of art. A state-of-mind that is felt mostly as a vague, but perplexing, sense of loss. With Brexit, there’s a bittersweet, I am sorry I really mean agro-dolce, feeling that we have uninvited ourselves from the best party on the bloc

And, talking of loss, the 75% of young voters who wanted to Remain have lost opportunities to work and live in 27 different countries. I hope the provincial bigots on Teesside have a plan to recompense dispossessed youth. I wonder if Sunderland and Boston realise that when they lose their hated Polish shops, it will mean they have no shops at all since the ethnic British probably lack the enterprise to open them.

My generation is entirely European in its sensibilities. I have been to Palermo more often than I have been to Preston. A signal event of my youth was the arrival of a proper Pavoni espresso machine in Liverpool’s El Cabala coffee bar (which, hilariously said cappuccino was ‘named after the coffee-coloured habits of the monks’). My father favoured Anjou Rosé as a signifier of sophistication and ate Wiener Schnitzels at a Cheshire restaurant called The Rheingold. My cars have been mostly French, Italian and German, although I began my driving life in a British Ford. And it was named  after Cortina d’Ampezzo, the Dolomites ski resort. The Cortina brochure featured European passport stamps as a graphic motif, suggestive of broader horizons. After university, I became an auto-didact, educating myself on the autoroutes, autostrade and autobahnen. 

British material culture since 1945 has seen the steady digestion of European values. Elizabeth David persuaded us about oil, lemon and garlic. So exotic were these in 1950 that she said just to whisper the words was like pornography. In 1957, Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd published Plats du Jour: it was more than recipes, it was a way of life. Terence Conran realised it was a short step from making ratatouille to wanting the batterie de cuisine and the Provençal kitchen to make it in. Now dim people up North who are frightened of garlic have narrowed our horizons, rolled-up the red carpet leading to a prosperous and cosmopolitan future.

You ask what the EU has done for us? It’s made travellers aware that all the resources of a safe, stable and prosperous continent are ours to share. At home, it’s created a generous, outgoing and well-stocked culture where there is demand for the over 20 types of rosé Majestic offers, and the many continental breads Waitrose sells. I have spoken to restaurant owners, superyacht designers, architects, an earl, a TV star, bankers, editors and retailers. All the people who animate culture and the economy. Not a single one voted Leave. They are despondent.

It’s a harsh fact that well-educated AB youth and sophisticates like the EU, while C2DE old people with poor qualifications distrust it. Scarily, hostile anti-intellectuals have wrong-footed the quick and the smart.  And what’s been achieved? A volatile financial climate where investment decisions will be made which will fatally undermine already precarious industry. 

Pub bores in the Midlands may enjoy a temporary glow of achievement at Britain’s reckless withdrawal from the real world, but when Rolls-Royce shifts manufacturing away from the East Midlands, pub bores in Derby will look at smouldering holes in their shoes and realise they have shot themselves in the foot. Those Brexit smirks will not last. The traitorous fool Boris Johnson says it is ‘time to build bridges’, having selfishly demolished our best ones. It is a time to avoid clichés and see what can be salvaged from the onanistic mess Boris helped make.

Field Marshal Slim said at a trying moment in a campaign that no news was ever quite so bad or quite so good as first thought. And this is true. But a central tragedy remains: the quitters felt they were reinforcing British identity, but they have weakened it instead. I do not want to live in a country with values defined by an ugly liaison of mendacious opportunistic politicians and unlettered old folk. And nor can I now go to live anywhere sunnier or more optimistic.

Still, ‘m’illumino d’immenso’, as Giuseppe Ungaretti said. Yup, I am illuminated by a grim and immense sense of loss. But poets always help. In a bad moment during The Great War, Paul Claudel said: ‘Gentlemen, in the brief moment allowed to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we might as well enjoy a glass of champagne.’ Shall we make that English champagne from Kent or the real thing from Épernay? Let’s have both! That excellent méthode champenoise wine is made in the home counties seems to me a fine symbol of what Europe was achieving.

And by the way, I sketched the notes used here as I walked past Westminster Abbey. This great symbol of England was designed by a Frenchman. The xenophobic delusions of Brexit are pitiable. And very, very triste.

Stephen Bayley is an author and consultant and is a contributing editor to MT

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