Of all the brilliantly scathing lyrics on Pulp’s 1995 classic Different Class, my favourite has to be this line from “I Spy”: “Take your Year in Provence and shove it up your ass.”
Even if you’ve not read your Peter Mayle, you know exactly who the target is: a self-satisfied middle class that has mistaken educational privilege for intellectual and moral exceptionality, and is to be found using cultural tokens – the cottage in France, the wine from Tuscany, the opera tickets for Bayreuth – to state and restate their presumed superiority over the common masses.
I couldn’t get this lyric out of my head when looking at images of last Saturday’s anti-Brexit March for Europe in London. I didn’t want to think of it. I’m an out-and-out pro-Remain Europhile. I studied languages at university, completed a PhD in German literature and have worked in modern language publishing for the past 12 years. My relationship with European culture is not a casual one – it is committed and passionate.
Yet there’s something about that march, and about pro-Remain discourse in general, that is making me uneasy.
For instance, this is how Spiked’s Tom Slater wrote up what he called the “march against the masses”:
“For all the Remain camp fearmongering about post-Brexit xenophobia, its own fear and loathing of the Leave-voting masses was on full show.[…] Anyone who believes in democracy, whether Remainer or Leaver, should be appalled by the bald, elitist sentiments now being expressed.”
I don’t agree with Slater’s position. I think it’s laughable to see those who have pushed the Leave message hardest as anything other than an elite. But ultimately they’re not the ones who voted to leave the EU. I don’t think those who marched were expressing fear and loathing – indeed, I wanted to be among them – but we should be concerned by how easy it is to demolish a complex argument with accusations of snobbery.
There’s a particular kind of snobbery associated with a love of “old” European culture. It’s the kind that allows Nigel Farage to stand there in his Union Jack shoes, not caring one jot about your long-term welfare, and say: “Look at the Europhiles over there! See, they’re laughing at you! I wouldn’t stand for that.”
You can say it’s nonsense, but it’s an argument works. And besides, just how nonsensical is it? There’s a difference between cultural elitism and favouring a politics that serves to prop up a social and economic elite. Unfortunately, it can be the former that has the most immediacy and provokes the biggest reaction.
My own background is not particularly Year in Provence. It is solidly middle-class, but my parents had risen up the social ladder. Europhilia struck them as pretentious and showy, the province of pseuds who were eager to catch you out. My dad would get in there first by boasting about having got 2 per cent in his French O-level and making jokes about “who won the war”. It’s a defensiveness that can be easily dismissed as xenophobia, but it is not without some justification.
Had I been in London, I would have attended the march. Apart from anything else, the referendum result makes me feel embarrassed in front of the rest of Europe, and mightily pissed off that having devoted all of my adult working life to European languages and literature, I’m going to get tarred with the same “insular Brit” brush.
“Not in my name!” I want to yell, as though it is all about me. “I’m not like that lot over there!” But is this because I am more open-minded, or rather because I feel more affinity with middle-class French and Germans than with working-class Brits?
Whenever a British person talks of how insular “we” all are, you can guarantee that they’re not really including themselves. The differences between countries can be superficial compared to those within them. Indeed, how we respond to the former often illustrates the latter. For instance, ever since 2004, when the study of languages ceased to be compulsory at Key Stage 4, uptake of French and particularly German has fallen significantly.
Meanwhile the profile of those gaining MFL qualifications has become increasingly privileged, concentrated in private schools and grammars. European culture is not equally accessible to all. You can’t shame people into loving their neighbours once they’ve witnessed so many doors being slammed in their faces.
The Remain campaign was always naturally on the back foot. There’s nothing sexy about advocating that things stay as they are, especially not when people are struggling. The Leave campaign told lies and appealed to racism, yes. But for many I think it also provoked a deeper emotional rebellion. Take your Year in Provence and shove it up your ass! Whatever the practicalities of our deeply entwined relationship with the EU, it may be that only a lucky few have ever really felt the love.