Listen: Luyendijk chats to Prospect Editor Tom Clark in our monthly podcast, Headspace When I came to live in London with my family in 2011 I did not have to think of a work or residency permit. My children quickly found an excellent state primary school, and after a handful of calls we enjoyed free healthcare, and the right to vote in local elections. The only real bureaucratic hassle we encountered that warm summer concerned a permit to park. It all seemed so smooth compared to earlier moves to the United States, Egypt, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. Then again, this time we were moving in with our cousins—weren’t we? We had arrived as fellow Europeans, but when we left this summer to return to the Netherlands we felt more like foreigners: people tolerated as long as they behave. At best we were “European Union nationals” whose rights would be subject to negotiations—bargaining chips in the eyes of politicians. As we sailed from Harwich, it occurred to me that our departure would be counted by Theresa May as five more strikes towards her goal of “bringing down net immigration to the tens of thousands.” The Dutch and the British have a lot in common, at first sight. Sea-faring nations with a long and guilty history of colonial occupation and slavery, they are pro free-trade and have large financial service industries—RBS may even move its headquarters to Amsterdam. Both tend to view American power as benign; the Netherlands joined the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Shell, Unilever and Elsevier are just three examples of remarkably successful Anglo-Dutch joint ventures. I say “remarkably” because I’ve learned that in important respects, there is no culture more alien to the Dutch than the English (I focus on England as I’ve no experience with Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland). Echoing the Calvinist insistence on “being true to oneself,” the Dutch are almost compulsively truthful. Most consider politeness a cowardly form of hypocrisy. Bluntness is a virtue; insincerity and backhandedness are cardinal sins. So let me try to be as Dutch as I can, and say that I left the UK feeling disappointed, hurt and immensely worried. We did not leave because of Brexit. My wife and I are both Dutch and we want our children to grow roots in the country where we came of age. We loved our time in London and have all met people who we hope will become our friends for life. But by the time the referendum came, I had become very much in favour of the UK leaving the EU. The worrying conditions that gave rise to the result—the class divide and the class fixation, as well as an unhinged press, combine to produce a national psychology that makes Britain a country you simply don’t want in your club. I am terribly sorry for my pro-EU middle-class friends in England, and even more sorry for the poor who had no idea that by supporting Brexit they were voting to become poorer. But this is England’s problem, not the EU’s: the nation urgently needs some time alone to sort itself out. So when those first “Leave” votes came in, I found myself making fist pumps at the television. On the morning of 24th June 2016 the middle-class parents at my children’s school were huddling together in shock over the result. One or two were crying quietly when a working-class mother I knew walked up to a well-to-do mother who had been canvassing for Remain. “OUT! OUT! OUT!”, she shouted as she wagged her index finger. Then she walked off in triumph, back to her working-class friends at the other end of the playground. Over the years, I had learned she was a warm person, yet on that day something stronger burst out. She had used the referendum to try to smash that expensive middle-class toy called the EU and it had worked. At last, for the first time in decades, those who felt like life’s losers openly defied the winners, and carried an election. Now her country would have £350m a week to spend on the number one worry for people like her: the NHS.You could, if you’ve been as frustrated by the Dutch educational system as I was, characterise it as institutionalised mediocrity. But the good thing about it is that it really doesn’t matter for your identity or your prospects exactly which school or university you went to—not in the way it does in England. Dutch people are unfamiliar with that English ritual where two highly educated people try to work out which one has the edge: state school or private? Oxford, Cambridge, or some other place? If Oxbridge, what college? I have seen plenty of English middle-class parents jump through crazy hoops to get their children into the “right” school. I have seen friendships ripped apart when one couple sends their daughter to a private school and the others do not. I was not surprised to read that Jeremy Corbyn’s second marriage collapsed over the question of whether to send his son to a selective school.
©BANANA PANCAKE/GETTY IMAGES I’ve seen a good deal in England which suggested that, just maybe, not all was well with the collective psyche—the in-your-face binge drinking, the bookies stoking gambling addiction on every high street, the abject but routine neglect of public housing which went undiscussed until the Grenfell Tower fire. But that scene on the morning after the referendum encapsulates my disappointment with the country. Not only the division, but also the way it had been inflamed. Why would you allow a handful of billionaires to poison your national conversation with disinformation—either directly through the tabloids they own, or indirectly, by using those newspapers to intimidate the public broadcaster? Why would you allow them to use their papers to build up and co-opt politicians peddling those lies? Why would you let them get away with this stuff about “foreign judges” and the need to “take back control” when Britain’s own public opinion is routinely manipulated by five or six unaccountable rich white men, themselves either foreigners or foreign-domiciled?
"In-your-face binge drinking and gambling addiction are tell-tale signs that not all is well in the English psyche"Before coming to Britain I had always thought that the tabloids were like a misanthropic counterpoint to Monty Python. Like many Europeans, I saw these newspapers as a kind of English folklore, laying it on thick in the way that theatrical British politicians conduct their debates in the House of Commons. Newspapers in the Netherlands would carry on their opinion pages articles by commentators such as Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash—giving the impression that such voices represented the mainstream in Britain. Watching QI before coming to the UK, I remember seeing Stephen Fry banter with Jeremy Clarkson and imagining the former was the rule, and the latter the exception. Living in London taught me that it is the other way around. George Orwell is still correct: England is a family with the wrong members in charge.
Time out: Britain needs a period of self-reflection That scene at my children’s school last year showed up another side of English society: entrenched inequality. In the Netherlands, schools are not ranked, and nor are universities. Sought after secondary schools and universities use a lottery to decide who is admitted—the opposite of the generally hyper-competitive and market-based English model. (There have been experiments with school lotteries in England, but these have run into outrage because of the perception that giving every child an equal chance is—in some unspecified way—profoundly unfair.)
“The Brexit vote was the logical outcome of a set of English pathologies”
Building barriers: Britain’s school system benefits elites. Images: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/GETTY IMAGES, LUKE MACGREGOR/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES Could there be a causal relation between English hostility to the EU and this wider adversarial culture? Does it make English soil especially fertile for those press barons to plant their seeds of slander? I began to wonder about when this hostility began to hurt. I was surprised by this feeling since, until then, I had never given much the European side of my identity much thought. I have often heard Muslim friends say that it was only the attacks of 9/11 that had made them Muslim. Suddenly everybody regarded them as Muslims and so over time, they began to feel as such. Something similar happened to me when the EU referendum campaign started. I began to realise that there are powerful people in England who actively want the EU destroyed. They are full of aggressive contempt for everything the Union stands for. Even David Cameron could not bring himself to go to Oslo with other EU leaders to receive the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. Given the deep competitiveness of the English, it may be that they need the EU to feel superior; we may have lost the empire and be less than 1 per cent of the world’s population but… at least we’re not “Yurup.” Now read Stuart Ward on how Britain's imperialist mindset clouds its self-perception.