How my generation fell in love with Europe—and out of itby Charles Turner / August 2, 2017 / Leave a comment
Ever since the EU referendum result I have been thinking of a remark by Emile Durkheim. He said that suicide is not an act in which someone cuts their ties with society, but one in which they communicate the fact that they have already done so. Could it be that, if it actually happens, Brexit will be less a messy break-up between people who know one another well than the whimpering end of an already lukewarm attachment? The leavers’ ignorance about how the EU works did suggest something other than the detailed spite of divorce cases—more the brooding resentment of those who want to shut the world out.
Economically and legally, of course, the idea of a lack of connection is absurd: EU regulations, as the Brexiteers constantly point out, apply to all companies even if their business is entirely domestic. Durkheim’s remark keeps coming back to me not because of economics, but because of culture. At first glance, that sounds equally implausible; surely, in making people more mobile, the European Union has opened them to the culture of their neighbours? More British people than ever have a sense of what everyday life in Spain, or Italy, or France, or Germany is like; British supermarkets are stuffed with affordable goods from all over Europe the quality of which dwarfs anything available in the 1970s; Italian and French restaurants flourish, Scandinavian noir is on BBC4, and books about European affairs sell well. Nevertheless, over the last four decades I have watched the UK drift away culturally from the European continent, partly because of domestic cultural policy, partly because Europe itself has been unable to articulate a coherent and attractive cultural vision to match its political and economic ambition, and partly because social media has undermined the idea of a national conversation.
In the 1970s, when I was growing up, the conduit for that conversation was television and radio. If you believe the twenty-somethings who appear on It Was Alright on the Night, the 1970s was mostly Love Thy Neighbor, The Black and White Minstrels, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, and girls in hot pants, with assorted paedophiles (not very far) in the background. They forget—because they are too young to remember—that the BBC (and even ITV in its better moments) then provided more meaningful content than it does today with its multiple channels and ‘online presence’, and that a significant, memorable portion of it, broadcast as Britain entered the EEC, conveyed a sense of the cultural connections between Britain and the continent.