2020 – and back in the UK

Godstowe Nunnery, Port Meadow, OxfordOxford, 01/01/2020. It’s New Year’s Day, first day of the new decade (by accepted custom), and the start of the twenties (again). It is also a significant day for me as, finally and after much talk about it, I’m a UK resident once more. Thirty-five years after moving to continental Europe, I’m back in Blighty.

I was speaking yesterday with friends in Brussels. And last night I enjoyed listening to Eddi Reader singing chanson with Jools Holland, not to forget Melanie and her French version of the immortal ‘What have they done to my song Ma’.

With 35 years of life experience from Belgium and Holland, I enjoy hearing French and Dutch, even if my own conversation abilities are pitiful. I also have dual-citizenship status now, but that is for the purposes of convenience. Moving back to England is a huge change, one with many new challenges no doubt. But at the same time, I’m happy to be back.

Because I am British, and have always felt so. Indeed, it may be un-PC to say it these days, but I’m rather proud of being British too. I like being back in the UK, and being back in England. There are problems I know, and much could be improved. But the same is true everywhere else, and for me Britain is still the place in the world to be. I almost hesitate to say so, because I know I’ll be accused of being jingoistic. But this is what I feel – there is no place like England.

I have European friends who think we are all crazy, and are saddened by the oncoming move to a semi-detached relationship with the EU. But as I say to them, I’m not too bothered about Brexit. First because I think I understand the feelings behind it – namely a long held (for centuries) and instinctive distrust of continental European governments, something that has become embedded in the English psyche in particular.

And second because I believe that once the resentment felt towards what are seen as rules imposed by external governments (inaccurate I know, but widely believed) is settled by Brexit, then most people will settle down and focus on the important things. Those issues are numerous, and solving many of them will involve agreements with continental Europe, and sometimes even – shock horror – close partnership.

So Brexit will act as the emotional release, enabling government and business, once it is over, to focus on practical matters. Within five years or so, I think it is likely that we will notice little real difference in our relationship with Europe. Although, given the British electoral timetable, any new more imited framework of agreement could take a while longer.

However one of the unfortunate aspects of Brexit is the way it seems to have given a voice to the more unpleasant elements in our society. Which has in turn convinced some in left-wing politics that all leavers are racist, fascist, xenophobic, etc.

Which is not true of course, but there is no doubt that one of the most important issues facing this country at the beginning of a post-Brexit decade is the rise in right-wing intolerance and even hatred. From outright hate-crimes to the rise in persecution and harrassment from ignorant neighbours, there is a civic boil here which needs to be lanced in order to release the poison.

Britain is not alone in suffering this way. I have witnessed the rise in intolerance and even outright fascism on mainland Europe also. And such problems in society have not been helped by deliberate assistance and agitation from some of Europe’s more extremist neighbours. Dealing with such problems is going to be a key challenge both for Britain and for its EU partners.

But as for the voices of extremism themselves, I feel that once Brexit has been done and dusted, then they will be returned to the fringe of politics whence they came. As long as the causes of complaint, which nearly always prove to be about the local economy, are faced up to properly and dealt with.

On my last night in Brussels (just before Christmas), I joined fellow journalists for our annual Christmas party. I have known many of them for 30 years. Some of those old friends are no longer around, and we shared a toast to absent friends.

As the evening came to an end, several colleagues commiserated with me about leaving Brussels and returning to England at this time, when all UK politics is consumed by ‘the subject that shall not
be named’.

That’s OK, I replied, assuring them that I was going back to sort things out. They laughed, knowing I was joking. But then, perhaps I was not ..…

As for now, on this first day of a new decade and for me the start of a new life. I can only say, ‘Hey England, I’m back, and happy to be here. Now what’s next?’.

My best wishes to you all for 2020.

© Philip Hunt, 2020.

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