So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye?

Published by Damn (18th April, 2019)

It seems strange to recall that when I was growing up in the suburbs of London almost half a century ago, the city was stuck in grim decline. Consensus said it was doomed, a symbol of Britain’s fading glory and torpor. Residents were fleeing to the suburbs so its population was plummeting, losing one in five people over course of a decade. The streets were crime-ridden, many houses lay empty, the capital’s tax take was falling. There were still bomb sites from the war-time blitz being converted into car parks, making a fortune for a pair of wily entrepreneurs (Donald Gosling and Ronald Hobson) while the East End docklands had changed little in decades.

This was the grim backdrop to the punk rock insurgency that shaped a generation with its strange mixture of anti-establishment anger and self-reliance. There was a reason bored teenagers in dull suburbs cut their hair, ripped their clothes and talked about destruction at this time of drought, crashing currency, rampant inflation and routine strikes. Partly this was the backlash to hippies, with all their earnest talk of peace and enlightenment, the inevitable pendulum swing between generations. But it was also a howl of fury against suffocating conservatism and stifling attitudes that accepted post-war decline while trading off past glories and deriding innovation. 

In 1976, the year The Sex Pistols caused shock waves with their swearing and anarchic songs, the Tate Museum in London was condemned for the purchase of a minimalist artwork by Carl Andre made up of 120 bricks. ’What A Load of Rubbish’  mocked the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror. At school, I was taught about imperial heroes who painted the planet red and a plucky nation that often stood alone. My father and his friends, mostly veterans of the Second World War, rarely talked of their battlefield exploits. Yet my friends and I devoured Commando comic books showing square-jawed Tommies taking on waves of Germans and Japanese soldiers, crude caricatures who said little more than ‘Actung’ or ‘Banzai’ as they were mowed down by the dozen.

We met few foreigners in those days except for on our fortnight summer trips to France or Portugal, when families for whom greasy fish and soggy chips was a culinary highlight would marvel at the strange food. Comics mocked ‘funny’ names and attempts by ‘Johnny Foreigner’ to talk English. And when I got the filthy British Rail train up to London, I would not see many ethnic minorities outside of a few pockets such as Notting Hill – which was then far removed from the smart place it is now with multi-million pound homes, costly coffee bars and over-priced boutiques. Needless to say, there was never any effort made to examine colonial outrages.

I mention all this as reminder of the speed of change in London, along with the cultural attitudes that helped inform those older generations that inflicted the Brexit debacle on Britain. Over my lifetime I have seen my home city burst into life like a glorious butterfly emerging from a grey cocoon. Its population has grown more than two million and it has turned into the creative capital of the world – from cutting-edge fashion and music through to film special effects and fine food – by embracing the power of globalisation, funded by the financiers who flocked to the City of London. 

London thew open its doors to the world and transformed itself to such an extent that today one-third of its citizens were born abroad – and this in turn powered the resurgence of Britain as a nation, both culturally and economically. I remember in the late 1980s looking round a dinner table and realising my wife and I were the only British-born citizens. And I can still recall my delight at seeing my 14-year-old son buy a German football shirt when we attended the 2006 World Cup, something unthinkable to my generation after gorging on all those combat comic books.

The transformation into what came to be called Cool Britannia was typified by the Tate, opening a gallery dedicated to contemporary art in a converted power station at the start of the century that in its first year attracted twice as many visitors as all three of its other sites. Ironically, the key figure in this amazing national resurgence, driven and symbolised by our rapidly-expanding capital, was a deeply conservative woman who shared many of her generation’s suspicions about cultural change and foreigners. And with even more savage irony, it is those right-wingers that claim to worship her name who seek to unravel her achievements in the name of Brexit.

Margaret Thatcher was determined to revive Britain – and she did this partly by exploiting our entry into the Common Market six years before she won power in 1979. It was our first female prime minister who unleashed the ‘Big Bang’ that deregulated the City of London and opened its doors to the world. It grew so fast that it dominated the continent’s financial services, then overtook New York, while generating vast taxes and trade surpluses. She also revived a moribund car sector by encouraging foreign ownership, selling the country as the ‘gateway to Europe,’ inside the world’s biggest trading bloc yet with less red tape than its neighbours.

Among Thatcher’s finest moments on the international stage was leadership on the European Union’s single market. ‘Just think for a moment what a prospect that is,’ she said. ‘A single market without barriers – visible or invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s most prosperous people. Bigger than Japan. Bigger than the United States. On your doorstep. And with the Channel Tunnel to give you direct access to it.’  She was right – this was a noble achievement that aided Britain’s renaissance. Today that market has another 215 million people and accounts for 44 per cent of exports – yet suddenly the country confronts detachment from her wealth-creating initiative.

Now fast forward to our second female prime minister, the tragic figure of Theresa May plodding stubbornly forward to deliver a Brexit she once admitted will be highly corrosive to her country. She triggered Article 50 – designed by its creators to thwart efforts to leave the EU with its impossibly-short two-year time span – despite having no idea how to deliver a deal. This was done, as with so much in the Brexit farce, to placate the right-wing of the Conservative Party. So as I write these words, 22 days before departure date, we still have no idea if Britain will crash out with a disastrous no deal, find a negotiated settlement or demand an extension. 

This destructive Tory psychodrama impacts on many levels. It has hideously divided the nation on generational, regional and educational lines. It is hurting the economy, losing billions in growth and tax revenue. It has disrupted business so that we see Nissan reject a state bribe to build a new car at its Sunderland plant, famously lured by Thatcher to a place torn apart by her industrial policies. It risks reigniting conflict in Ireland and the union between England and Scotland. It has devastated the global image of the mother of parliaments, with a democracy renowned for sober judgement looking like it has gone mad. And it threatens the two-party political system, with anti-Brexit defectors from left and right joining forces at Westminster.

But what of its cultural impact? For that shock 2016 referendum result was a victory for an old order seeking the misty certainties of the past. It was a triumph for older generations who are fearful over the future and unsettled by the speed of change to their country, along with those in struggling towns and rural areas left resentful by London’s wealth and national dominance. The Leave campaign cleverly exploited such concerns – especially over migrants endlessly scapegoated by politicians for their own failures – with the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, aided by a campaign based on falsehoods and key figures crudely stoking fears over Muslims in particular.

This nationalist spasm spits out a message that Britain wants walls, not bridges. As one Polish carer told me, the vote informed people like her they were not wanted so no surprise to see already a sharp drop in Europeans moving here. One recent survey of 600 foreign architects working in Britain found almost half said Brexit had made them consider leaving their jobs, showing how the self-harming termination of free movement might jeopardise a thriving £4.8bn sector.

It was a ballot influenced by delusions of British exceptionalism bound up with imperial nostalgia – highlighted by the revelation some Whitehall officials talked of ‘Empire 2.0’ as they sought stronger ties with Commonwealth countries. ‘Scrutinising the architects and those behind the scenes of Brexit, it is hard to see them as anything more than the faded vestiges of a colour film found in the spidered, dusty, decaying and slightly damp bureau of a colonial outpost,’ said musician Damon Albarn, whose latest album with The Good, The Band & The Queen offers one of the most insightful artistic takes on this schism.

Blur, another of Albarn’s many bands, helped define the moment under the New Labour government of Tony Blair when Britain – led by London – became hip again, rediscovering its pride while confident enough to feel comfortable with a foreign influx into arts, architecture, fashion, food and technology. Young Britons grew up in a continent without borders while creative and entrepreneurial Europeans flocked to our shores. This boosted Britain: look at the menus of fine restaurants now found across the country, not just the banks and traders in the City. Or see how a dynamic special effects industry helped steal blockbuster movie-making from Hollywood – yet this stunning success relied on one in four staff coming from other EU countries.

These creative industries are the fastest-growing sector in Britain, generating more than one pound in every 20 for the economy and employing more than two million people. Yet Ed Vaizey, a former Tory culture minister, admitted that Brexit will harm morale. ‘Cultural practitioners are outward looking and embrace diversity, difference and collaboration,’ he said. ‘So to cut ourselves off like this feels like a retrograde step. The biggest practical challenges are access to talent – how do we get great people with specialist skills? And how do we move about if making a film in the UK but needing to shoot a scene in Prague or going on a European tour as an orchestra. It is no surprise 97 per cent of creative practitioners wanted to Remain and one hundred per cent of them are miserable.’ 

As I have seen for myself with a music project working with African artists, it is hard to have faith in future visa policies for the creative sector when the government has ramped up costs while tightened access to such an extent that some bands have given up touring here. In the fashion sector, there are more than 10,000 European workers while Britain imports clothes and shoes worth £10bn from the continent. The falling pound led to more tourists and sales, but insiders fear a talent drain and that tariffs will drive up prices. Katharine Hamnett, who made one of her trademark slogan T-shirts emblazoned ‘FASHION HATES BREXIT’, has set up a firm in Italy to avoid border difficulties – a move made by many other British-based businesses.

Brexit was never really about Brussels but about identity, like those other populist explosions across the West. It was a cultural clash that showed the simmering rage of resentment that built up over immigration and inequality, exploited by a bunch of wealthy politicians for their own selfish ambitions. This proved viciously corrosive when combined with a toxic lack of trust in London-based elites at a time when conflict in the Middle East, the legacy of Western meddling, sent waves of refugees over the Mediterranean. The result is deep damage to a British brand that has gone in just seven years from the joy and unity of the London Olympics to the agony and painful divisions of Brexit. 

The result of this rupture is unlikely to be a seismic crash if the stupidity of no deal departure is averted. Instead there will be the slow and often impercitble impact of decisions like that of Hamnett to shift offices and spend money in EU rivals rather than in a backwards-looking country trying to revive former glories. Only time will tell if Britain and its capital will slump back into slow decline and if Thatcher’s flawed salvation of her nation has been wrecked by false prophets claiming to carry her torch. But clearly we have already damaged our culture, ripped apart deep fissures, devastated our global brand, undermined our creative industries and spiralled with frightening speed from Cool Britannia to Fool Britannia.

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