Enda O’Doherty writes: Neither France nor Germany, it seems, is very impressed by the conduct of British politics in general or the ability of the Conservatives and Labour to compromise sufficiently to agree on a Brexit deal in particular. According to yesterday’s Guardian, some member states think that Labour and the Tories are more interested in making each other look bad than reaching a deal in the national interest, with Labour in particular focused on bringing about a general election (though more than three out of four polls carried out since the beginning of the year rather surprisingly still show the Tories ahead).
One poll which probably will have to take place if Europe offers only a choice between no deal and a long extension will be the one for the European parliament, a horrendous prospect which will certainly offer us the spectacle of many of our neighbours indulging in orgies of self-righteousness, belligerent self-praise, self-pity and, in the end of course self-harm, all capped with the thoroughly nauseating prospect of seeing Nigel Farage and his chums back in Strasbourg again, on the inside pissing in. Not for too long, one hopes.
Britain is not, of course, the only country in the EU suffering from national solipsism and xenophobia but it is very likely to be – in spite of the existence in many states of powerful nationalist, populist and anti-European movements – the only one which, when push comes to shove, is actually prepared to vote itself out, even if it is clear that radical surgery to the nose will have deleterious effects on the face … because after all there are some things that are more important than money, like being better than bloody foreigners perhaps.
Back in 2016 – before the vote, that is – it was assumed that “the money men”, acting through bodies like the Confederation of British Industry, would prevail on public opinion, persuading waverers and that rather large section of opinion that does not exactly “love Brussels” – and how could it with a press like the British one? – that leaving would in the end be a bad idea, one that would involve significant costs for almost everyone. But in the end Project Fear, as the Brexiters called it, did not prevail, being trumped in the course of the campaign by Project Self-deception (“take back control”).
Britain, or England, has been at many stages of its history an open, and indeed at least partially welcoming society for people who came there to settle. Opponents of immigration today like to argue that this is a question on which the already resident (or native, though that can be a tricky term) population is seldom consulted – and they have a point. Policy on this matter is rather more often a question of the authorities facilitating or encouraging immigration because of a perceived labour or skills shortage, fairly open borders being good for the economy, and also sometimes for society. The British National Health Service would not have been able to do the wonderful things it has done since the 1940s without Irish, West Indian, African, and Indian and Pakistani personnel. And it may well run into problems of recruitment in the Brexit future unless it is allowed to make exceptional provisions.
At various times (and not just in Britain) popular hostility to incomers has been countered by the belief of the authorities that their presence is beneficial to the economy in general, and perhaps to employers in particular, and employers tend more often to have the ear of government than employees. This goes back a long time. For foreigners more generally, or “strangers” as they were more often called, Elizabethan England could be a haven, particularly for continental European Protestants fleeing persecution, but their presence, and their participation in economic life, was often resisted by the populace. In 1517 there had been riots, when London apprentices attacked the alien community, many of them French or Flemish. The authorities conducted a census, partly with a view to reassuring natives that there were in fact far fewer strangers living among them than they imagined. Nevertheless, notices (“libels”) showing gallows hanging strangers continued to appear and it was pointed out to the authorities that spies could easily be insinuated into the country in the guise of foreign workers, while “artisans and mechanical persons might be impoverished by the great multitude of strangers being of their trades and faculties”. And so today, the very Brexit-supporting people of eastern England will perhaps be a little bit happier noticing fewer strangers living in their midst (though they are still legally entitled to be there they no longer feel very welcome). But what of the farmer who has no workers and faces seeing his fruit crop rot in the fields? It seems the local English are not as keen on fruit-picking as, for example, the Romanians.
The literary historian Paul Strohm, in a recent article in Lapham’s Quarterly, charmingly entitled “Maken Engelond Gret Ayeyn”, traces economic hostility to foreigners and resistance to globalism (Italian and Flemish encroachments on control of England’s wool trade) back to Chaucer’s time. The murder of the Genoese merchant Giano Imperiale in 1379 was got up to look like the result of an accidental street brawl that had got out of hand. But in fact the murderers had been hired by those who controlled the wool export trade in the City of London, keen to prevent Imperiale setting up export schemes which would bypass them out of the port of Southampton. The Libel of English Policy (a “libel” in this context is just a little book), which appeared in 1438, argued strongly for an economic policy strictly in the national interest. After a few standard sneers about the habits of foreigners
when two Flemings meet
They’ll make a cask of mighty ale their treat;
So sore they’ll haul and pull away at it –
Believe it or not, they’ll piss right where they sit.
the anonymous author moves on to a condemnation of the sharp practices of the Italians, who bought wool on credit (wool and cloth were the heavy industries of the late medieval period) in England, sold it for gold in Genoa, invested the proceeds at a good rate of interest in Flanders and finally, belatedly settled their bill back in England. This way of doing business saw foreigners
bear the gold out of this land,
And suck the thrift away out of our hand:
As the wasp sucks honey from the bee,
And so diminish our commodity.
Rather than selling the Italians their good-quality wool (English wool was indeed highly prized) and allowing them to weave it into luxury fabrics, thus adding considerable value, the English merchants should be doing this themselves. This, however, presupposes that they had the necessary skills and contacts. But in fact Italian merchants and bankers in this period were more advanced than any rival and wealth and trade were concentrated in the region that extended from Florence up through northern Italy, along the major German rivers and into the Low Countries. England, until roughly the Elizabethan era, was something of a periphery – one among others.
The Libel wanted the English privy council to embrace protectionist policies and use its naval strength to disrupt Flemish trade (Calais was still an English possession at the time). In any trade war, it argued, England would be sure to have the upper hand in the end since it dealt in solid, honest commodities that everyone needed, like wool and tin. The foreigners, on the other hand, dealt chiefly in fashion goods – “fripperies, niffles, and trifles”.
And what of the murdered Giano Imperiale? The Genoese trader had been admitted to England under letters of safe conduct issued by the king, so his murder was a serious matter. At first, juries refused to convict the killers but when the trial was moved out of London to Northampton new evidence emerged and the murderers revealed that Imperiale’s death had not been the unfortunate and accidental result of a brawl but had been a contract killing ordered by London’s trading elite. But of course, as a much later English song pointed out, it’s the rich what gets the pleasure, it’s the poor what gets the blame. (It’s the same the whole world over / Ain’t it a bleedin shame?) In the Giano Imperiale case one of the hired ruffians was executed and no measures at all were taken against those wealthy, respectable and no doubt well-connected folk who had hired him.
Paul Strohm concludes:
… the Libel author and his peers may be seen as Brexiteers avant la lettre, laying early foundations for varieties of economic nationalism now returning to contemporary vogue. Of course, the idea of England basing its prosperity on the export of goods like wool and coal and tin is now centuries out of date, with England long since having become an importer of raw materials. But even though the country no longer produces much in the way of commodities, the idea of a fortress England, self-interested and protectionist, patrolling its own borders, rebuffing overtures from foreign interlopers like poor Giano, still lives on.
Illustration: The Cloth Hall in the Flemish city of Ypres shows the wealth accumulated in the trade in the Middle Ages