Belfast Telegraph

How Brexit made me realise there is more to English people than a stiff upper lip

By Mary Kenny

My mother, though always courteous to individuals, didn't have a high opinion of the ordinary Englishman (or woman). She considered them a "dull" people, ground into cogs in a wheel by the industrial revolution, which required people to be dullards serving Mammon and master. This was in contrast to the imaginative, poetic Irish.

She made exceptions, of course, for Englishmen like Byron, who were proper romantics, even if he had, rather transgressively, slept with his sister and shocked the Victorians.

We all inherit something of our parents' values, however much we react against them, and I think I picked up something of Ma's attitude.

One evening, some years ago, sitting in a pub in Dublin, I overheard two old working men - probably former dockers - engage in a conversation about ancient Athens and the birth of democracy.

I was rapt with attention at their imaginative interest in the Greeks, and remarked to my companion: "You would never overhear that conversation in England."

But Brexit changed my view of the common Englishman. From the moment that Sunderland turned an electoral tide, voting to leave the EU - the results emerging in the early hours of June 24 - I saw a very different side of the ordinary person in the UK (although we must allow that the Scots made their own political choices).

Here were the English as a feisty, stubborn, bloody-minded and independent people, undeferential to their 'betters', who had advised them to vote remain.

The extent of the rebellious and contrary cast of mind was particularly acute in working-class Sunderland.

The employees of Nissan had been warned, time and again, that if they wanted to retain Nissan and their jobs in the car industry, they dare not quit the European Union.

The BBC's political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, subsequently reported that Nissan workers were actually "ordered" to vote remain - just as, in the bad old days, the local gentry would make it clear to the tenants what was in their best electoral interests.

Still, Sunderland acted defiantly and against its masters' voices (small wonder that Theresa May's administration did a deal with the Japanese to keep the highly profitable Nissan factory in place - it became a political imperative).

Nobody thinks Brexit will be easy, and Mrs May has recognised how the vote divided the country in her New Year message.

Heaven knows there are economic headaches for Ireland - which is why I would not have voted for Brexit - and the immediate fall in the value of sterling automatically put whole sectors of Irish agriculture in jeopardy.

Irish residents in the UK may also have to negotiate a new deal - although I don't doubt this will eventually be worked out.

Yet, I see in the rise of the Brexiteers a new image - perhaps stereotype - of the English. Are they more racist?

Some always have been, but the ugly face of xenophobia is evident now in many countries still well within the EU: the Netherlands, France, even saintly Sweden has an anti-foreigner party.

"We're not racists, we don't hate immigrants, we're not fascists or little Englanders," was the message from a plain-speaking audience of Yorkshire folk to David Dimbleby on a recent Question Time broadcast.

"We just want to control our own country. And we will."

They were, again, so stubborn, so lacking in deference, so unafraid and outspoken about their own values that you had to admire their very obduracy.

I couldn't help casting my mind back to 1940, when the UK stood alone against the Third Reich (then in allegiance with Stalin), which had almost effortlessly conquered so much of Europe, and so much of Europe either folded or stood neutrally by (as we in the Republic did).

Turn back the pages of the newspapers to that perilous year when the UK's chances of survival were rated as next to nil, and Winston Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons, offered the people only "blood, toil, tears and sweat" and even suggested that defeat was on the cards.

As the Blitz rained down, the UK showed that spirit of doggedness and defiance - and maybe even exhilaration in being in opposition to all others.

Mrs May cut a lonely figure at the last meeting of EU leaders, and doubtless she'll be in the same position many times again in 2017.

However, the UK standing alone in Europe is not without historic precedent and echoes.

Of course, there's no political parallel between today and 1940: the European Union is an alliance of liberal democracies, and many people in the UK regret the outcome of the Brexit vote.

There's also a side of the English, and UK, character which always seeks compromise, and gradualism, rather than dramatic change. I believe this, no doubt, will also come into play, veering towards a softer rather than a harder Brexit. But the notion of the English as dull conformists is shattered, all the same.

English-born Irish revolutionary and suffragette Maud Gonne, too, had the view that the English were far too timid and law-abiding to embrace revolution - she was disgusted by the failure of the English working-class to riot in the streets, and thus transferred her hopes to rebellion in Ireland.

Were she alive today, she too might have revised her stereotypes.

Belfast Telegraph

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