This has been a week which left me ashamed to be British. I’ve always considered our current Prime Minister a vacuous, self-satisfied prat, and thought I must be just about the only person in the country who preferred the one we had, briefly, before. But what the hell, it’s a democracy innit? As I understand it this means putting up with views and attitudes I personally can’t stand with a modicum of equanimity.
Up to a point. Right now I wish there was some way of effectively mobilising the surely-large percentage of the thinking population who consider cutting Britain out of Europe to be the last deluded gasp of closet imperialist. We’re so Great, we don’t need any allies across the Channel. We certainly don’t need poncy upstarts like France and Germany – Germany! I ask you! – influencing what we do. Even via a forum of 27.
But they’ll be doing it anyway – just in a forum of 26. They’ll be doing it anyway, because, in many, many ways, they are frankly superior to us. They build better, they educate better, they look after their sick and their public life better. They deserve, frankly, to dominate Europe, and I, for one, shall be hard put not to cheer when they end up dominating us.
I’m going to confess to what in many British circles is a blasphemy verging on treason – I think Germany is terrific. I spent some of the happiest years of my life in West and then reunified Berlin. Coming straight from Thatcher’s Britain, I was deeply impressed by the high standards of living, employment, education, healthcare, food, shopping, transport – the high standards, pretty much, of everything. Even in inner West Berlin, which represented the height of grottiness in the wider West German imagination, folks – or should that be Das Volk – would have been ashamed to live in streets and on estates like many of ours. Something would have been done. Consumer groups would have made loud noises, organised committees, undertaken independent research; as they did, indeed, as soon as the Russian nuclear reactor at Tschernobyl exploded not very far away. I enjoyed my first Berlin winter, crunching over frozen snow to my easy, well-paid job, in daytime temperatures of minus 20 degrees, snug inside my good, cheap clothing, dropping into numerous Café-Kneipen, and coming home to my triple-glazed renovated shared Altbauwohnung, having shivered through the previous winter on the dole in a London squat at temperatures never below freezing. West Berlin was a living proof that the Big Society works, so long as the fundamentals are in place. In Britain those fundamentals have barely even got started.
In fact, I only missed one thing: London’s ethnic diversity, and the discussion that went with it. 1980s West Berlin had this huge minority, the Turkish guest-workers, but while Racism never went off the agenda in left-wing London, even left-wing Berliners made little attempt to build bridges. The West German Szene-issues of the day were environmental, anti-nuclear, anti-imperialist, feminist, and ultimately, perhaps, a little self-absorbed. Maybe self-absorption is the flip-side to excess prosperity. It has probably modified itself a little now.
For Germany is a civilised place. Its people on the whole, are thoughtful, moderate and well-educated. There are surely sound reasons why it is an economic powerhouse. German statesmen and women of right and left are, to my mind, cultured, internationalist and linguistically able beyond the British imagination. They would put us to shame, if we had the modicum of required insight to recognise it.
And that’s why we should be ashamed of what Cameron has done now. We should rise up and protest at the enormity of our betrayal. We are Europeans; we should feel honoured, the way the smaller countries are, to be invited to participate in whatever European union, frankly, is on the cards. We and our children can only benefit in the longer term, and have everything to lose in the short. Fat chance, I know. Am I really the only person here in a minority of one?