The liberal Euro-philes at the New York Times are at it again, mocking ignorant Britons for resenting the grand European Union trading bloc. London-based reporter Sarah Lyall made gentle mockery of the right-of-center push for England to exit the EU (a proposal known colloquailly as "Brexit") on Friday’s front page by evoking Monty Python and especially John Cleese: “On ‘Brexit’ Vote, British Ask If It Would Be Silly to Walk.”
That awkward headline referenced Python's “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch, but Lyall was thinking of the famous scene from the troupe's religious farce Life of Brian, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” The online version included a clip of the scene. The text box from her report from Liverpool highlighted the extended reference: “How will a vote go? Monty Python may offer a clue.”
Lyall opened her news story with an editorialist anecdote:
Jackie O’Neill, a 54-year-old administrative assistant, was explaining the other day why Britain should vote to divorce itself from the European Union in this month’s referendum. As she enumerated her many grievances, I couldn’t help thinking of the scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” in which a bunch of disaffected Judeans sit around, complaining about the Romans.
“They’ve bled us white, the bastards,” says their leader, Reg, played by John Cleese. “And what have they ever given us in return?” His colleagues mention a few things, by way of example.
O.K., Reg says. “But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
Even Britain’s most enthusiastic European Union supporters would not argue that Europe has been quite so helpful to their country, of course. But as chance would have it, Ms. O’Neill was heaping her abuse on Europe in a spot that has been a particularly enthusiastic recipient of European largess over the years.
So when she declared, of the European Union, “We’re subsidizing them, and what do we get out of it except for a load of laws that we don’t vote for?” it was an easy question to answer. For one thing, there was the large building directly behind her, the Echo Arena and BT Convention Center. When the complex was built, in 2008, Europe kicked in 50 million pounds.
“Well, I’ve never been to the Echo Arena,” Ms. O’Neill said.
Lyall’s distaste for people dismissed by the left as “Little Englanders” is muted but peeps out nonetheless.
Separated from the Continent by language, tradition, historic antagonism and an inhospitable body of water, Britain has always seemed to be an uneasy participant in the wider European project. It took years to sign up, and its agreement was always marked by caveats and exceptions to the rules. Even when it did join, it felt to many Britons as if someone had given a British pub owner a bunch of fancy French Champagne bottles and said, “Here, use these for your British ale from now on.” The trappings might be different, but the beer is still the same.
In the 15 years I lived in London (I returned home to the United States three years ago), I was constantly struck by the sense of otherness with which many English people regarded Europeans. (It’s more complicated for Scots, whose mistrust of Britain’s English-centric government makes them more pro-Europe, and for younger people and Londoners, who generally feel part of a wider world.)
But travel around England, talking to older people, and you find below the surface a sense of unease, of distrust. Even people who believe that Britain should stay in the European Union, for economic and trading purposes, do not feel very European.
As for Europe, some of the British sense of dissonance comes from loss of empire and the country’s complicated feelings about World War II, a moment that showed Britain at its shining best while simultaneously stripping it of its position as a major international power. And some of it stems, simply, from an island-centric sense of otherness.
Lyall went after right-leaning tabloids and strung together some anecdotes (including a famous clip from a classic comedy episode that aired 40 years ago) to make a thin case demonstrating alleged anti-Europe sentiment in England.
Britain’s populist tabloids have a long history of slipping happily into anti-European remarks. “Up Yours Delors” read a famous headline in 1990 in The Sun, urging its readers to tell Jacques Delors, then the French head of the European Commission, to “frog off.” (Mr. Delors supported increased European economic integration, which The Sun did not.)
Prince Harry once wore a Nazi commandant costume to a party. And in 2006, officials specifically warned fans traveling to Germany for a soccer match not to do things like shout “Sieg heil” at the referees, or to put their fingers under their noses in a way meant to evoke Hitler’s mustache. Perhaps the favorite television episode here is one on “Fawlty Towers” when a hotel owner, played (again) by Mr. Cleese, responds to a group of German guests by lapsing into xenophobic insanity, goose-stepping around the dining room and referring to prawn cocktail as “prawn Goebbels.” (“You started it,” he says when the traumatized customers object. “You invaded Poland.”)
Lyall waited until paragraph 21 of 24 to mention the politically incorrect concern for the influx of Muslim migrants to Europe, and doesn’t mention the sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Germany.
The pro-Brexit side has tapped into anti-foreign feeling by conflating the European migrant crisis with what many Britons see as a local immigration crisis caused by lax European laws and porous European borders. In their view, the country is being overrun by foreigners who not only take their jobs and welfare benefits, but also bring fundamentally different values into Britain.