Brexit: A Tale of ‘Ancient Ethnic Hatreds’

What if columnists wrote about the U.K. the way they do about the Middle East?

A man carries an umbrella past a polling station in central London, Britain. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters)

London, Britain. June 2016.

You can learn everything you need to know about the EU referendum in the United Kingdom by talking to just two people in London: the taxi driver and the millennial entrepreneur-type person. They’ve never met—the taxi driver doesn’t hang out in trendy places and the millennial entrepreneur-type person uses Uber instead of traditional London cabs—but by talking to each for 10 minutes I gathered enough quotes to allow me to write knowledgeably about this debate that has inflamed passions on this small island. And I’m confident to declare that the hatreds underlying the debate are too deep-rooted for the United Kingdom—an arbitrary amalgamation of tribes that have existed in tension for centuries—to remain united.

The taxi driver, John—I will call him John because I forgot to ask him his name and he looked like a John to me—was disenfranchised with modern politics. He didn’t use the word disenfranchised, but I felt it would work well for my sophisticated cosmopolitan audience. He was angry about something he called the “24-country format in the Euros,” a clear indictment of the remote machinations of European bureaucrats and their detachment from common people.

John was ranting about “Roy tinkering with the system,” a common phrase in the local Cockney dialect which denotes discontent with the opaqueness of modern European politics, particularly in the post-Treaty of Rome context. While I am personally a big fan of the European Union and its achievements, it looks good if I point out in a condescending way that I do genuinely understand why the working classes are dissatisfied with it.

But, and there’s always a “but” after those declarations of sympathy for the concerns of the lower classes, as well as a question: Isn’t that more a symptom of the inability of politicians to explain to the simple folk why the EU is good for them?

In fact, trying to understand attitudes to the EU referendum through the prism of class is misleading. As most commentators would tell you, class has nothing to do with it and, in fact, class has never played an important role in British politics or society historically. Most people don’t even know which class they’re in and many can be members of the higher and lower classes simultaneously, such as Lord Alan Sugar, the world-famous working class millionaire.

This fluidity in class identity, however, contrasts sharply with the fierce ethnic rivalry within this ancient kingdom. The Norman conquest of England in the 11th century left deep scars and created divisions between the Norman invaders and the local Anglo-Saxon population that continue to this day.

The persistence of legends like Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, describing native Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Normans, attests to this fact. When Anglo-Saxons in Britain today look at the EU, they don’t see a modern political union but the lingering face of Norman occupation. The persistence of this ancient Norman/Anglo-Saxon rivalry in modern-day Britain manifests itself most fiercely today in the realm of soccerball, which is a local sport played on grass fields. The local championship is followed by millions of zealous fans who support their teams religiously. It is dominated by Anglo-Saxon teams like Manchester United, Liverpool, and Newcastle; as well as the Norman clubs Chelsea, Tottenham Spurs, and above all, Arsenal.

Arsenal has won many trophies over the years, but nothing really important over the last decade or so. The club however continues to be universally loathed by Anglo-Saxon fans, not least because of its long-time French (the modern word for Norman) manager Arsène Wenger and the large number of French players who have played for the club over the years. It is also hated for its slick, irritating style of soccerball, which betrays a quintessentially Norman form of nihilism. This style contrasts with the more muscular and intense Anglo-Saxon approach to the game that shuns all aesthetic considerations.

Partition is the only solution to these intractable hatreds. (Karl Sharro)

Unsurprisingly, Wenger is a vocal supporter of the Remain campaign and Britain’s continuing membership of the EU. In fact, many of the leaders of the Remain camp are of Norman origin, while most of the leaders of the Leave campaign are Anglo-Saxon. The notable exception is Nigel Farage, a politician of Norman extraction who argues that Normans and Anglo-Saxons should put their differences aside and focus on antagonizing foreigners instead.

Farage has been shunned by the Norman community for this public betrayal, but he has managed to build support among Anglo-Saxons, although not enough to get elected into parliament. Farage endeared himself to Anglo-Saxons by publicly drinking beer, a habit which is frowned upon by the Normans who prefer wine and coffee. This fundamental dividing line within British culture has been overlooked by commentators in the referendum debate, but it represents an important symbolic schism. I wanted to find out more, so I decided to go talk to Matteo, the millennial entrepreneur-type person.

Matteo runs what is known as a “hipster coffee cart,” but he’s much more than just a coffee seller. Matteo is passionate about his personal philosophy, which revolves around overcharging customers for artisanal products. He is part of a new breed of activist/entrepreneur in the U.K. “redefining the post-mass production consumer landscape.” And, as you can guess from his Latinized name, Matteo is a Norman.

Matteo believes that the U.K. should stay in the European Union, claiming that he feels more European than English. He cited many great things the EU has achieved, like giving women and minorities the vote, introducing Saturdays (which are his busiest business days), and abolishing slavery. He particularly liked traveling around Europe, talking to like-minded people about their shared passion for overpriced artisanal products, and he feared he would lose this freedom if Britain left the EU.

As I left, I felt sad because the worlds of Matteo and John are so far apart. It is tragic that events that happened a thousand years ago should continue to separate British people from each other and impact on the relationship of the country to Europe, with which it has historically had many good wars. Thursday as British people vote to remain in or leave the EU, the biggest driver will be this ancient ethnic schism between Normans and Anglo-Saxons. It’s clear that given these intractable differences, which the United States can meddle with but cannot solve, the only solution is to split the U.K., with one side in the EU and the other out. The border between Leavia and Remania would run through London, which would be a demilitarized zone under UN administration, with peacekeepers along the border. Perhaps this or that area will be on the wrong side. But that’s the nature of colonial borders.

This post appears courtesy of Karl reMarks.