Last night I was at The Guildhall to do the after dinner turn at the Franco-British Young Leaders’ gathering, which brings together rising stars in politics, business, the military, media and academia. It is a joint initiative of the UK ambassador to Paris, David Cameron’s former chief of staff of Ed Llewellyn, and the French Ambassador to London, Sylvie Bermann.
The pre-dinner speaker was Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, who did her best to assure a sceptical audience, among them head-shaking diplomats from both countries, that all would be well after Brexit. Though she is a good speaker, I was not convinced she was entirely persuaded herself.
Given the audience, and given the timing, with the referendum anniversary today, and last night Theresa May in Brussels with other EU leaders (until they asked her to leave) I spoke mainly about Brexit, but also some of the reasons why, personally and politically, I feel the Brexit course we seem to be taking is so wrong. The speech is here in full. And for non French speakers, don’t worry, it goes into English soon enough …
Merci, et bonsoir, à tous et à toutes. What a wonderful language that says ‘à tous et à toutes.’ Il n y en a pas de traduction. Untranslateable … Welcome to all, (masculine,) and to all, (feminine) … ca marche pas. J’adore la langue francaise.
Quand on m’a invité j’ai demandé est-ce que tout le monde qui sera la parle francais? Et on m’a dit, non, mais tout le monde comprend l’anglais. Quelle honte! Pour moi, le francais c’est comme ma cornemuse, je pratique si souvent que possible. For those French learners who like to learn a new word every day, cornemuse is bagpipe.
Alors, ou commencer?
When you have a controversial profile, you get used to abuse on social media. I usually ignore, I sometimes engage, I never ever block … but very occasionally I see within the abuse the grains of a good idea … since June 23 last year, that has been the case for the many tweets on the lines of ‘if you love Europe so much, why don’t you go and live there?’ And you know what, … c’est pas mal comme idée. Tempting.
The Ambassadors may know the story of the French diplomat who said to Lord Palmerston “If I were not a Frenchman, I should wish to be an Englishman”; to which Palmerston replied: “If I were not an Englishman, I should wish to be an Englishman.” Well frankly, there have been times in recent months when I have wished I was French.
Emmanuel Macron was 16 when I started to work for Tony Blair. That doesn’t just make me feel old. It makes me jealous that it is France not Britain that has that sense of energy that political change and dynamic leadership can bring, while here … well, you know the story of the election. As for Brexit, it makes me sad, and angry, at a change which I feel swims against the tide of history.
I am an unashamed Francophile. I know they can be a pain, a bit moany, a bit over boastful in still thinking they do the best food and the best coffee. I know we can reel off a list of dozens of great modern musicians while their radio stations still feed on a diet of France Gall – who I love – and Johnny Halliday, an acquired taste I have yet to acquire … but it is a wonderful country with wonderful landscapes, literature and people and I wish our relations could move beyond the media clichés. Not just the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” but the “Gallic charm” – they’re not all charming – their supposed indifference to politicians’ private lives – I’m not sure either Francois Hollande or Penelope Fillon buy that – or the propensity to strike the moment change is proposed … we will see how Macron’s majority puts that one to the test.
Last June’s events have made me even more Francophile, as I sense the looming loss of something important. I am not just a Remoaner, nor even just a Remainiac, I am a Re-intend to bang on and on about it and hope amid the chaos of recent times there will be a RE-think and it might actually never happen at all. Hashtag longest hashtag ever.
Campaigning is a mindset and it is important to wear your beliefs loudly. I just had an email from a paper with the usual summer ask – which books to take on holiday. Fiona and I shall, for the 39th year running, be going to Provence. And I recommended ‘Lettres a Anne’, a 1200 page collection of the letters Francois Mitterrand wrote to his mistress, Anne Pingeot. It is breathtakingly romantic. I also recommended ‘The End of Europe’ – not a gloat by a Nigel Farage or a Boris Johnson – may they never be forgiven – but a brilliant analysis of the dire state of world politics written by a young American, James Kirkich. The sub-title ‘Dictators, Demagogues and the coming dark age’ gives you a flavour. Putin, Trump and Brexit figure large, and Kirkich shares my exasperation that we are turning away from liberal values and the benefits of the EU at a time, with Trump in the White House, and Putin to the East, we need them most. As for my own reading, current top of the pile is one of the new books about Emmanuel Macron, ‘Un Jeune Homme Si Parfait,’ by Anne Fulda.
One of the failings of the Remain campaign was that amid all the dire warnings of Project Fear, there was no real hope, and no love for Europe. The message was “we know it’s awful but we will make it less awful.” That played into the hands of Leave. So yes, it might be too late, who knows? But we are living in a political world defined by turmoil and change, in which anything can happen, including a reversal of this madness.
I have often thought about my old friend and colleague Philip Gould, chair of more focus groups than was good for him, endlessly trusting in the good sense of the people to make the right call. He would not believe Donald Trump was president. He would not believe Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party. He would not believe Brexit. So how do I make sense of his insistence that the people make the right call when I know he would think we made the wrong choice on Brexit? And what I hear Philip whispering down from on high is that you must trust them to admit they made the wrong call, and think again. On verra.
The Government says we are leaving the EU not Europe. We heard it again from Karen Bradley tonight. But to me I feel if we leave the EU, for all its faults and annoyances, we are certainly leaving Europe as we know it. We are leaving a Union that has been a big part of the peace and relative prosperity that my and your generations have enjoyed. And we are doing it for the wrong reasons. We have decided to make “Europe” the blame vehicle for genuine issues of inequality, and the fear of loss of control over the pace of change – much of it a consequence of the global crash, technological advance whose benefits most people opt for every time they hit the purchase button on their computer, whilst simultaneously bemoaning the loss of their High Street shops, and the impact of the greatest migration flows in history, caused part by war, part climate change, part regional instabilities.
We all have our own unique sense of identity. I was born in Yorkshire, yet because of my parentage I consider myself to be Scottish. Also a Northerner, yet I have lived all my adult life in the South. A Londoner even, for all my children were born here – third generation London born Scots. And European too. Not European because of geography but because of heart.
One of the best years of my life was spent as an assistant d’anglais in a school in Nice forty years ago. I can remember arriving at Nice station, one suitcase, no idea where I was even spending the night, breathing in the warm summer air and thinking “wow, I am living abroad.” In that moment was born a love of France that has endured, cemented that year by so many wonderful experiences of people, of language, and yes, a little bit of love.
I always loved languages, perhaps because my Dad was from the Gaelic speaking Hebrides, English his second language. He used to talk about the Auld Alliance between the kingdoms of France and Scotland, mainly to justify the “anyone but England” approach to sport taken by many Scots. That alliance went on for 265 years, which is not much less than the union between Scotland and England passed in 1707.
I also remember my mother saying that as we were heading to the Common Market, foreign languages would come in handy, which is partly why I did French and German A level and then a degree. We even wondered if French might beat English to be the language of Europe. So did Mittterrand. He never won that one – too busy writing letters to Anne. Bien sur, il faut accepter que cela n’est pas simplement parce qu’on est le pays et la langue de Shakespeare, Dickens, The Beatles, Harry Potter, mais aussi parce qu’on partage notre langue avec le pays de Donald Duck et de Donald Trump. Et franchement je préférerais avoir le duck et non pas le Trump comme President.
I may come over as a little starry eyed about France, but life with TB at the time of President Chirac was not without ups and downs. I don’t know what the word ‘balls-aching’ is in French, but that is how I would describe some of the EU summits we had to endure, and I am sure Ed Llewellyn would concur. Read my diaries on the Wim Duisenberg appointment to the ECB for a full scale portrayal of French, German, British and Dutch interests violently clashing. You may remember the time Chirac cancelled an Anglo-French summit after accusing Tony of speaking to him with unprecedented rudeness over the common agricultural policy and Africa. Tony being rude? That was my job!
It was impossible not to like Chirac though, and love his style. As when he was chairing a summit going nowhere, becoming more and more rancorous, he taps his pen on the side of a glass, commands attention and pronounces …
“Mesdames, messieurs … La France propose … un café …”
He was never any less French for being in the EU. Nor is Macron. Nor is Merkel any less German. Nor was Kohl, ce geant physique et politique dont la mort m’a rendu très triste.
Inside the EU I can be British, Scottish and European. Outside I feel I can only be British and Scottish, and who knows where that debate is heading. Right now I feel a big chunk of my identity, and more importantly that of my children, is being hacked away. Can anyone name me a country, democracy or dictatorship, at any time in history, which built success by governing against the interests of its younger generation? There were lots of reasons why more young people voted Labour in the general election. But one, for sure, was the response to that feeling so many of them had on June 24 last year, when they didn’t bother to vote and woke to see their future being taken away from them. That is why I hope their support for Jeremy Corbyn makes him see a changed stance on Brexit must be a part of maintaining and building on that support, though the signs he and John McDonnell are giving do not leave me hopeful.
But I do hope we can stop the latest Brexit Big Lie being pushed by the Tories, that 80percent of voters voted for Brexit in the election. I voted Labour. I did not vote for Brexit. I voted Labour in part to stop Mrs May getting the landslide she wanted to deliver the hard Brexit for which she now has no mandate. And I can see there are Tories here like Dominic Grieve, nodding, and I don’t think he voted for a hard Brexit either.
It is hard to understand why this rupture is happening now. As recently as 2008, Gordon Brown said that “there has never been greater cooperation between France and Britain as there is now”. David Cameron said much the same, then called his damned referendum. President Sarkozy also urged both countries to “overcome our long-standing rivalries and build together a future that will be stronger because we will be together”. He also said “If we want to change Europe my dear British friends—and we Frenchmen do wish to change Europe—we need you inside Europe to help us do so, not standing on the outside.” This is the great irony. I think Macron and Merkel may well lead the reform which Brexit has part inspired but from which we will not benefit.
And whatever our differences, they are as nothing when set in the context of our history. 1066 the first armed conflict between us; the hundred years war the longest, the war of the Spanish succession, the French role against Britain in the war of American independence, our role on the side of Royalists in the French revolution, seven years war, Napoleon, Nelson and Waterloo, then entente cordiale 1904, a new century, a new approach, on the same side in the two world wars, and the cold war, and in setting up NATO, and OK de Gaulle had his differences and his veto but we got there in the end. For all the difficulties over Iraq in recent years remarkable closeness on defence and foreign policy.
And of course that wonderful tunnel, not to mention the wonderful dog passport centre, is now such a fantastic symbol of our closeness, and makes our dog Molly one of the most travelled Cavalier King Charles Spaniels alive. And Molly hates Brexit too.
Let me give you another reason I love France. They have an annual “j’aime le train” day. What is more SNCF hired me, at considerable expense, to do something I had never done before … make a speech on a train, nice hospitality ladies in red suits going up and down the train to drum up interest. Can you imagine if you were on the Virgin train from London to Manchester and someone announced that Jacques Chirac’s ex spin doctor was doing a speech in the buffet bar in 20 minutes time? But the place was heaving … and I got to speak French, and tell them I loved their trains and I loved their “j’aime le train” day.
Un petit extrait from that speech … ‘Le tunnel a été bati, finalement, cent vingt anneés après le premier acte de parlement qui donnait permission a construire. C’était un généeral, Sir Garnet Wolseley, qui a détruit ce rêve à cette époque en disant “quoique sont les defences et les fortifications il y aura toujours le risque qu’une armée du continent saisit la sortie du tunnel.”
Même en 1977 selon la memoire d’un fonctionnaire qui a essayé de convaincre un ministre de la mérite du tunnel… Il a écrit. ‘Cela l’a rendu fou. Est-ce que je ne me souviens pas de mille neuf cent quarante? Est ce que je voudrais que les Allemands nous envahissent? Il faut rester ile.’ Ironique alors que c’est Madame Thatcher, elle-même d’une mentalité d’ile, qui a finalement dit oui.
Et quelle honte, bien exprimé par Mitterrand à l’ouverture du service Paris-Londres, “qu’on va supervite de Paris a Lille sur les lignes grande vitesse, un peu plus lent dans le tunnel et puis on peux aisément admirer le paysage anglais, le train roulant aà la moitié de la vitesse francaise.’ Always concurrence, even in moments de co-operation.
So where are we now on our shared journey? Where does it all go? Well, it is hard to escape politics right now. I think we have felt a little superior recently… for years I was asked by the French, why can’t we get a Tony Blair? Meanwhile back in Britain, he has been relentlessly negativised. Now you have Macron. We have May. Both have just had campaigns which broke the mould. His literally creating a new party, a new political force at a time it is so needed. Hers entering the history books, to be studied for years hence, as perhaps the worst campaign in modern history.
The tragedy of Brexit for me is that if Europe had the 3Ms of May, Merkel and Macron working in unison they would be more than a match for the dangerous madnesses that T for Trump is bringing to our world. 3M > T.
“Make Our Planet Great Again” was the response of Macron to the Trump Paris withdrawal, a neat, cutting twist on Trump’s claim that he is merely delivering on his election promises to “Make America Great Again.” His approach won plaudits all over the world. Mrs May declared herself “disappointed.”
If we wanted to cast the formula a little wider we could perhaps develop this to 4M + X > T + P. For on some issues we may find we have greater common cause with Modi of India and Xi of China, and less with the unholy Trump-Putin alliance to weaken the EU, and any other international bodies that get in the way of mano a mano strongman leadership.
This, even without the terrorism, is what was so depressing about our election – there are so many big challenges of the future yet we saw precious little debate about any of them.
And even Brexit – in fact especially Brexit – was like a gigantic elephant in the election room. Everyone said the election was about Brexit. But nobody wanted to talk about it. For May we were not a jot further forward in understanding what post Brexit Britain will be like. For Jeremy Corbyn the approach was anything but Brexit on the agenda.
Compare and contrast once more Macron’s campaign. When he had trade unionists protesting against him, he went out and argued with them for two hours until at least he got his point over. Not for him the preaching to the converted approach that seems to define our campaigns. When he seemed to be losing support both to the hard left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the hard right of Le Pen over his support for the EU and for decent liberal values, instead of retreating in the face of glib uncosted solutions to problems or the language and rhetoric of hate, as our leaders have done in bowing down to Euroscepticism, he strode out into the hate and the glibness, argued against them with passion and belief and an understanding of where a better future lay, and he was rewarded for his courage.
We saw the same with Angela Merkel in her handling of the refugee crisis, sticking to what she believed to be right and she too is likely to be rewarded for leadership and convictions when she faces the electorate in September.
Neither will have it easy. Winning a fourth term would be an extraordinary achievement for Merkel. And France is a serially difficult country to govern, its people forever voting for change and then rebelling when they are confronted with the change in practice.
The one thing we know about Merkel is that she knows what she stands for, and works effectively and consensually for change she believes in. And the one thing becoming clear about Macron is that he has guts by the bucketload to go with the charisma and energy.
As Trump and Putin do their worst, thank God that at least two Ms are there to stand up for what they, and so many others in most of the countries of the world, believe in. I might not be able to join them, but there have definitely been times in recent months I wished I could vote for them. And as we stumble through the Brexit negotiations minefield, I hope the recently expressed invitation, by Macron and Wolfgang Schauble, to leave the door open, stays open till the point when the country realizes, we have to think again, and change course.
Karen Bradley rightly said that events like this will see friendships forged, and partnerships that will help keep our countries close. But my appeal is that you forge those friendships in part so that you can work together on keeping alive the dream that Britain stays where it should be, a strong, proud, leading player in Europe, and in the European Union too. Thank you, merci, et bonne chance.
Bonjour Alastair. That is a good read. Just to answer your question, ‘balls-aching’ would be ‘casse-couilles’ en francais.