If God is indeed an Englishman, perhaps this explains the large number of atheists out there. This was the thought that flickered across my brain as I sat on a stage in Ireland experiencing the cocktail of glee and bewilderment among the audience at the current political travails of “the Brits”.
It was Robbie Burns who captured the rare value of being able to “see ourselves as others see us”. Well, perched on that stage, apparently the only living Englishman unable to find an Irish grandparent, I saw us how others see us and it was chastening.
Some context first. This was a friendly, well-informed crowd, despite the general and genial Brit-bashing you should always expect in Ireland. I’m not sure exactly how horrible a country has to be before the Irish won’t cheer for it against England in sport but you’d have to be talking serious barbarism — sure, they’re cannibals but it’s them or the Brits. The event itself is called Kilkenomics, a clever and original festival (which, full disclosure, the FT has backed for a number of years). Its central genius is to put economists, writers and the odd stray journalist on panels chaired by comedians. If a show ever seems to be losing momentum the moderator breaks the glass and releases the English jokes.
Among the nuanced debates on the state of the markets and the global economy, there are several panels which the organisers enjoy endowing with titles like “the great British break-up” or “Britain’s nervous breakdown”. I’ve been going for several years and this year was my sixth annual “What the feck is wrong with you guys?” panel. The audiences are lovely, though their bullshit detectors are ferociously well tuned. And while they naturally enjoy seeing the UK forced to bow to Irish policy, of late the tone has switched to one of concern. Schadenfreude was so 2018, now they wonder if we need a doctor.
A lot of this is about Brexit, of course, of which the Irish take a dim view. There were Brexiters on the panels but these days they all seem to be lamenting the way their tremendous idea has been botched by politicians. Imagine having such strategic nous that you see how to win the referendum but not enough to know the outcome still has to be managed by Conservative MPs.
This year, the event was considerately timed to allow the UK to be on its third prime minister of the year. It was rarely long before one of the comedians would find some way to steer the talk back to the Liz Truss administration. Laugh, we almost crashed the currency.
Brits of my age, the English especially, are used to a bit of needle. Centuries of colonialism can play havoc with a relationship. But it was also a bit of a status symbol, a sign of the nation’s power and history. Show me a well-loved country and I’ll show you one whose historic treasures are sitting in the British Museum. Mind you, it can sting to be held personally responsible for Oliver Cromwell, when we haven’t talked for years.
But this is our history. We can choose how we deal with it. What is more painful than being regarded through the prism of anti-imperialism is to see the country you love turned into a global punchline, a supposedly serious nation seemingly going through a mid-life crisis. The festivalgoers no longer see the haughty Britain of history but a country which has swapped a dark suit for a purple blazer and mustard trousers.
In some ways this is harsh. Most European nations (Ireland included) face serious political challenges. The rise of Rishi Sunak gives the UK a more sober appearance. Those of a more Brexit-minded disposition might further dismiss all this as the bias of liberal elites or the pro-Europeanism of the Irish and there is a bit of both those things.
And yet it is a lesson to view ourselves through the eyes of nations, which for all the needle and history, are allies and friends.
It is hard enough to see your country take what you think is a wrong turn, but that’s democracy. No, debate is fine. Banter is fine. Pity, not so much.
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