|With one of those European devils.|
It could hardly have seemed like more apt timing: back from a trip to the Continent and straight into the joys of local elections and their campaigns.
This year, much is being made of the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the threat that it poses, in particular, to Conservative seats.
UKIP, which doesn’t have a single MP, is getting rather more than its fair share of media coverage: one senses certain agendas among newspaper proprietors.
Much has been made, in recent months, of the nuttier elements within its ranks, including among candidates.
But setting that aside, what is factual is that the party is deeply Europhobic and that this plays to a percentage of the population – not least from the Conservative right, which has been anti-Europe for years (conveniently forgetting that it was St Margaret of Grantham herself who signed the Maastricht Treaty and the Single European Act).
Europe has become such a divisive issue for the Tory Party that it’s practically reached the status of a tradition, but this could be one of those occasions where a revolt by grassroots activists and supporters actually makes itself felt. Whether they’d do the same at a general election is entirely a different matter.
Like so much of the rhetoric surrounding the issue of Europe, the arguments can hardly be dignified with that term.
Take this little anecdote by way of an example.
I was on the phone with my parents the other day and my father – not for the first time – announced that he was voting UKIP out of disgust at the Eton boys currently running the country.
I pointed out that UKIP leader Nigel Farage is another former public schoolboy, but that didn’t seem to carry quite the same weight.
“At least he’d get us out of Europe,” huffed my father.
I pointed out that many people who are opposed to the EU are so because they want to reduce the rights of workers to below those of EU levels. My father – from very humble working-class stock himself – purports to have sympathy on such matters, so it seemed a coherent point to make, and I thought that it would, at the very least, make him pause.
He did pause.
And then: “We didn’t win the war to be ruled over by the Germans!” he exploded.
Europe has become the big bugbear; the scapegoat for everything that certain people see as wrong with this country.
But the problem is not so much the political disaffection, as something far wider - the conflation of 'Europe' and the political institution(s) of the EU.
Let's be clear: there are many faults with the EU, and I am not some uncritical supporter: quite the contrary. Although it also needs to be stated clearly that the EU is NOT the reason that we, as a country, are still not showing economic growth.
You can, entirely rationally, be a Europhile and an opponent of political union. But there exists this extraordinary way in which Europhobes are not EUphobes, but have turned the political questions and issues into a phobia about the continent as a whole, starting from the brazen untruth that 'we are not Europeans'.
A little personal background here may be helpful for the sake of context.
I grew up in a home where patriotism was paraded as a virtue, albeit no actual thought or reason behind it, and all other nations (or at least the 'important' ones) had derogatory nicknames.
My father was hardly best impressed when I started grammar school and was expected to learn French – Latin was okay, though. We suffered a dinner table rant the following year when I had to start German.
For many years, while I didn't feel the same belligerent intolerance, I had no desire to visit 'Europe': the list of places that I wanted to travel to was pretty much limited to the US and one or two other countries that spoke English.
So against that home background, it can hardly be surprising that I struggled with languages at school: I felt no reason for them.
It was only in 1998, on a first long weekend trip to northern Europe (Amsterdam) that this changed. Suddenly, I could see both difference and similarity. And the over-arching sensation of feeling at home.
Whenever I go back, that feeling is the same. France too. Germany rather obviously so, being more obviously northern European – although my 'discovery' of Germany and German culture, and my realisation that I love it, that I am a Germanophile, still came as something of a shock.
It shouldn't have, though. Since 'discovering' classical music in the third year at school, I had been worshiping at the altar of Beethoven (preferably played by the Berlin Phil, conduced by Herbert von Karajan), even while pretty much everyone else (or so it seemed) was putting safety pins through their noses.
My father's screaming, ranting rages at the television whenever England were playing West Germany (as it was then) left me not simply teary with the tension of it all, but secretly nursing a hope that the dreaded Krauts would win.
In the meantime, my mother, being in charge of Christmas presents, was delighted to buy me classical albums, even though she herself has rather more limited tastes.
Indeed, the household record collection, partly stored in a massive radiogram, was less culture-vulture and more aspirational, pretentious middle class, comprising vast amounts of Readers' Digest boxed sets of 'best of' classical tunes that were then barely (if ever) actually listened to.
But this is the background against which 'Europe' was such a shock.
The thing is, it seems, that with the UK, we try so desperately to pretend that we are not a part of Europe; that this sceptered isle somehow sits in splendid isolation from that continent that has, so often, erupted in trouble.
And yet once you begin to read the history, we have always been there – including in the trouble.
The Thirty Years War, for instance – which was not a 'German war', but a European one – saw men from these islands learn their soldiering and then bring it home to participate in the English civil wars and in Ireland.
We traded with the rest of the continent for centuries: as I've mentioned before, there were Hanseatic outposts here, but we have all but forgotten them and, with them, the League itself.
We 'forget' the European nature of the Armada, as though it arose in isolation. We forget, even, the foreign influx of royals – even when we gather around our own tannenbaums.
We forget that, after Waterloo, Wellington's dispatches homes made a point of stressing the vital role in victory that had been played by the Prussians under Blücher (and we imagine that all Wellington’s troops were English/British).
We forget the cultural links. We forget the linguistic links – English is, after all, a Germanic language. We forget the centuries of migratory movement between this island nation of ours and the rest of Europe.
You could be forgiven, indeed, for imagining that we are not part of the continent of Europe at all. Somehow, we manage to sit apart from any continent – we’re clearly not African or Antarctican, after all.
And that is a grave misrepresentation of fact; a massive delusion.
We are a European family. Like any other family, there are differences. There are bad days and good ones.
But frankly, there is no contradiction in saying, as I do, that I am both English – and a European.
And there is point where, if you look at yourself only in the mirror, and not within the wider context of society, you only see a part of yourself and not the whole.
The same is true of any nation. No country on this earth sits alone, in splendid isolation. Not even the global powerhouses of the US or China.
You don’t have to like any form of the idea of Europe – let alone the political one. You don’t have to feel European. But that does not change the facts.
And the sooner that we learn and understand that, the better. And if you still want to vote for UKIP – well fine. But stop pretending what it is that you're voting for – or, more to the point, against.