At first glance, Emma Thompson’s intervention in the Brexit debate earlier this week didn’t make much sense. Asked at the Berlin Film Festival whether the UK should vote to remain in the EU, she said we’d be ‘mad not to’. She went on to describe Britain as ‘a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled misery-laden grey old island’. She added that she ‘just felt European’ and would ‘of course’ vote to remain in the EU. ‘We should be taking down borders, not putting them up,’ she said.
I think I get the bit about Britain being ‘rainy’. That’s true, obviously, and some people dislike our islands for that reason. Not sure that is the most persuasive reason for voting ‘in’ — will it rain less if we elect to stay? — but perhaps she’s worried that it will take her longer to get to her friend George Clooney’s house on Lake Como if we leave the EU, what with the end of free movement and so on. As any Eurosceptic will tell you, that’s a red herring, but it kind of, sort of makes sense.
No, the bit that confused me was her use of the phrases ‘cake-filled’ and ‘misery-laden’ side by side. Surely a nation that eats a lot of cake is, almost by definition, not miserable? I think it’s unlikely that the average Brit consumes more cake during a typical week than the average German, but even if that were true I don’t see how our love affair with cake makes us miserable. What’s going on in that voluminous brain of hers?
The only explanation I can think of is that she has a fixed idea about the sort of people who are in favour of Brexit — lower-middle-class, backward-looking, bigoted — and she thinks one of their characteristics, along with having lace curtains and using words like ‘serviette’ and ‘settee’, is that they eat a lot of cake. That would also explain the note of surprise when asked which way she’d be voting. Didn’t the questioner realise that all successful, Cambridge–educated, upper-middle-class women are in favour of the EU? Had he been living under a rock?
Thompson has come in for a fair amount of criticism since uttering these remarks — and rightly so — but she is hardly alone in suffering from such snobbery. As Orwell wrote about the liberal intelligentsia in England Your England: ‘They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.’ He continued: ‘In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.’
Exactly this attitude — a sniggering contempt for the patriotism of ordinary people — was the subtext of Emily Thornberry’s famous tweet that got her fired from Labour’s front bench. And I’ve noticed it among my own social circle whenever Brexit comes up. It’s as though expressing any scepticism about our membership of the EU, particularly if it involves a concern about uncontrolled immigration, is a bit Non-U. On the surface, people claim to be concerned about jobs and the impact on our financial sector but really, deep down, they’re just advertising their membership of the educated elite. They’re not anxious about the consequences for the British economy. They’re anxious about being perceived as petit -bourgeois.
It’s not surprising, then, that the cabinet is split along class lines when it comes to the EU. A majority of those in favour — David Cameron, George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan — were privately educated, whereas most of those against — Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel — were state educated. Within the Conservative party, the schism over our membership of the EU is a proxy for the class antagonism between the different wings that’s always been present but rarely rises to the surface.
I’m not entirely immune to these influences myself. As a state–educated Tory, I identify more with the flag-waving, ‘Rule Britannia’ wing than the sophisticated, Europeanised types who dominate Cameron’s inner circle, and that’s partly why I’m a Eurosceptic. Unlike Emma Thompson, I think it’s entirely honourable to feel patriotic for tribal reasons, but rather odd to regard your membership of a British clique as requiring you to pour scorn on your country.