The longer I live on the Continent, the more it is borne in upon me that we Brits are, in only the most positive way, the Americans of Europe. London is so much bigger than any other European capital, and, unlike in even Paris or Madrid or Rome, examples of the grandeur sought by the tourist are far too numerous and too widely spread to be walked across in a day, even by the fittest. And look at BeNeLux. Brussels, Luxembourg City and my home of Amsterdam, though rich in prettiness if not grandeur, are outright tiny by comparison. Then there’s the extraordinary choice available to the British consumer in all departments (except horse-meat), and the military and naval clout that still dwarfs that of our neighbours, and the pre-eminence of the City of London, and the history of global power and persisting cultural influence, through film, television, advertising and popular music that Europe admires but can’t match, and our rich vocabulary in genial banter. In short, the Londoner in Europe enjoys the kudos of the New Yorker in London.
Sometimes the admiration can be grudging; Roman and Parisien men cling to pride in their native style, which is fair enough – except that you will wreck the line of an all-but-weightless French or Italian suit by putting anything in the pockets, which is why they now affect the ghastly man-bag, whereas a proper British suit, constructed for practical use, can carry a wallet and a phone, a notebook and pen, a hip-flask and some change, a cigarette case and a heavy silver lighter, all without showing a bulge. Also it will not be ruined if you get caught in the rain. Its weight might be inconvenient in a southern European climate, but that is not the point, as clearly demonstrated by the fact that the Germans also favour the lighter, impractical cloth. But a British suit abroad draws gasps of admiration and envy, even though it might have cost a fifth of the price of an Armani or a Hugo Boss (draw your own metaphor). Our neighbours clearly admire British style, but have to have a bit of their own as a point of national pride. Why else would they hoover up Burberry and Barbour, brands with which they cannot begin to compete?
When a European professional gets posted to London it is a cause of celebration (posh accommodation, of course, being provided by the company, but just as it would be anywhere else). This is why London, in terms of population, is the fourth largest French city, and also bursting with expats from all over continental Europe. It has more and better hotels, bars, restaurants and shops than anywhere in the world. But the best thing about it is that here even the more powerful Yanks are levelled to the status of fellow-expats, can’t swank too much, and have to put up with their boorish insecurity and skin-deep culture being loftily ignored.
For in Europe we British suffer none of the negatives associated with the United States. We are mild-mannered and cultured and courteous and circumspect. When we settle in a foreign country we make an effort to become at least functional in the local language. Sure, we have our visiting louts for football matches and stag weekends, but even these earn a certain respect for being so much more moronically arrogant than anything the natives could put up in opposition. For they are not just drunken thugs; they are (as a rule) English drunken thugs, the de-mobbed army of Henry the Fifth, usually open to simply worded reason from the voice of command, but not to be messed with. Yanks are just shallow, starry-eyed gawpers, and gangling woossies who can’t take their drink.
To cosmopolitan Europeans, of whatever station, Britain rocks. European politicians hate us for our historically stable democracy, our insistence on the primacy of common law, our effective, adversarial parliamentary system and its straight connection between the elector and the directly accountable elected, and our prudish revulsion at lapses of probity in our leaders, as well as our uniquely British confidence and style. But their people hate them, and love us.
Recently that great champion of democratic liberty, the veteran Labour MP Frank Field, has urged British voters to leave the European Union for all the established and well-justified reasons, but also because it would be a way of giving David Cameron a bloody nose without having to vote for the disaster of a Corbyn government.
It wouldn’t just do that, Frank. It would also give a bloody nose to all the Eurocrats in all the countries of the EU, and make their people, who are fed up with that self-serving, anti-democratic and stagnating oligarchy, love us and look to our leadership all the more.