The French and other barbarians

DelacroixBefore my French friends take umbrage, I hasten to disclaim that I’m using the newly offensive word in its original meaning, merely to denote someone from a different civilisation.

The Romans, who weren’t known for their heartfelt commitment to multiculturalism, used this Greek word to describe someone who didn’t have the good fortune of growing up in Hellenic culture.

There was an element of supremacism there as well, but not a huge one. If queried, those Romans who were vaguely familiar with, say, Persian culture would probably have acknowledged its good points, if only grudgingly. ‘Barbarian’ was mainly a differentiating, rather than pejorative, term.

It’s hard for me to put myself in the sandals of a Roman talking to a Persian, assuming that such discourse ever took place. But I suspect he must have felt that the chap with whom he was sharing an amphora of Falerno was interesting, in a quaint sort of way, but different.

That, I must admit, is how I sometimes feel when sharing a bottle of Burgundy with my French friends, all cultured, intelligent and superbly educated. Far be it from me to suggest that the French civilisation is weak or inferior to ours. At a kind moment, I’m even willing to admit it’s superior. It’s just different.

This I sense keenly even when we talk about things like art, literature or music, where the difference in our cultural baggage is slight, although not unnoticeable. However, when politics comes up, I feel like an SPQR Roman must have felt when talking to a Persian.

My understanding of political theory and practice was wholly shaped in the Anglophone civilisation, which in turn was formed by England. Rather than presenting a set of ready-made solutions to all quotidian problems, this background is like an intellectual edifice propped up by the three pillars on which, according to Edmund Burke, government should rest: prejudice, which is intuitive knowledge; prescription, which is truth passed on by previous generations; and presumption, which is inference from common experience.

The French have an edifice of their own, but theirs was designed by architects who had all gone to a different school. The resulting structure is almost as different from ours as a ziggurat is from the Parthenon.

Since we proceed from diverging assumptions, we naturally arrive at different destinations. They have no intuitive dislike of big central government; I do. They have no problems with laws being created by a few clever men and then passed down to hoi polloi; I have. They’re comfortable with the idea of the state being an active player in the economic game; I’m not. They only profess to detest the French Revolution; I really do detest it. They see only a few mechanical faults with the EU; I reject it as evil. And so forth, ad infinitum.

This, although both my friends and I broadly reside on the political right, if such terms have any meaning, which they probably don’t. Yet their right and mine differ as much as south of the Seine differs from south of the Thames.

We’re talking here about the political cultures of England and France, two countries 20 miles apart, whose histories have been not so much parallel as intertwined.

Parts of France used to belong to England, all of England used to belong to France. The two countries have the same religion and, for much of their histories, espoused the same confession. The two languages are closely related, with a vast corpus of shared vocabulary. French political emigrants tended to choose England as their refuge and vice versa. Though the countries used to fight each other a lot, they’ve been allies for 200 years.

And yet – the French come across as barbarians to us (in the Greek sense of the word), and they probably see les Anglo-Saxons as barbarians too (in every sense of the word). I’d like to re-emphasise that this isn’t the view of a Little Englander but that of someone who loves France, spends half his time there (just under, Mr Taxman, relax) and has as many French friends as English.

Now if the political cultures of two commonwealths as close to each other as England and France are well-nigh incompatible, what about creating a single political entity out of dozens of countries further apart by orders of magnitude?

Romania and Sweden. Poland and Holland. Italy and Germany. Bulgaria and Ireland. Portugal and Estonia. France and Slovenia… well, you get the picture. Whose fevered imagination could have conceived such a utopian abomination?

Chimera, a monster made up of parts of a lion, goat and snake, looks positively homogeneous by comparison. Figuratively, that’s what the European Union is, a chimera. One fears that before long it’ll start resembling that creature literally as well.

Homer described the monster as “snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire”. The EU is moribund, but it has no provisions for peaceful dissolution. When it explodes, as it surely will, there will be plenty of ‘terrible flame of bright fire’. One just hopes that by then we’ll be far enough away not to get singed.

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