A brief internet discussion with an Italian on social media a few days ago produced the following observation: “I think the British are just too afraid to go outside their comfort zone.” Well yes. But there is a back-story here: being on an island makes it harder for us to go outside our national comfort zone than for those on the continent (although southern Italians might disagree…) Even a committed European like me could only find the time and money to travel abroad a couple of times a year. Contrast that with my Swiss friend’s son – who went ‘abroad’ every day – to school. Even though that was only a matter of a few kilometres’ journey. It is so much easier to become internationalised when your geographical situation facilitates it.
And yet there more in that Italian guy’s comment than perhaps he knew. It has only ever been in the U.K. that I have heard people say such-and-such “is not for the likes of me”. I heard perfectly able students say it when I tried to encourage them to aim for the top universities. I heard a woman in my town say it the other day when I tried to encourage her to get involved with local decision-making.
I don’t want to fall into the trap of suggesting that a whole continent is uniform – and uniformly different from Britain – but it is nonetheless anecdotally true, as I have observed before, that people ‘over there’ seem less constrained by barriers not only of geography – but also in their own minds. It is one of the things I find attractive about continental culture: compared with Britain, anything – well, at least much more – seems possible.
I think the reasons for this do come back to our sociopolitical situation. Everything about Britain is still predicated on competitive advantage. The aim in life seems to be to “get ahead” – but of what? The system? One’s fellow citizens? The purpose of ‘success’ in Britain seems to be to buy exclusivity – and I can only conclude that this is a hangover of a social system where rank was (still is?) everything.
Another social media conversation a few days ago was quite enlivening – and then I checked the profile of my interlocutor. It turned out (since verified) that I had been talking, simply as one human to another, to the CEO of BMW. My perception in Britain is that the elite rarely talk to anyone except each other – and certainly not with the hoi polloi via unassuming Facebook threads.
It would of course be wrong to suggest that everyone is equal on the continent. They have their elites too – but experience suggests that while ambition in those countries may bring an enviable way of life, it does not – at least to the same extent – bring snobbery. Over the years, I have met a fair number of influential continentals – from MEPs to the (Dutch) President of the UCI (International Cycling Federation ). I have observed and heard about the behaviour of others, from celebrated Swiss art dealers to executives in multinational companies. Almost without exception, they seemed to lack the superiority complex of their British counterparts. (The principal exception was Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Spanish President of the IOC, who seemed to think he was the Emperor of the World; those others whose view was closer to the British seemed to come from countries which shared many of our social problems and attitudes).
Even in the European Parliament, it was very noticeable that it was the British (Conservative) MEPs who had the airs and graces; the rest, even in their own political grouping, seemed much more down-to-earth. I have also heard about the low esteem in which residual elites are held in those countries – they are figures for fun or pity, and they certainly do not possess the power to intimidate that they do in Britain.
I spy an irony here, in that those nations which shout loudest about ‘anything being possible’ – The USA and the UK – are actually those with some of the lowest social mobility. It seems that we have to keep shouting about it, because we know that it really isn’t true. When ‘opportunity’ is so much the monopoly of a few, the mentality amongst the rest, that much of life’s bounty really isn’t “for the likes of me”, seems inevitable. And that includes the ability to travel, to discover that it isn’t the same everywhere.
It is in those countries which are more equal to begin with, that perceived Opportunity really does present itself to more people. And what is more, the consequences and objectives of that opening seem different too. While the aspiration for a comfortable life is probably universal, the attaching of this to exclusivity seems not to be. Wealth and seniority do not automatically make one a superior person, simply a wealthier or more senior one. It is the conflation of wealth, elitism and power that have put Britain (and the US) in the positions in which they now find themselves.
In a sense, this blog Sprezzatura rails against this: beneath an apparently superficial preoccupation with the good things in life lies a more profound belief that they should not be the preserve of an elite, but be accessible to all who want them. That good life does not need to come – as many in Britain’s elite seem to think – at the expense of others. And in any case, the ‘good life’ is not only about material wealth or privilege: many of those good things are actually found in simplicity and attitude, rather than large bank balances and powerful connections.
What prevents more people from enjoying them is the conflation of good living with privilege – of things that are “not for the likes of me”. It is a barrier that seems to be at least much less strong in those nations that are not so persistently hierarchical in their mindset.
The antidote to this is indeed Carpe Diem. Seize The Day, no matter who you are – and make the most of it. And on this day of all – which was to have been Brexit day – I feel it essential to acknowledge the role played in our current reprieve by Gina Miller, without whose legal challenge we would now be having Brexit imposed on us by the most authoritarian, elitist government in recent British history. Even Parliament would not have had a look-in, had it not been for her.
It clearly took someone with wealth and connections like Miller to activate the necessary procedures to bring the legal challenge to May’s dictatorial instincts – but the striking thing about this woman is that she uses her wealth not just to bolster her own position, but for what she believes is the common good. She seized a day without which today would be our last in the EU. I hope she is eventually sainted for it.
While she is a British citizen, it is of course noticeable that she takes at least some of her cultural leads from her past, elsewhere in the world. We British have a lot still to learn.