Here is my recent blog for ‘Labour Teachers’:
A Summer’s Sojourn in Brexit Britain
I wonder, I wonder,
If anyone knows,
Who lives at the heart,
Of the velvety rose?
Is it a goblin, or is it an elf?
Or is it the Queen of the fairies herself?
I took early retirement from the UK Education Industry in 2012, and have been teaching in Hungary ever since. My wife is Hungarian, and we have two boys, one, born here, teaching MFL in Suffolk and the other, born in Bristol, attending a Hungarian State Primary School run by the Reformed Church. Both are naturally bilingual, bicultural and binational. When we returned to Hungary after fifteen years, including a year teaching in France, we found it difficult to recognize the country as the same one we left in 1996. We had been back on extended visits during the summer, but nothing prepared us for the more nationalistic atmosphere which pervaded every walk of life, and still does. Five years later, Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy is a project which seems to attract popular support with almost everyone who isn’t a gipsy, a migrant or a refugee, or at least two thirds of them, enough to change the constitution.
Although the once-mighty MSZP, Hungarian Socialist Party, is still around, it has little prospect of returning to power, as it did three times in the twenty years of transition which followed the cutting of the iron curtain in 1989. The Left is like Humpty Dumpty, so fragmented and divided that it would take a whole regiment of Huszárok (Hussars) to put the pieces back together again. Here, referenda have become the preferred tool of the populist politician, except that, unlike Cameron, Orbán would never call one he thought he might lose. We’re just about to have one about the meneköltek, the asylum-seekers or bevándorlok, the ‘vagabonds’ or immigrants, as the government prefers to see them. Hungary is, of course, a strategic crossing point from the Balkan migrant group, and is third behind Germany and Sweden in the number it has played host to, but only for short transits on the way west. Few migrants or refugees want to settle in the country, and the revived Christian patriots of the Great Plain are not keen to receive people who they erroneously compare to the Muslim Ottomans of distant centuries. Here, national mythologizing is more important than a more interactive narrative between past and present.
This year, however, on returning to Hungary from our usual two-month sojourn in the UK (school summer holidays are longer in Hungary but are paid for throughout the year), I had decided not to give my usual answers referring to landscapes, seascapes and weather, to polite questions about ‘how I felt myself’ in England. I overlooked the obvious mistake, having spent a week in my beloved Wales, and replied that I didn’t recognize the country. It was true. For the first time in the ten years spent in Hungary, in the 1990s and more recently, I felt more alien as a returning native than I did in Viktor Orbán’s Ruritanian retreat. This was not to do with language, but rather with the bits of culture which don’t depend on language. I arrived with my younger son (aged 13) on the day before the Referendum vote, having promised to help with canvassing for the ‘Remain’ side in Bury St Edmunds, which voted 57% to 43% to ‘leave’ the EU.
My son enjoyed posting the reminder to vote leaflets, and we did find some encouragement on the poorer estates of the rich Cathedral city. But most people kept their heads down against the wind on an inclement early summer day. We could tell there was a sense of not wanting to engage about what they were about to do, or had just done, a sense of guilty pleasure in expressing the traditional antipathy of Suffolk people for the ‘Establishment’. The results across East Anglia were generally even worse, with only Cambridge and Norwich defying the regional trend. While the people of those two cities may have been better-informed on the finer points of the debate, this vote was not, fundamentally, a result of a lack of education. Neither was it, at least in central Suffolk, about excessive immigration. As the TV engineer who called at my teaching son’s house a week later told me, it was about a feeling of powerlessness in people’s lives, a lack of control, of which immigration was an obvious symptom, but one which the political élites refused to talk about or treat.
The day after the result was declared was one of the worst in my life, and there have been some pretty low troughs. It was the complete opposite of how I felt on 2 May 1997, as if twenty years of my personal and professional life had been completely wasted. My younger son, listening to the news with me, said he felt that he had been betrayed. I spent the rest of the morning writing to our local ‘pro-Remain’ Conservative MP about whether, in five years’ time, we will have to pay full-cost overseas student fees for my son if we don’t return to live in the UK before Brexit takes effect. I also asked about the Erasmus funding my elder son had received for teaching English in a special comprehensive school in Germany. Could my younger son expect to have such an experience after Brexit? I haven’t yet heard from him, except for a feature article in the local newspaper telling the people of Suffolk that Brexit would bring many opportunities for the county, things which he obviously hadn’t noticed when he wanted them to vote the other way the week before. He obviously doesn’t want to be deselected by the partisan Tory burgers of central Suffolk. Of course, Labour MPs would represent all of their constituents, not just the revolutionary cadres in the CLPs, and they wouldn’t change their views on the EU, and then change them again, just to keep their positions, unless they were party leaders. That wouldn’t be ‘authentic’!
Eventually, when we walked out together mid-morning, it was difficult to meet the eyes of elderly neighbours and other vaguely remembered faces in the small town where my elder son lives and teaches. The young waitress who served us in the en route café briefly expressed her disappointment, however. Yet no-one was celebrating. At my elder son’s school there was a full-scale staffroom inquiry, since the teachers already knew that nobody had voted ‘Leave’. Even some tears began to flow, so bereaved did people feel. A fortnight later, in Pembrokeshire, I overheard the conversation of two elderly ladies sitting on a bench in a town square. One told the other that she had voted no because too much money was going to the EU, and we got nothing in return. The other pointed out that her friend was among the ‘misinformed’, because Wales gets far more out than it pays in. A month after the vote, my son’s well-networked colleagues reported that they had still not yet met one person in the whole of central Suffolk who admitted to having voted for Brexit, nor had the other people in their network. Ironically, the day following the vote, her son had arrived at our flat in Hungary, having walked across Europe for charity of one of his friends whose sister had died from a rare form of leukemia, into which research was going on in Cambridge, part-funded by the EU.
So, here we are at the beginning of a new school year, and I have to think about how to enthuse my students to get their EU-rated ‘B’ and ‘C’ level grades in English so that they can travel and study in the world, while the birthplace of English, my birthplace, my reason for being here, is pulling out of the whole inter-cultural project I am supposed to represent. As I teach ‘British Studies’, what is still called ‘Anglo-Saxon Civilization’, I will need to find reasons not to feel ashamed of my country for the first time since the early 1970s, and explanations for the events of the summer.
I think I might take ‘The Velvety Rose’ nursery rhyme as my starting point, since most of my students are training to be teachers. The rose could be taken to symbolize both England, and the Labour Party. The goblin and the elf could be taken to represent the struggle for control of the heart of the party personified by Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. At present, it is the ‘Queen of the Fairies’, Theresa May, who seems to live at the heart of England, however, with her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra repeated as often as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland emerged to cry ‘off with their heads!’ at the men around her. Certainly, teachers will recognize the resentment felt towards senior managers who return from their long holidays ‘reflecting’ on a Mediterranean beach or in Alpine meadows to lead a ‘brainstorm’ on a ‘bombshell’ announcement made at the end of term. All the teachers want to do is get on with the planning and preparation in their own departments, focusing on their pupils. But no! The ‘Headmistress’ wants us to help her create ‘Fairyland’, an abstract, utopian place otherwise known by the much more concrete noun ‘Brexit’. For Brexit, read Fairyland. It’s much more true to real life!