Wednesday, 16 March 2016

'Brexit', September 1938

The EU referendum campaign reminds me how much we remain influenced by our national mythologies. The Brexit campaign often implicitly evokes the memory of the Second World War as a time when Britain stood alone in Europe against Hitler, then came together with our Allies to defeat him. By contrast, the Czechs remember only that in September 1938, at Munich, France and Britain sided with Hitler against Czechoslovakia to avoid war, in effect allowing the Czechs and Slovaks to fall under first Fascist and later Communist dictatorship. Some even speak of a psychological ‘Munich complex’ that limited popular Czechoslovak resistance to both dictatorships and even hampers efforts to build genuine civil society after Communism; this notion is boisterously satirised in Petr Zelenka’s 2015 film, Lost in Munich

On his return from Munich, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain infamously declared: How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here, because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing...’ These words must have been especially painful for the Czechoslovak leadership, which had spent the twenty years since the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 trying to ensure that the world knew exactly what Czechoslovakia was and what it stood for. In the 1920s and 1930s, Czechoslovakia worked to acquire and exercise what we now call ‘soft power’, vigorously supporting the League of Nations project, building alliances and promoting cultural exchange.

I am currently writing about how, in this period, Czechoslovakia tried to raise its profile in Britain through literary translation. The Czechoslovak elite felt close to the British, not only because some British intellectuals, cultivated by Czech and Slovak counterparts, had lobbied hard for the creation of independent Czechoslovakia, but also because they identified more with imagined ‘gentlemanly’ British values - civility, tolerance, good humour, pragmatism - than what they saw as German cultural aggression. The embodiment of Czech Anglophilia was Karel Čapek, the first Czech writer to win an international reputation, thanks to his 1921 play R.U.R., which gave the world the word ‘robot’. His tour of the British Isles in 1924 resulted in the travelogue Letters from England (1927). It says something about the self-centredness of the British reader that, though many of Čapek’s plays and novels about the politics and landscape of Central Europe were also published in this period, these quaint impressions of Britain – and The Gardener’s Year (1931), about that most British of hobbies, gardening – were by far his best-selling.

Tongue-tied: Britain has forgotten how to speak to its European neighbours

Martin Hurcombe, University of Bristol
The decline in the number of students of modern languages from GCSE to degree level is an annual lament. Only 10,328 pupils in the UK took French at A Level in 2015 and although Spanish enjoyed a rise in entries at A Level of 14%, German continued its steady decline.
As Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, noted last year, the study of French and German at A Level has declined by more than 50% since 1999.
A Level language entries, 2006-2015. JCQ

Similar patterns can be observed at GCSE where entries for French, for example, declined by 40% between 2005 and 2015. The rise in interest in Arabic and Portuguese has not offset the overall trend towards the marginalisation of language learning in Britain’s secondary schools, and most notably those in the state sector.
It’s hard for language learners and teachers to remain optimistic in this climate, and harder still with widespread Euroscepticism and the possibility of the UK voting to leave the European Union in a referendum on June 23.

Policy ping pong

For teachers like me, entering the profession in the late 1980s and early 1990s amid a brief bout of Europhilia, language education was still a priority. When the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988 all secondary schools had to make provision for students of all abilities to learn at least one modern foreign language.
Paradoxically, this enthusiasm for language learning in the years preceding the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and the foundation of the European Union emanated from a series of Conservative governments that were tearing themselves apart over the question of European integration.
Nevertheless, it was made compulsory for children to learn one modern foreign language. This was because of a belief by those in government and business that not only was it desirable to speak more than one language, but that a meaningful relationship with European partners was best served by the cultural familiarity that language learning fosters.
Ironically, it was perhaps Britain’s most pro-European government, under Tony Blair, which removed the requirement for all children to take a language at GCSE in 2004. Only now are we seeing this decision reversed with the current government’s inclusion of a language at GCSE as one of the performance measures schools are judged on.
Since the late 1990s there has also been a decline in school exchanges in state schools – a tradition in many schools that had become firmly established with the UK’s membership of the common market. According to the British Council only 39% of state schools currently offer an exchange where students stay with a host family in another country – compared to 77% of independent schools.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Antiquity and Europe

Studying classical antiquity and its continuing afterlife, I find that the theme of Europe constantly recurs in different forms. The dominant conception of a common European culture and heritage looks back to classical Greece; not just as the birthplace of ideas and institutions like democracy, science and critical thought that are still vital to us today, and the starting-point of a literary and artistic tradition that continues to inspire, but even as the likely origin of the word itself, and certainly the earliest conceptions of Europe as a distinct region. It was scarcely coincidental that the draft of the ill-fated European Constitution began with a quotation from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, presenting the statement of the Athenian politician Pericles that “our constitution is called a democracy” – and it was also not an accident that this quotation, as well as the constitution in general, was greeted with hilarity by British parliamentarians.

Of course this idea of ‘common European culture founded in antiquity’ is a myth – it was never continuous or uncontested, it is largely a modern invention – and it has often been a dangerous myth, supporting an idea of European superiority and exceptionalism that was then imposed violently on much of the rest of the world. But the same can be said of petty nationalism, and claims that Britain is separate from and superior to ‘Europe’.

The fact that such stories are partly fictional and often ahistorical doesn’t lessen their power or importance as a source of identity, and the idea of Europe as a trans-national culture, founded on a continuing engagement and negotiation with the classical past, is a myth with tremendous creative potential. The study of the reception of antiquity is not just a historical exercise; it’s also a basis for thinking about who we are, how we think of ourselves, and how such ideas can continue to inspire.

Even if we as scholars didn’t engage with such themes and issues, they would be unavoidable in debates about and around Europe. Rome is the go-to analogy for a united Europe, for better or worse: a single political structure, unified legal and coinage systems, the assimilation of different peoples into a common culture. This can equally well be presented in positive terms as the establishment of peace, prosperity and civilisation across the region – hence the claims of later regimes to be the legitimate continuation of the Roman Empire – or negative, as the violent conquest and colonial exploitation of native peoples by a rapacious elite – “they made a desert and called it the single European market”, to paraphrase Tacitus.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

5 ways in which we are being misled by the Out campaign

The EU referendum will not be decided by facts. Information on the benefits of the UK’s EU membership is widely available, and the facts speak for themselves. In plain English they say: both the UK and its European neighbours are better off with the United Kingdom being a member. The Out campaign is one of resentment and spectacularly bad humour, and the way to counter it is through stories and images that convey the joy and beauty of being able to study in France, work in Germany and retire in Spain even if you don’t belong to an elite for whom these things have long been natural. The EU has made it possible for more British people than ever before to find opportunities in other countries, to contribute to lively public debates there and to make new friends. British people use these opportunities to a much greater extent than citizens of most other EU countries.

That said, there are five things the Out campaign keeps saying that are simply not true, and need to be countered with reference to simple facts:#

1. Outers give us the impression that the UK has somehow been forced into something they never signed up for, or is being colonised by bureaucrats in Brussels. This is not true. The UK government has actively signed up to every treaty and every bit of regulation that is currently in place, and it has decided to opt out of some which, as a result, have not come into force here. It was the UK government that, on many occasions, insisted that all EU members agree on a policy before it can take effect. British administrators in Brussels and British members of the European parliament have long played a major role in shaping the European Union.

2. Outers tell us that the European project was initially just a free-trade idea which then mushroomed into a political structure. This is not true. The reasons for European leaders and citizens to kick off the process were always political. Free trade has always been seen as a tool to secure and safeguard peace in Europe – and it is only one tool from a much bigger toolbox. Stability, prosperity and democracy are the ideals of this European Union, and everybody knows that it needs much more than free trade to achieve them.

3. Outers tell us that the UK is a sovereign nation that should make its own decisions. This makes me wonder where they have been for the last forty years. The people of EU members countries, through their elected governments, including the UK government, have decided to exercise some of their sovereignty together – more so, but not unlike, the people of Bristol and London have decided that the UK government should speak for them both and make decisions that affect the lives of both cities. Yes, the EU is a supranational organisation: this is not some scary spectre but has long been the reality of how we are governed. Let us not choose to ignore the political system we live in.