"Vote for Us, we hate the same people you hate"
There are plenty of ways people could object to the Sainsbury’s “1914 Christmas Truce” TV Commercial. You could accuse it of historical inaccuracy or sentimentality. You could object to the use of a tragic war to promote a supermarket brand. You might argue that this one event was utterly unrepresentative of the more than four years of hell that was the Great War. But all of these objections ignore one simple fact. At the lowest level war is about individuals. The poor bloody infantry. The lions led by donkeys. On both sides.
Max Hastings’s astonishing book about the first year of the War ”Catastrophe” is a work of genius not just for its thorough research and its determination to be as accurate as it could (both true) but for its frequent use of personal histories. Not (just) the memories of the Generals but of the ordinary soldiers. The poignant letter of private soldier – the last he wrote before the sniper’s bullet got him. Of the German officer cut down by an attack by the residents of a village they had just subdued. The reprisal killings that followed. And on, and on for four ghastly years.
The Sainsbury’s ad combines brilliant filmmaking and casting with a quite legitimate message about “sharing”. They might have said – though it was inherent in the mini story – that at an individual level we have more in common with our “enemies” than we might be told or think. One perspective on the War was that it was a “Bosses” war and that the infantry (etc.) on both sides were simply cannon fodder. That may be a Marxist view (Karl Marx said : Proletarier aller Länder vereinigt Euch!, literally “Workers of all nations Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains”) but there is more than a scintilla of truth in it. The “truce” didn't happen again and fraternisation of any sort was forbidden. And there was no real mechanism for the lions of the two sides to turn on the donkeys and declare that enough was enough. Disobedience of orders was met swiftly by the firing squad.
At an individual level Tommy and Fritz had much in common. But by December 1914 the war was already dehumanised and casualties were in their hundreds of thousands. The war would be won by the smarter and the luckier Generals (if you read their memoirs) and by the side who deserved to win a “Just War” (if you read some historians). But it was the poets and the artists who told the true story. As Wilfred Owen put it “Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori” was an “old Lie”. There was nothing “sweet and right” at all about dying for your country. But if you seek honour and bravery and selflessness in the battle stories you will find countless examples. On both sides of the wire. There is a symbolism about the “Christmas truce”, about the carol singing and about the football. And, yes, about the “sharing” – however brief it might have been.
There is a curious piece in The Times today by Sathnam Sanghera rubbishing the world of the Ex-Pat.
I am reluctant to praise the benefits of living outside your home country too highly because I realise that it is a privilege not available to all. I was lucky, very lucky. In 1980 I was "posted" (as we used to call it) by my employer, Shell, to The Netherlands - not to The Hague but to the local company based in Rotterdam. I had to learn and work in Dutch. I had to learn about a culture quite different from my own. I lived in a city, Leiden, utterly different from anywhere I had lived before. For three years I rode the waves of that Dutch culture. It wasn't easy, I'm a fairly gregarious sort of chap and initially not speaking the language was quite stressful. But my colleagues, neighbours and business contacts were helpful and gradually I came not just to appreciate the country, but even to love it. But more importantly I changed. Shell was I think clever enough to see that I needed to be outside my comfort zone and my time in Holland was just that. Every year in The Netherlands counted at least double in my personal development.
My reward for a reasonably successful time in Holland was a posting to Scotland! Now you might not think that was an expatriate posting and technically it wasn't ! But in the same way that The Netherlands told me a bit about Europe, or one small part of it, Scotland told me about my own country. The three years I spent North of the border made me British, very different to the Englishness of my upbringing. They do things differently there. Not THAT differently perhaps, but differently. In that job, at the time of the miners' strike, I was close to events and people outwith my previous experience. And that's lies at the core of the expat benefit - you are challenged more and in different ways than if you stay at home. You will never be the same again.
Following Scotland I rode those cultural waves again for four years in Hong Kong. This amazing place invades all your senses in a unique way. Every day you smell it, hear it, feel it, touch it - there is no escape! As if, in my case, you would want to escape. I was there at a lucky time. I worked with expatriate colleagues but also, and crucially, with some brilliant local staff. Is managing a team of Hong Kong Chinese the same as managing a team of Brits? Of course not. Is it valuable experience - indeed, and not just that. You learn as much from the locals as (hopefully) they do from you. This is another big Expatriate gain. It's a two-way learning process.
At the end of my Shell career I spent seven years in the Middle East. Based in Dubai I worked across the region and visited every country. Take Yemen. I doubt that I should ever have gone to that extraordinary country had I not had a business reason to do so. Yemen was like time travel. But the business priorities and the opportunities were the same, though the solutions were very different. And that is yet another benefit. The cliche "Think Global, Act Local" may be over familiar, but it is true. And if sensitively applied it works.
To denigrate the benefits of being an expatriate is ignorant and trite. If you only measure them by the banalities of what you earn or whether the sun shines perhaps you should indeed have stayed at home. But if you see the challenge, the opportunity and the rewards as they can be then you will regard your expat years as the privilege they are. The more you ride the waves of culture the broader, and I think better, you will be as a person. I don't know any "Little Englanders" who were expatriates. Nor any petty nationalists nor faux patriots either.
A few years ago, before he became “famous”, I had dinner with Nigel Farage. A mutual friend, also called “Nigel”, invited me to join the two of them after we had all been at Lord’s cricket ground for the day. We met at a Malaysian restaurant in West Hampstead and as far as I can recall it was a pleasant evening. The two Nigels, like me, enjoyed the spicy food and Tiger Beer and that and a bit of cricket chat (mainly), was the purpose of the evening.
Farage is almost a generation younger than me – he was born in 1964, the year I left school and started work. But we have similar backgrounds. I grew up in the same part of West Kent as Farage and visited the same pubs in Downe Village (his home) and elsewhere. My father was a member of “West Kent Golf Club” (WKGC) as is Farage. And I was at Farage’s school Dulwich College for three years in the 1950s. I know the world he comes from well.
The 19th hole at WKGC and the watering holes around the area were not known for their liberal debate. The house journal for the men was the “Daily Telegraph” and for the women the “Daily Mail”. My father, not a particularly political man, was at the heart of this for thirty years. They were, of course, all Conservatives in every way. Socially illiberal. Hangers and Floggers. Vehemently ant-Socialist. Their attitude to the working-class was generally either patronising (“Salt of the Earth”) or hostile (“Union trouble-makers”). They were against any social or what they saw as “intrusive” legislation. Especially if a car was involved. So Barbara Castle was a pariah for cracking down on drink driving and introducing the breathalyser and for making seat-belts compulsory. You get the picture. I don't recall my parents or their Golf Club friends as being particularly racist – black or Asian faces were rare in that part of Kent. But their world was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant world and Catholics and Jews were certainly looked at with suspicion.
WKGC is a hilly course and you drive down a big hill and cross a small valley before climbing up to the Clubhouse. One day I was in my father’s car en route to the Club. I noticed at the bottom of the hill a wooden building with a corrugated roof. A few golfers were standing outside it. I asked my Dad what it was. “Oh that's the Artisans” he said. He explained that this group comprised working-class men who would not be able to “afford” proper membership of the Club. They had their own modest facilities, teed off from the 10th hole nearby. And were banned from the main clubhouse.
It does not follow that if you grew up in this world of privilege and narrowness then you developed political opinions like those of Farage. But it is fair to say that the majority did especially if, like Farage, you did not go to University but went straight into the City. Your mind certainly won’t be broadened by your friends in Downe’s “George and Dragon” ! The Conservative Party was the natural home for those politically active in West Kent. In the main they had political opinions not dissimilar to that of UKIP today – they were Right-Wing Conservatives who leaned far more towards Enoch Powell than they did to Edward Heath. Needless to say Margaret Thatcher was their heroine.
My dinner with the two Nigels was, as I have said, a pleasant evening. I don't recall Farage being particularly mad or outspoken. Although my politics are of the Left many of my friends and acquaintances are of the Right so there was nothing especially unusual about hearing a few traditionally rightist views from Nigel Farage . I’d been hearing similar for decades in my own family! I didn't take Farage seriously because he didn't seem to take himself seriously – it was well-lubricated pub banter and it seemed harmless.
The problem with Nigel Farage is not his unsavoury views about most things – you’ll hear similar all the time in the circles from which he comes. The problem, of course, is that Farage has had for some time platforms from which to spout his nonsense. My Dad and his friends didn't stand on soapboxes – they mumbled bigotry into their pint glasses and moved on to talk about rugby or cricket. Nobody would have elected them to anything more demanding than the Golf Club committee.
UKIP’s natural home is the members’ bar of West Kent Golf Club and its like across southern England. Sitting on their high stools the members would no doubt refer to “Good Old Nigel” as the “Sort of Chap who talks a lot of sense”. Dissenters (there would be some) would shrug their shoulders and smile – as I did over dinner. They might say that it was all “harmless” and that nobody was going to give Farage the keys to anything that really mattered. But now he has them, the keys to Britain's immediate political future. In Iain Dale’s Top 100 people of the Right he is at Number one – ahead of David Cameron. We may comfort ourselves that you can never fool all the people all of the time, but then you don’t need to. Dictators only get 100% of the votes when they gain power - not on their journey there.
There is no intellectual substance to UKIP’s policies – but there doesn't need to be. The support from the Golf Club bores is solid and secure. And now Farage is making serious inroads into the “Artisan” vote as well. To wander down the hill and knock on the door of the wooden building with the corrugated roof smiling your Cheshire Cat smile and pandering to the prejudices of the people there is all in a days work for our Nigel.
You've been warned.
@BBCMarkMardell: Ken Clarke,on Today warns against 'ignorance & bigotory' and says Conservatives shouldn't 'follow nonsense' about EU immigration
The loyalty deficit in the Conservative Party is not a new phenomenon. Ask John Major. The Party that under Ted Heath had the vision to see that Britain's future was as an active member of a united Europe has for twenty years or more had a large lunatic fringe who want to undo all that has been achieved.