First up, let us salute an unflamboyant Edinburgh publishing house, the Luath Press. Thanks to their latest list, augmented last month, those of us who would struggle to digest a whole book in a language other than our own can finally catch up with one of the most distinctive and thoughtful accounts anywhere of the culpable fiasco that is Brexit.
Au Revoir Britannia
was written by the former French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, as a memoir of her 2014-17 London posting. It is not, as one newspaper misleadingly said, a new book. It was published a year ago, in France and in French, to a lively reception, some of which was picked up in the British press. Why none of the big UK publishers thought to commission a translation is beyond understanding, but all credit to Luath and translator Colin McIntosh for affording us the privilege of seeing ourselves as an uncommonly well-placed other saw us.
If Sylvie Bermann's name seems familiar to Scottish ears, here's why. It was she who was the unwitting subject of one of the beefiest whoppers told by the unionist side during Scotland's 2014 independence referendum. The big untruth was that Nicola Sturgeon had told Bermann that she wanted David Cameron to win the next UK General Election. In fact, as Bermann has confirmed, she asked Sturgeon who she thought
would win, and was told Cameron. Quite different from the story punted out with the connivance of Alistair Carmichael: possibly, in a crowded field, the least impressive holder of the moribund post-devolution title of Secretary of State for Scotland.
In fact, Sturgeon ('a woman of exceptional character') seems to be of the few contemporary British politicians that Bermann rates at all highly. She has plenty of admiration for bygone statesmen like Churchill, Jenkins and Chris Patten, making the shrewd point (recently underlined in Robert Saunders' superb Yes to Europe
) that the big difference between the 1975 and 2016 referendums was that the former was conducted by politicians who had fought in World War Two and understood the value of institutions created to develop peace between European countries.
Reflecting, by contrast, on the present-day UK politicians with whom she had to deal, Bermann draws measured but largely disobliging sketches: a feckless Cameron, an anachronistic Corbyn, and a stolid, obdurate May. Unsurprisingly, her least nuanced judgements are reserved for Boris Johnson ('He is, above all else, an unrepentant liar') and for his fellow Brexiteers: 'The Leave campaign was characterised by disinformation, invention, manipulation and deliberate lies'.
For sure, London's hapless Brexit caperings are as soft a target as they come for continental critics, and caustic appraisals are a glut on the market. Bermann's analysis stands out, nevertheless, for two reasons. The first is her CV. Here is a diplomat of the very highest rank: ambassador not just to the UK, but to China before and Russia afterwards. It has provided her with an access-all-areas pass to the great and the good, and yet left remarkably little of the mealy-mouthed understatement that goes with her profession ('Nigel Farage – possibly the most narrowly parochial man in the UK').
The second distinction is her starting point of a long and genuine fondness for the UK. She describes herself as 'both an Anglophile and a Europhile,' writing admiringly of Britain's achievements, of the values it has traditionally promoted, of its academic and intellectual rigour, its literature, its multi-cultural aspirations. She is even, as the French generally are not, a fan of the British habit of trying to find humour in every circumstance, and displays a jaunty familiarity with British comedy classics.
It is this affection that deepens the melancholy of the saddest sentence in her book: 'I looked on as the UK, flourishing and self-confident, turned into a profoundly divided country where the prevailing atmosphere, tinged with xenophobia, was one of bitterness in which Europeans, and the French in particular, seemed to have become its enemies'.
No-one anywhere was better-placed to make this sorrowful observation. Bermann admits that the bitterness infected both sides of the Channel, but it is in Britain that the lasting havoc was wreaked: 'As things stand, it is difficult to identify any advantages that Brexit has brought,' she writes. 'Demons had been let loose, xenophobia and racism legitimised.'
What frustrates Bermann is her conviction that the EU was the scapegoat, rather than the cause, of the anger among those Brits who believed themselves unheeded. The day after the vote, she recalls, 'EU' topped the chart of internet searches, as if people were trying to find out what exactly it was they had just voted to leave. The real grievances, she argues, were de-industrialisation, globalisation, austerity, inequality, regions withering in London's shadow, and – most of all – that dependable spout of unfocused electoral fury, immigration.
These things had little, sometimes nothing, to do with the EU. Yet, by chancing upon Brussels as a handy baby to throw out with the bathwater, Brexit voters incurred a punishing and continuing real-life bill for their tantrum in the polling booth. The cost in lost output for 2020 alone was almost as much as the aggregate total of UK contributions to the EU budget since 1973. Bermann patiently catalogues the continuing costs of erecting unnecessary barriers to trade with the world's biggest market, which happens to be next door, in the vague hope of trade deals with far-off countries that have more compelling concerns than faded Commonwealth sentiment or Anglophone chumminess.
She is regretful above all about the geopolitical consequences. Whatever 'Global Britain' means, she says, there is almost no aspect of it that wasn't entirely possible within the EU. Britain and France already drafted 70% of UN Security Council resolutions: 'As if France, Germany and Italy were not sovereign nations'.
Bermann thinks it possible that the EU's greatest days are yet to come, as the world reshuffles into self-interested major powers whose conduct only Europe may be strong enough to moderate, mitigate or counterweigh. It would be bigger still with Britain aboard, but that hope runs up against 'a country that thinks it won the Second World War single-handed and liberated the continent,' she remarks tartly. 'We cannot continue to live in accordance with events that ended in 1945.'
Lastly, Bermann believes Brexit has placed structural strains on the UK itself. Like everyone outside the island of Britain, her main worry is the casual disregard for the Good Friday Agreement, but she sees a broader threat to the Union: 'Many English Brexiteers are only interested in the destiny of England, considering that Ireland has always been a source of problems for them [and] therefore any break-up would be welcome,' she writes. 'Their feelings towards Scotland are similar.'
As I was reading this book, word came of the Johnson Government's plan to reinstate ye olde imperial measures, offered up under the one-size-fits-all pretext of the Jubilee. Forward into the Past!
The appeal of this creed to some seems undiminished by the pathos and diminution that flows on from the 2016 vote. And yes: no doubt the past can be a comforting enough destination for which to set course… provided you're happy to give up on the future. It's hard to think of a better illustration for Sylvie Bermann's exasperated, affectionate lament.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster