Magazine article The Spectator

They Don't Know What They're Saying

Magazine article The Spectator

They Don't Know What They're Saying

Article excerpt

THERE is no mistaking the champion linguist among Britain's MEPs. He is Dr Charles Tannock, one of London's four Conservatives. I can vouch only for his excellent Spanish and French, but I've often heard him yabbering animatedly in German, Portuguese and Italian, and he seems also to have a fair grasp of Slovak and Dutch. So it may surprise you to learn that Charles is a fervent Eurosceptic. When asked at his selection whether he intended to keep up his psychiatry practice, he replied, 'Brussels is full of people who need my help.' And, since arriving there, he has launched a multi-vernacular assault on federalism.

One of the more curious features of the European Parliament is the correlation, at least among the British, between linguistic ability and opposition to closer integration. It is not an exact correlation: several Europhiles have taught themselves French, and a few - especially, for some reason, among the Liberal Democrats - are accomplished in several European tongues. But the sceptics do, nonetheless, enjoy an identifiable lead.

A similar tendency can be seen in our domestic politics. Many of the hardest enemies of Brussels are people who are not only fluent in other languages, but are plainly comfortable with other cultures. One thinks of James Goldsmith, or Michael Portillo in this generation, or Anthony Eden in the last. My survey of Daily Telegraph leader writers - arguably the most Eurosceptic life-form in discovered space - reveals an impressive average of three-and-a-half languages per head.

Through the ages, the defence of our national independence has tended to come from people who got on conspicuously well with foreigners. Wellington attended a French school in Ireland before completing his studies on the Continent. Disraeli, like Churchill, could never resist an opportunity to speak French: when he attended the Congress of Berlin, the British ambassador had to talk him out of showing off his language skills by insisting that the other heads of government would be disappointed not to hear his famous English oratory. Of all our Victorian statesmen, only Palmerston comes close to the gunboat stereotype. On one occasion, when told by his French counterpart that the English had no word for sensibilite he replied, 'Yes we have: humbug.' By contrast, the most unquestioning Euro-enthusiasts are often shockingly parochial. This is especially true, in my experience, of young Blairites, whose cosmopolitanism tends to be limited to their cuisine. But the Tory wets also boast a fair number of determined monoglots - one thinks of Clarke and Hezza, who disgraced themselves at the launch of Britain In Europe - and Edward Heath's attempts to speak French are among the glories of the 20th century.

I think I have worked out why this should be. It owes much to what Jungians call 'transferred guilt'. Those who always have to speak to foreigners in English worry that they may be coming across as arrogant. They are keen to show their interlocutors that they do not look down on them, and feel that they can somehow do this by stressing that, in their view, Britain is a rather feeble country which could not survive without its European neighbours.

The funny thing is that they have absolutely no need to be embarrassed. Foreigners, after all, have not learned English as a favour to us, but in order to communicate with each other. …

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