The former French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, went into print a couple of days ago to reflect on what remains of her country’s relationship with the Brits. When she left office in 2017, there was a measure of mutual trust and conversations were conducted in good faith. Since then, Boris Johnson has barged into Downing Street, signed an exit agreement with the EU that he didn’t appear to have read properly, and assigned subsequent negotiations to an envoy – Lord Frost – who specialises in overturning the furniture and insulting anyone unlucky enough not to be English. As a direct result of this yobbery, our international reputation is in tatters. Good faith is nothing but a distant memory.
No wonder no one likes us anymore. With 200,000 EU citizens safely back home, whole areas of the UK economy – from supply chains to care homes – are now on their knees. This, it goes without saying, has nothing to do with the government. Au contraire, it is Europe – especially the French – who make the political weather.
With bluster and boorishness on this scale goes a ready preparedness to point the finger across the Channel when things go wrong. Asylum seekers risking their lives have been waved through by a France determined to move them on. 27 died because the French couldn’t be arsed to intercept them. Difficulties with trade across the Irish Sea are likewise the fault of Johnny Foreigner, hence our determination to kick the Northern Ireland Protocol to death. In the world of fake news and faker governments, the blame when things go wrong always lies at someone else’s door.
The fact that France accepts far more refugees than we do, or that Johnson signed the wretched Protocol in the first place, is neither here nor there, because our Prime Minister has never been remotely interested in the small print of governing. What really matters is the smile on the nation’s face. As Sylvie Bermann reminds us, the King of Shambolica will never sacrifice a good joke to the truth.
The sacrifice of a good joke is itself a good joke, a poke in the eye for those dour killjoys who fail to see the funny side, and this – too – is topical because Sylvie Bermann’s thoughts on the Entente Incordiale coincided with the publication of Baroness Louise Casey’s withering report on last July’s riots at Wembley that brought the Euro Finals to an inglorious end.
We happened to be in Margate that day. The drinking started early, and by noon whole areas of the town had been taken over by armies of fans – young and not-so-young – toting the flag of St George and armfuls of high-octane lager. Dreamland on the seafront had imported huge screens for the evening’s game and by early afternoon security guards were doing their best to control the ever-growing queue awaiting entry.
On the train back to London, it was the same story, drunken fans weaving from carriage to carriage, a tinnie in each hand, pausing to insult anyone who ignored them, and when we finally made it to Victoria red smoke still lingered over the concourse after a volley of festive flares.
TV coverage of the final wisely concentrated on the game itself, choosing to ignore the thousands of ticketless fans who were causing havoc outside, but Louise Casey, half a year later, leaves them nowhere to hide. The word she uses time and again is ‘shameful’. She dismisses the proposition that the riot was evidence of lax control because no one, she insists, could have anticipated the violence that descended on the approaches to the stadium.
Innocent bystanders were trampled underfoot. Police and stewards were assaulted by organised gangs. A disabled child had his wheelchair hijacked by one thug in a bid to secure entry. The riot sustained itself for six long hours, and the only consolation lay in the fact that the Italians lifted the cup. Had England won the penalty shoot-out, according to one eye-witness, the result would have been drunken carnage.
Why does it have to be this way? Why, after Southgate and his team’s brilliant efforts to make it as far as the final, should we offer a global audience the living proof that we’re world class at shooting ourselves in the foot?
I put this thought to a friend with a lifetime’s experience in the darker corners of football fandom. He wasn’t lucky enough to be at Wembley on the night, but he’d had ample opportunity to view the highlights of what was happening outside. ‘Had to be done,’ he shrugged. ‘If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have been there in the first place.’
Quite so. A joke. Nothing serious. Nothing that might damage us. Nothing that might make any foreigner think twice before driving an English lorry, or picking an English cauliflower, or wiping an English bum.
Never sacrifice a good joke to the truth. The fish, they say, rots from the head.