Older Britons Complain U.K. Has Been Bullied In Brexit Negotiations

May 23, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 6:47 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May is under extraordinary pressure to resign. The pressure escalated after one of her senior ministers quit over her latest Brexit plan. You will recall it's been almost three years since Britain voted to leave the European Union. Today British voters go to the polls again, this time to choose representatives to the EU Parliament. And Brits may be angry at their government, but they're also angry at European officials for not giving their nation the respect that they believe it deserves. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Peggy Reading teaches radio drama at a university about 140 miles north of London. While most young people in the U.K. voted to stay in the EU, most older ones, like Reading, voted out, in part because they see a brighter future for Britain free from EU regulations. So, Reading says, it's been painful to watch Prime Minister Theresa May go to Brussels to beg EU leaders for help with her beleaguered Brexit plan.

PEGGY READING: Absolute humiliation - three times now she's gone back and they - she's had to sit outside some door. Can you imagine somebody like Winston Churchill or Maggie Thatcher being told to sit outside in the corridor? And yet, she does it meekly. They're treating us like muck.

LANGFITT: May's failed to negotiate a Brexit deal with the EU that she can get through her own parliament, so the U.K. must elect representatives today to an institution it voted to leave nearly three years ago. Reading sees this as just more evidence of her nation's long slide since its victory in World War II.

READING: We were brought up by our parents to be proud of this country. And we had won the war. And although nobody had any money, we were proud of it. We loved it. I mean, "I Vow To Thee, My Country" is our song. "Rule Britannia," all that - it's gone. It's gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT")

THE D-DAY DARLINGS: (Singing) Rule Britannia. Britannia rule the waves.

LANGFITT: Reading's referring to the patriotic anthem "Rule Britannia," performed here on the TV show "Britain's Got Talent." Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves, the song goes; Britons never, never, never shall be slaves. Travel to other pro-Brexit parts of England, and you'll hear older voters say similar things - voters like Angela Lawrence, a writer, who went to a rally on England's east coast for the newly formed Brexit party.

ANGELA LAWRENCE: This year, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, when we rescued the continent from the Nazis. We mustn't forget what this country has done for Europe.

LANGFITT: Do you feel that the EU really appreciates what the United Kingdom did?

LAWRENCE: At the moment, there is no appreciation whatsoever. When you go to the continent and see the monuments to the dead, you realize that we have laid down our life for the people of the continent, and we deserve a little respect.

LANGFITT: A few voters even suggest that Germany, the EU's largest economy, has driven a hard bargain on Brexit to subjugate the United Kingdom. Angie Jinks is a gardener who lives in the village of Werrington, about two hours east of Birmingham.

ANGIE JINKS: My grandfather would have said, they couldn't beat us in the war, so they've come in the back door.

LANGFITT: Simon Usherwood teaches politics at the University of Surrey. He says this uncertainty about Britain's place in the world goes back many decades. He cites a famous observation by a U.S. secretary of state.

SIMON USHERWOOD: That old line of Dean Acheson of, you know, losing an empire and not yet finding a role applies now as much as it did back in the '40s and '50s.

LANGFITT: During the 2016 referendum campaign, Brexiteer politicians vowed to, quote, "take back control from Brussels," referring to the power to regulate immigration and make laws. The slogan, like Make America Great Again, promised a return to what Brexit voters saw as a better time. Again, Simon Usherwood.

USHERWOOD: And this is very much a populist way of thinking - that things used to be great. Things will be great. But right now they're terrible, and you need me to put you back on track.

LANGFITT: Nearly three years on, the U.K. is still stuck inside the European Union. Brexit voters blame that failure on Prime Minister May and an EU they feel has mistreated their country.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Werrington, England.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERRY WEIGHT'S "YETI'S LAMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.