The first article I ever wrote for the Scottish Review,
five years ago, recounted how my wife and I decided, in the wake of the Brexit vote, to bring forward our retirement plans by selling the family home in Edinburgh, closing down my successful freelance business, and relocating to south-west France before the worst of the Brexit damage took effect. That article, for those interested, can be found online in Volume 11 of The Best of 25 Years of the Scottish Review
. This final issue of the magazine seems the occasion to revisit it and assess whether we were right or wrong.
There were, as I reported it, both pull and push factors. Having had a holiday bolthole for a few years here in Montpellier, we had grown increasingly at home with French life. We liked our time here. We admired France's generous public services, its instinct for classlessness, its Eurocentric foreign policy, its commitment to decency in the workplace, its readiness to discuss serious topics seriously, and the priority given to a project's aesthetics and usefulness over its shareholder value.
Over the same period, we had come to feel increasingly alienated by the emerging UK zeitgeist. The independence referendum of 2014 spot-lit a deceitful, bullying side to leaders of the British state that we found unpalatable. With each week passing, the country seemed more demoralised, dirty and down-at-heel. It offered no serious response to the rapid divergence of rich and poor. Its obsession with the past of the Second World War and of hereditary monarchy betokened little faith in any viable future. It too often took refuge in a scornful facetiousness, and a boozed-up search for scapegoats. The Brexit outcome encapsulated both these traits, borne on a cartoon mistrust of foreigners and a Boaty McBoatface level of debate. None of it seemed to have much to do with us.
And so we left. In some ways it was a melancholy decision. The personal circumstances we left behind were congenial: a lovely home in a fine city, a good income, and an adored family, lately enriched by our first grandchild and with a second on the way. But we are also people who read newspapers and books and care about issues. On that level it was, as the Americans say, a no-brainer. As it turned out, Covid and a dying news industry might anyway have forced our hand.
So, were we right to go? One of the advantages of information technology – heaven knows, there are enough DIS
advantages – is that it is easy to keep track remotely. There are mornings when all it takes to make me give thanks for France is a glance online at the front pages of the London tabloids. That sneering, hate-filled tone is simply not replicated in the French media, even at its trashy end. Nor is the belief that the antics of a footballer's wife or a television dance competition count as national news. The French esteem for lofty intellectual discussion may be nine-tenths pretence, but I prefer it to an equivalent reverence for ignorance.
Of course, it is not all that simple. There are certainly aspects of French life that have got worse not better in the time we have lived here, just as it wasn't all a smooth glide to the sunlit uplands in the Britain of Johnson and Truss. France had barely recovered from the 2007 recession before Covid struck. In a country of artisans and microtraders, a long slump in consumer demand hits sore. We have watched favourite restaurants, bars and shops close, to be replaced, if at all, by fast-food takeaways and estate agencies. There are many more beggars around. True, France has cherished and safeguarded its manufacturing base more than Britain. Making things remains the core of the economy, so the macro numbers don't look so bad. But at street level, it is dispiriting.
These are uncertain times too in French politics: a fading Presidency, a fragmented left, a growing readiness among the disaffected on all sides to take to the streets, and the ever-ominous shadow of Marine Le Pen's National Rally – though, frankly, it has been a while since Le Pen said anything as offensive as the things Suella Braverman says every day. In spite of vigorous economic regulation, living costs have risen at a pace incomes struggle to match. Meanwhile, the drain of population from the countryside – the ambience so central to French identity – is relentless. Villages are emptied too by British second-home owners giving up in the wake of Brexit, and by French youngsters shunning native wines in favour of fizzy imported beer.
French people tell you, without prompting, that their country is growing less happy and less kind, but it is not always easy for an embedded expat to see the evidence. Last weekend, we were in the seaside resort of Grande-Motte. It is a bizarre place, concept-built in the 1960s as a futuristic vision of raked apartment blocks that resemble wine-racks seen through an LSD trip. Like all things futuristic, it aged quickly and badly. Yet it has the redeeming feature of broad, dappled walkways, lined with sub-tropical trees and flowering shrubs. Strolling in autumn sunshine among contented people, we noticed that not one of the hundreds of knee-high flower beds had been plundered or vandalised. Aside from the tiresome youth pastime of 'tagging' flat surfaces with spray-paint, you see very little vandalism or litter in France. It's just not in the culture. Aesthetics are for everyone.
What of Britain over the same period? I harshly predicted back in 2018 that Brexit Britain would be 'a bloody horrible place: insular, boorish, incurious, illiberal, kleptocratic, narrow-minded, baleful, broke and draping its America-lite reality with fantasies of empire and Blitz… a place where every day is the Last Night of the Proms'. I also wrote that Scotland's medium-term prospects for sustaining its own more liberal and communitarian approach to public policy did not look good.
Was I justified? That's for those who still live there to say. I have forfeited any real right to sit in judgement on a country I chose to abandon.
But perhaps I'm entitled to say this. I have sat here watching from afar as public amenities close; as diplomatic treaties are measured for default; as international standards for human rights, climate responsibility and humane treatment of refugees are casually trashed; as boardroom brahmins pay themselves more and more for achieving less and less; as tax-dodging is laughed off as a bit of a lark; as city property prices soar beyond the reach of citizens; and as the London Cabinet looks eagerly for new opportunities to demonstrate its contempt for the parliament the Scottish people elected.
I watch disbelieving as shameless shoulders are shrugged over Empire Windrush, Bibby Stockholm, or the Covid 'VIP Fast Lane'; as the mainstream UK parties bedeck their press conferences in union flags, like National Front rallies of old; as the official opposition refuses to say anything interesting about anything very much for fear of annoying some electoral micro-demographic; as the ruling party in Scotland squanders its reputation for governing competently; as the cult of celebrity grows ever emptier of merit… and I struggle to muster much remorse for my grim forecast in 2018.
Since then, I have worked out my feelings about my new country in columns of the Scottish Review
. I thank it and its readers for their forbearance. It has been a huge privilege to write about things I wanted to discuss, at decent length, for a supportive editor, and in distinguished company. I shall miss it, as I'm sure many will.
As for defection to France, five years on? Je ne regrette rien
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster