Otto English returns from a trip to St Lucia with fresh insights on the madness of Brexit and our frustrating sense of British complacency.
When I was a boy, the classic task set on returning to school for the autumn term was to write something about “what I did in my summer holidays”.
My friend Andrew’s parents lived in Hong Kong back then and he’d write whole pages about his adventures. But I grew up in rural Essex and filling one side of A4 with “watching television” or “playing Atari tennis” barely made up a sentence, let alone an assignment. Sometimes, we’d go on holiday to Spain and I’d get sunburn or food poisoning to liven things up but, by the time I was having real adventures abroad, the whole ‘write an essay about your holiday’ thing had come to an end.
So, to make up for childhood inadequacy, here’s an article about “what I did in my summer holidays” or, alternatively, “how I flew to the other side of the Atlantic to get away from Brexit – and failed”.
It was decided that we needed to get away from it all. So we scooped up a last minute bargain and flew to St Lucia. Before we left, I made a solemn promise to myself and my family that I’d keep off social media and make no mention of the ‘B’ word for a week. It didn’t last long.
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As we disembarked, clutching our tourist immigration cards, I commented that this was exactly the kind of bollocks we’d have to waste our time doing after 31 October. Strong words were exchanged.
An hour or so later and we were bouncing down the road to our hotel. Our driver ‘Jon’ was the first of many hugely likeable people we were to meet. He pointed out plants and sights and even waved a hand in the direction of Martinique – a French overseas territory across the Caribbean Sea.
“Have you ever been there?” I asked. “Oh sure!” he exclaimed “It’s a fantastic place. They have the Euro. And you should see the hospital.”
St Lucia gained independence from Britain in 1979 and had just recently been celebrating 40 years of extracting itself from the UK when we arrived. Despite having a population of less than 200,000 people, it has produced no less than two Nobel laureates – the poet Sir Derek Walcott and the economist Sir W Arthur Lewis – giving the country the second highest per capita number of Nobel winners in the world after the Faroe Islands.
The economy is based almost entirely on tourism and with 82% of its GDP generated from that one sector, there is heavy reliance on the cruise ships that dock in the main harbours during the peak season of January to April. That lack of diversification poses problems for the small country and the government is trying to branch out into other economic sectors including agriculture, oil and even beer.
As we drove through the capital Castries, I was struck by the sharp contrast between the wealthy villas, sitting on the hills above the city, and the more rundown housing on the streets below. Both were a world away from our resort, which sat behind an acre of security. One of those American style mega-hotels where the breakfasts can give you a heart attack. The staff and indeed everyone there were very friendly, but it all felt a little anonymous.
None of us like being fenced in, so we ventured out as much as possible. We walked and wandered and did all those things that tourists do when they go to St Lucia. We went up volcanoes and zip-wired through the forest. We sampled the local beer and ate and chatted to the overwhelmingly nice and warm people who were looking after us. And throughout it all, I managed to keep off Twitter and avoid any mention of Brexit.
There were one or two near misses though. Once, as we climbed through the park overlooking the famous Pitons, I noticed that it had been restored thanks to EU funding and had to resist the urge to point this out. Another time, I read somewhere that the EU had promised to inject a few million into the troubled healthcare system and had to bite my tongue.
And then, towards the end of our holiday, we found ourselves in an idyllic spot, talking to a young guy called Benjamin who was trying to run a small start-up selling confectionery. As we took in the view from his premises, he pointed – as the taxi driver Jon had done – towards Martinique, and began to extol its virtues.
“They have the Euro there” he said with obvious envy, “and it’s so developed. Amazing hospitals and shopping malls and the capital is so clean – it’s like a proper capital city you know, like in Europe and Canada. And people there can even travel to France.”
As he spoke, the penny dropped. Martinique is a French overseas department – with all that this entails. Its GDP is nearly 10 times larger than St Lucia’s and, despite being a very long way from Europe, the island is in the EU.
Benjamin wasn’t dissing his home – far from it – but it became clear that he was frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to him and all of those that were sitting across the sea. This was a young, dynamic, hugely articulate individual who felt that the promised land was tantalisingly out of reach.
I pointed out that soon Britain would be the same distance from the EU as we were standing now and he laughed. “So what about Brexit?,” he asked. “Why do people want to leave? I don’t get it.” My family took a sharp, collective intake of breath.
I tried to explain the reasoning behind it. I talked about sovereignty and being able to strike individual trade deals and, of course, that our passports would now be blue again. And as I spoke he stared back at me with a kind of bemused disbelief before going: “Really? That’s it?” And, after a pause: “Really?”
As we rode back towards our hotel down past the glamorous villas on the outskirts and through the poorer areas of town, the whole madness of our domestic politics was brought home to me. Here we were on an island full of people like Benjamin and Jon – people longing for free movement and opportunity, people trying to rise above real hardship to feed their families and make lives and businesses and something of themselves. While back in Britain, our politicians are actively seeking to close those existing prospects down.
“I feel sorry for Benjamin,” my son said after a bit. “I mean, I don’t want to feel sorry for him in a bad way – but we’re lucky aren’t we?” The United Kingdom has had it good for a very long time and, perhaps, we have all simply lost sight of quite how lucky we are.