I’ve learnt a new word. It was repeated multiple times on the mountain roads I cycled during this year’s Tour de France (when France welcomes the World). It was strangely familiar, I’d heard and spoken a similar sounding word myself before.
Normally it’s French words that are anglicised to effect a certain Je ne sais quoi. This time the French have adapted the English word: FREXIT. Maybe in Germany (DEUXIT), Italy (ITXIT) and Spain (ESPANXIT) similar words are daubed large in heavy set white letters on their mountain roads for cyclists to read. Why are they telling cyclists that they wish to free from the supranational shackles of the EU? Is it because as cyclists we’re continually seeking a freedom of sorts too? More probably because the eyes of the World through the lens of TV cameras suspended from multiple hovering helicopters, will be focused on the mountain roads too.
Against the mesmerising mountains it looked alien, ugly and in your face: FREXIT (Libre Savoie was much less so, cute even). Out of place in the context of the inherent internationalism of the Tour de France. Riders from America, Russia, Columbia, Scandinavia, France, Italy, Spain & Great Britain (the Great somehow seeming incongruous and out dated) in the same peloton even in the same team working to achieve a collective goal. How often does the Breakaway get away? How many GC contenders solo to victory without their team? Not impossible but not often.
Spectators from all over the world flock to France, supporting riders from countries other than their own, looking past nationality to the heart of their chosen rider, backing them because of their riding style, swagger, temperament, their feats in the face of pain, even just the bike they ride or their record (Palmares (exotic French word)). We’re free to choose, not restricted to just supporting our fellow country men.
So why, when a nation becomes discontent does it turn inward and dismiss the outside world? Nationalism is portrayed as the answer to but it has all so often turned ugly. Whilst technology is pushing aside national boundaries, breaking down barriers, racing towards globalisation, deep down human nature leans towards tribalism. When disenchanted, seemingly threatened we seek identity and safety within our own pack.
Politicians know this. They are skilled in creating fear of ‘the other’. During the EU Referendum, our ‘other’ were the ‘job stealing immigrants’. Trump is championing Muslims as his ‘convenient other’ threatening the American way of life. To be honest we’ve got history in Europe, we’ve written the book on the politics of fear, using fear to gain popularity. We’ve readily walked that thin line that leads towards ethnic cleansing and genocide before.
Don’t worry, we’re sophisticated, developed nations. We won’t fall in to that trap again. We learn from our mistakes, history doesn’t repeat itself, does it? The true success of the maligned EU project has been its success in preventing (another) catastrophic war between ever squabbling nations. I am not sure why that is not more widely acknowledged.
Tormented by the hard climb, tormented by Dom and The Doog disappearing up the road above me, tormented by FREXIT, my mood has turned black as I finally crest the summit where I celebrate with a drink (stale, warm electrolyte), take my summit photos (monumental), another drink (chocolat chaud avec expresso – I’m introducing Café Mocha to France a Col at a time), eat an energy bar (soggy). No time left for a baguette jambon et fromage as the others have scoffed in the time it has taken me to catch back up to them. Clip in and descend.
This is true freedom. Pure excitement, earned and paid for. Nothing else matters other than staying away from the precipitous drop, the slippery white lines, the cracks in the road surface, gravel in the corners and soft, melting asphalt. Nothing other than enjoying the controlled exhilarating madness of descending a hair-pinned, switchbacked, off camber, mountain roller coaster from mountain top to valley floor.
Within the safety of the gorge, a tumbling meltwater fuelled river to my right I’d forgotten about FREXIT/BREXIT. On the mountain I’ve found the answer. When life becomes a cruel, endless grind, misery and resentment builds. When life is exciting, exhilarating, challenging it dissipates. Politicians don’t need to stoop to stoking the flames of fear to create unity. There is another way: energise and excite, create that elusive feel good factor that can unite a nation. Of course politicians know this too. It’s a space race or other vanity endeavour (like hosting the Olympics).
Conveniently we already have our national project: BREXIT. Rather than use it to curl up into an isolated little ball, closing out the outside world, it could be the vehicle to re-tool, re-focus, re-build, re-energise our curmudgeonly, insular, stuck in the past, clinging to former Imperial-glories nation. Make it current, on trend, world leading, prosperous even. BREXIT is a legitimate ‘once in a generation’ unifying challenge, adventure even, more legitimate than going to Mars or bagging a fistful of gold medals.
Our BREXIT project should have our children’s futures at its core, it can be exciting, collective, deliver national pride. What about a British-devised solution to climate change, cost effective supersonic travel, mass water purification in the Developing World, a new sustainable fuel source etc etc? That’s just the stuff I came up with at 60kmh on the down side of the Col de la Colombiere. There’s no limit to the potential, only our ambition.