It’s that time of year again folks! The Eurovision Song Contest Finals are on tonight. Now, I know we in the UK usually treat them as a laugh; a shambolic kitsch demonstration of Euro Trash nonsense, where Johnny foreigner can’t quite get pop music right. Once aided and abetted by the good naturedly sarcastic commentary of the late Sir Terry Wogan and nowadays by the slightly more bitchy Graham Norton. And yes, as a rule the songs are pretty dreadful to our Western ears. And yes, I’ll admit, my vote is largely influenced by how much I fancy the performers. (Remember the butter churning lady from 2014? God bless Poland. Not to be confused with the bread making ladies of Russia.)
The most fascinating part of each year’s song contest though, is the voting at the end. They’ve tried all sorts of systems over the years, from 100% Jury votes, to 100% phone in. Now it’s sort of a mixture of both. But however they have done it, it still comes out as deeply partisan, sectarian voting blocks. In recent decades the song contest has grown massively, so now there are semi-finals to get through before you reach the Saturday night finale. (Of course certain countries get a pass straight through. Good job really, ‘cos we’d never qualify otherwise.)
Each yeah we huff and puff about the biased voting and how nobody is voting for the UK entry for political reasons and because Johnny European just hates the British. All of which is a bit unfair really. (Only a bit unfair. After the Brexit vote can we imagine how popular we are now in various sectors.) Because in some places in Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest is taken very seriously indeed. During the worst years of the cold war, when the Eastern Bloc was locked down hard against all Western influences, being able to secretly tune in and watch the show was an act of rebellion. The song contest was seen as a symbol of European unity and freedom, something to be aspired too. I’d recommend seeking out the book, Nul Point by Tim Moore, where he goes out and interviews acts who scored the dreaded Nul Point at various Eurovision’s. He goes into greater detail about the political landscape of the contest seen from the various component countries. It’s also very funny, especially when he accidentally smuggles drugs into Denmark (I think, could be Finland, somewhere cold up north anyway.)
But Eurovision I think, also demonstrates the UK’s attitude to Europe as a whole. Slightly weird, insignificant and largely irrelevant to us. We’ve never really felt part of Europe because we’ve never lived inside it.
In England (And I mean England, not the UK or GB.) our borders, language and culture have remained largely unchanged for centuries. Yes, I know Berwick Upon Tweed has been popped into Scotland and back many times but for the last few centuries it has largely stayed put. The biggest change was when Ireland earned/ was granted/ won (however you want to phrase it) its Independence. Now look at Europe. Almost any country you care to mention has had massive cultural upheavals since 1900. Great empires smashed and reformed, countries forced together, then later split apart by revolution or bloody civil war. Hundreds of miles of borderlands shifted forwards and back. So you end up with great swathes of population who ethnically feel they belong to their neighbours, not the country they, for the moment, live in. Large regions speak their national tongue only as a second language, usually speaking a dialect more based on the language of the geographical neighbour, who, chances are, used to own that land.
Imagine if most of Kent spoke French as a first language, if half of Yorkshire and Northumbria spoke Danish. Imagine whole communities, whole towns and cities, centuries old, full of ethnic Danes, living life as Danes, celebrating Danish culture and holidays and cooking Danish traditional food, only begrudgingly participating in the rest of the UK’s political life. Imagine if those communities have regularly been at war with each other over the centuries, tearing into each other, then being abandoned in a foreign country by the sweep of a diplomat’s pen at peace talks.
So much of Europe has been split and reformed; population’s isolated by borders written on a map, not natural ones like seas, rivers and mountains. Centuries of armies marching across their lands back and forth. Yes, we were bombed in WW1 & 2, but our streets haven’t rung to the sound of invading armies for a very, very, very long time.
And we have the nerve to get all uppity if a Polish shop opens in our town, or we hear people speaking ‘foreign’ on the train.
So given that background, can’t you see how a political union with your neighbour’s might seem a desirable thing? How bickering in a debating hall might be preferable to foreign tanks rolling down the main street of your town?
And if you ever doubt what kind of influence the UK has had on Europe, just take note of how many songs tonight will be sung in our native tongue, not their own.
So if we get Nul Point because all of Europe thinks we’re all ignorant, isolationist fools, then, well, they just might have the point.