Is British politics getting seasick?

The sea is a part of British heritage. But post-Brexit, it is being sullied by politicians

On a good day here on the English coast, I can see France. And on a good day, I swim in the sea. Friends told me that if I could get through November, when the water temperature really begins to dip, it would be easy to continue until April when it rises again.

It wasn't "easy". Nevertheless, last year I managed to swim at least half a dozen days every month through the winter. Sometimes I jumped in only for a few minutes, but after the initial shock of the cold water subsided, I came out of the water happy, sometimes euphoric, and full of energy. But now something has spoiled this simple pleasure.

The British government has welcomed the world’s most important conference on the environment, Cop26, to Glasgow, yet in Parliament a few days ago, 265 Conservative MPs agreed to the idea of pumping vast quantities of raw sewage into the sea. They offered various excuses, including poor sewer infrastructure, although Britain’s Environment Agency made clear that Brexit is a significant factor. The agency told the private water companies: "You may not be able to comply with your permit if you cannot get the chemicals you use to treat the effluent you discharge because of the UK’s new relationship with the EU."

I will swim in cold water. I will swim in winter. But I will not swim in "effluent" because "effluent" is sewage.

MPs were named and shamed. A demonstration by a group called Surfers Against Sewage hit the headlines and a protest petition has begun. After the sewage was released, the British government backtracked.

It is hardly surprising the public response remains angry. The sea figures hugely in British culture, folklore and history. Our language is full of cliches about being an "island race". Every British schoolchild learns the wonderful literary celebrations of our coast as a defence against foreign threats. In 1595, after England repelled the Spanish Armada, the 16th-century playwright William Shakespeare put a beautifully patriotic speech into the mouth of that most English of characters John of Gaunt, a military leader from two centuries prior:

"… this sceptr’d isle

This fortress built by Nature for her self

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in a silver sea

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

Shakespeare's stirring poetry is not accurate geography. England is not an island. It is one part of a group of islands shared with Wales and Scotland. Yes, the sea has at times helped England against "the hand of war" but "infection" is harder to stop. That's because the sea is only occasionally "a moat defensive".

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Post-Brexit politics are unpleasant on both sides of Shakespeare's 'silver sea'

Most of the time, the sea connects people rather than divides us. In 55 BC, the Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar landed his legions on the Kent beaches where I swim. Christianity came to England on a boat to Kent along with St Augustine. And Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt was in history called Jean de Ghent. Ghent is a town in modern Belgium. This great patriotic "English" hero was a migrant who arrived by boat and spoke French.

The sewage mess, both in the sea and in the British politics, is only part of the oceanic news this week. French authorities have seized a British fishing boat in a complex dispute about fishing rights and other matters. France is threatening massive disruption on the key trade route between the French port of Calais and the English port of Dover. New bureaucratic customs checks could make Christmas an unhappy time for millions of British shoppers. There are further threats that France might even cut electricity which it supplies to the British Channel islands.

Post-Brexit politics are unpleasant on both sides of Shakespeare's "silver sea". French President Emmanuel Macron is facing a tough election next year and posturing against London is politically useful. But France can count on the support of the entire EU, while Britain is no longer "the envy of less happier lands". Ireland, which used to send goods by road through England and then across the short sea crossing from Dover to Calais, has created or expanded other sea routes to France avoiding the UK completely.

Even before the current Anglo-French dispute, Brexit disruption will cost the British economy more than the Covid-19 crisis. Independent forecasters from the UK's Office for Budget Responsibility say that leaving the EU will reduce the country's potential GDP by 4 per cent in the long term.

I've just had a walk along the beach where I usually swim and the wind today is strong. The sea is too rough to swim. But the thought that several hundred British MPs were content to vote to turn the sea I love into a toilet disgusts me more than I can say. I won't be sea swimming for a while. Nor will I forget the reasons why.

Published: November 1st 2021, 10:23 AM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National