Mary Dejevsky

Nick Clegg is right – being European is special

Nick Clegg is right – being European is special
Nick Clegg (Credit: Getty images)
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The theme of the week has to be 'coming home': first the women’s football trophy, and now one-time Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, who says he will share his time between the two sides of the Atlantic. He had recently hinted at a return, describing himself as 'at heart, European'.

Some might question this as a reason for swapping continents. Why would anyone paid a multi-million dollar Silicon Valley salary, enjoying a multi-million dollar California mansion, with the cars, the staff and the space of the New World, even consider moving back to the Old Country, especially as the nights draw in and the (stratospherically priced) heating has to be switched on?

Well, cut out all the references to millions, let alone multi-millions, and for me, Clegg struck a chord, because I made a similar choice. I spent five years as a foreign correspondent based in Washington DC. I could have stayed. I had job offers. My husband was a US citizen. I could have got a green card. Indeed, for all my husband’s reluctance to return, even temporarily, to the land where he grew up, I was keen to live in the US and arrived half-thinking that there would be no move back.

But there was. And the main reason is that, after the novelty wore off, living in the United States simply made me feel more European with every day that passed. And if that is so, it is probably a good idea to act on that recognition, before it is too late.

There are still aspects of American life I hanker after. The wide open vistas, the variety of landscape and climate, above all the dramatic desert colours of the south-west and Florida’s 'river of grass', a cornucopia of exotic birds and beasts. But you can savour all that on holiday.

I love American homes - the enviable space, the openness, the bathrooms - and wish at least some of that could be reproduced more often here. The tax system seems to have more room for aspiring individuals and families than here (so long as you have a good accountant), and I still recall with some pleasure the hush that descends the moment you ask a question at a press conference in an English accent.

But for me, the minuses outweighed the pluses. Long before Donald Trump, there was the insularity and the presumption of the United States as the centre of the world, along with a pervasive lack of curiosity about how the world might look from somewhere else. Not everyone, of course, and not everywhere – we too in the UK have our limitations, but the outlook there seems somehow more uniform and even harder to dislodge.

You can take or leave another country’s politics, and every country has its political downside, but it was the money in US politics, that amounts to legalised corruption, and the gerrymandering, that turned me off even thinking about becoming a citizen with a vote. And talking about citizenship, there is the patriotism that is at once admirable – the flags in the yards – and restrictive. The Russian word for dissidence means 'to think differently'. And when it comes to the homeland, there’s not a lot of different thinking in the United States – at least not since the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War.

You may argue, with some justification, that race relations in the UK leave a lot to be desired. But racial injustice in the United States is endemic, even if it is only comes to wider notice with such extreme events as the killing of George Floyd. Washington DC, along with many US cities, is effectively segregated, as are its suburbs. In some cities, such as Atlanta, the white population has essentially decamped to a new town next door.

As with race, so with poverty: you can live a safe, white life without almost ever coming across anyone, or anything, else. Philadelphia is far from unique in routing the roads so that you never have to encounter the 'others'. There are exceptions. New York City to an extent; but such separateness breeds a tension that I was content to leave. There is something wrong, to a European eye, if you can be bankrupted by a health condition.

There are selfish quality of life reasons why someone of a European disposition might want to return there. You might prefer not to depend on a car (just to go to a shop) for environmental or fitness reasons. You might be happy to sacrifice a spacious home to regain the tastes – the food and the drink (‘real’ food in the US can carry a hefty price premium), the style and the design flair – of infinitely varied Europe. And there is the proximity of other countries and cultures - even granting that this summer has hardly been plain sailing if you want to cross the Channel from the UK. It still takes a lot longer and a lot more hassle to reach Paris or Prague from San Francisco than it does from London.

My main reason for abandoning the idea of an American future, however, was none of these. It was rather what often seemed to me the stultifying conformity. From your postcode to the state of your interior decoration to what you served at your dinner party to how you cut your lawn, there were neighbours or bylaws to keep you up to scratch. The social pressure seemed to apply more to women than men – what you see in those high school movies is just the start. But ignoring them all, not caring enough to shape up or questioning the rationale for the many unwritten rules all comes with a risk.

All right, London and Berlin may be at the extreme end of the European spectrum where 'anything goes'. France has social constraints aplenty, though fewer than it did. But non-conformity, dissidence, call it what you like, has a value. At the micro-level, I still marvel at the girls on the bus cheerfully sporting pink or green hair, and watched spellbound a while back as Tube passengers hardly noticed a guy getting on the Tube decked out in full-length angel wings. These are all reasons why, in a phrase he may not yet have forgotten, I agree with Nick. If you feel European at heart, this is where you belong.

Written byMary Dejevsky

Mary Dejevsky is a writer, broadcaster, and former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington.

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