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‘Nul points’ for us

20 May 2016

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IT ALL seems so impossibly innocent, now; but, in 1990, the winning song at the Eurovision Song Contest, “Insieme: 1992”, was a love song to the Maastricht Treaty. The thought of Australia ever participating in the contest would have been laughable; and Britain’s receiving “nul points” inconceivable.

Eurovision is a more savvy affair nowadays, more obviously political. Academics can make a decent living out of Eurovision-watching; and some of them featured in The Swedish Ambassador’s Guide to Eurovision (World Service, Wednesday of last week).

Dr Karen Fricker is one such: she says that Britain’s attitude to Eurovision reflects its own anxieties about Europe. Once, we were cultural leaders, managing to top the table while at the same time assuming a hauteur in the presence of so much Euro-tat. Now we are happy not to have come last; and the talk is all of bloc voting and secret deals between distant European countries. Our last victory was in 1997; the nadir came in 2003, after the Iraq war, when we received “nul points”.

If you don’t believe me, believe the Swedish Ambassador, Nicola Clase, who filled an hour with stories about diplomatic incidents related to the song contest. When, in 1995, Sweden gave “nul points” to Norway, her counterpart in Norway was forced to apologise to the Norwegian media for its neighbour’s disloyalty.

In 1974, the Portuguese entry became a rallying-cry for, and the trigger for, a revolution in Angola. And, as I write, the consequences of Europe’s voting last Saturday for a Ukrainian protest song directed at Russia are presumably being worked out through numerous diplomatic channels.

Certainly you will learn more from Eurovision about European history than from Europeans: The roots of identity (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) presented by the historian Margaret MacMillan. When a historian tells you that we can understand something only by looking at its history, it generally means that we can understand something only by reading his or her book.

There were other groaningly obvious assertions in this programme, which focused on Rome and the legacy of the Roman Empire. For instance, the observation that European history is characterised by a tension between central and local authority might be equally applicable to almost any state at any time since the foundation of Uruk.

Too often, MacMillan felt the need to remind us of analogies between past and present without letting the past speak for itself. In one instance at least, such comparison was instructive: the example of the Late Roman Republic, when native Romans complained about an influx of foreigners who were taking advantage of the generous welfare afforded to all citizens.

By that token, perhaps we should look forward to the collapse of our political system and the establishment of a corrupt, degenerate dictatorship, characterised by arbitrary executions and incestuous bed-hopping. Now that really is a Brexit scare-story worth hearing.

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