Anja McCloskey was on a bus to Hove when her phone rang. It was her mother, calling from Germany. They chatted in German for a few minutes. When the conversation ended, a man turned round to her and said, “Excuse me, but we speak English in this country.”
Anja was shocked – it’s not the sort of thing people expect to hear in Brighton and Hove, a city that enjoys a reputation for openness and produced a 68.6 per cent Remain vote in the Brexit referendum. She didn’t come up with a rejoinder at the time, and she won’t need to now. Facing uncertainty about her status in this country after Brexit, she went to live in Hamburg. We – whoever we may be these days – are left with the question: what do you say to that?
The man’s passive-aggressive style echoed the kind of genteel intolerance that once found a congenial habitat in places like Hove. It suggests a response in kind. “We don’t eavesdrop on private conversations in this country”, perhaps, or “We mind our own business in this country”, or simply “It’s a free country”. But we won’t get far with such appeals to outdated notions of how the British are supposed to behave in public. The vigilantes who take it upon themselves to police people’s conversations are trying to lay down the law for the future.
You need to speak in English, you’re in fucking England,
Some of them are ready to enforce it, too. A woman travelling on a London Overground train last October was allegedly punched in the face after a man heard her speaking Spanish on the phone. A witness said the attacker shouted: “You need to speak in English, you’re in fucking England. You shouldn’t speak other languages.”
Earlier in the year, the British Transport Police reported an incident on an Underground train in which two women set upon another woman whom they overheard speaking Spanish to friends. They shouted that she should be speaking English when in England, and pulled her around by her hair.
A few months after the Brexit referendum, a group of men attacked a student whom they heard speaking Polish with friends in a park in Telford, Shropshire. According to the victim, one of the men declared that he “had a daughter living round the corner and he didn’t want her to hear us talking Polish”. Protecting the English child from the sound of a foreign language, drifting through the air on a warm summer’s evening, the attackers left the student with a neck wound from a broken bottle that needed 13 stitches.