BREXIT: THE FINAL GREAT BRITISH HUBRIS
BY NIKLAS SLOAN
One of the most fascinating aspects about Brexit is that it is the only popular, mainstream movement that wants its country to break from the EU. No other country has so far even contemplated leaving the Union. Although almost all member states have some degree of Eurosceptic movements, such as the 5 Star Movement in Italy and the Front Nationale (FN) in France, none of these movements have any policy which envisages leaving the European Union. Instead, most of their opposition is aimed at mass migration (not strictly an EU issue) and at the Euro. The latter is a generally unpopular policy across the union, with the FN now dropping it as it was proven as being detrimental in their getting elected. The right-wing populist party in Germany, the AfD’s Euroscepticism, in its current incarnation, simply envisages more sovereignty for member states rather than moving towards a federalist union. Contrast this to the claims of many Brexiters, such as Nigel Farage, that Brexit was the start of a domino effect of member states leaving the EU in droves. Farage was wrong, as there is no indication that the Union is Crumbling. Rather, the opposite is occurring. The European economic recovery and the temporary lessening of the migration crisis lead people across Europe to have renewed optimism and enthusiasm for the European project.
This naturally begs the question why Britain is such an exceptional case. No other European country has such a powerful Eurosceptic movement. Many reasons have been advocated to explain the Euroscepticism, ranging from diverse issues such sovereignty, immigration, the money sent to Europe and growing inequality. However, these issues do not uniquely affect the UK. Germany has issues with all the above, yet there is no movement to leave the European Union, even though Germany contributes more than the UK to the EU budget and had to fund some expensive bailouts for numerous failing Eurozone economies over the past few years. Germany also had to deal with a larger influx of migrants. Although the issues facing Germany have led to a surge in right wing populists, no true Eurosceptic movement has emerged. Similarly, many southern European countries that have been ravaged by the Eurozone crisis have far greater austerity induced poverty than the UK does. Indeed, in countries such as Ireland, Spain and Greece the harshness of public spending cuts was partly caused by EU membership and the bailout conditions imposed thereby, so it would not be implausible if those nations had legitimate issues with EU membership. The former Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, stated that although the Irish are mad, they are not mad enough to leave the European Union. Similar sentiments exist in the other nations, the Syriza party in Greece for instance having made no move to abandon the European project.
Euroscepticism in Britain was a political movement before immigration and austerity were perceived as pressing political issues. UKIP was gaining in popularity before austerity had begun to truly bite and the Europe question had consumed the Tory right ever since John Major’s government was defeated over the European Exchange Mechanism all the way back in 1992. The Tory obsession was perceived as enough of an issue for David Cameron to promise a referendum on British membership. Even pro-European, at least for British standards, Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and even Margaret Thatcher often caused difficulties for Europe. Thatcher’s government was an important member of the creation of the single market, yet much to the chagrin of the other European leaders already pressed early for special exceptions for Britain – in this case the British rebate from the European Budget. The then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl remarked that she was asking for money back before she paid anything. Tony Blair, the most Europhile of British Prime Ministers could often be a difficult partner. Gordon Brown famously missed the signing ceremony of the Lisbon Treaty as to not get negative press from the tabloids and was the first Prime Minister to call for “British jobs for British workers”. At best British governments have always had a lukewarm relationship towards Europe. A relation of necessity stemming from falling international power and a stagnating economy.
However, even in Britain itself the Euroscepticism that led to varies in its persistence in various parts of the isles. It is important here to distinguish between the different constituent parts that make up the United Kingdom. Although austerity, immigration, etc. may have swayed some voters, it does not explain why Northern Ireland and Scotland did not vote to leave, as both were affected by similar issues as England. The often-touted explanation, the division between elites and working-class voters does not make sense either as Scotland or Northern Ireland do not possess more “elites” than England. No other part of Britain is as Eurosceptic as England.
Unlike the other parts of the United Kingdom, England’s identity is tied up with that Britain and the Empire to a much greater extent than Scotland or Northern Ireland. UKIP, although purporting to be the United Kingdom Independence Party, is mostly an English movement. It virtually had no following in Scotland and Northern Ireland. As can be seen from the SNP’s plan for independence where it showed a good deal of enthusiasm for closer integration with Europe, Scotland has accepted its place as a small Northern European nation. The Scots have their own Parliament and their own heritage is defined much more clearly than that of England. The same applies to a lesser extent in Northern Ireland. Notable here too is that England is also exclusively governed by the Great British Parliament, whereas all other parts of the UK have some sort of devolved administration. It is no surprise that these two constituent nations have their own independence movements from Great Britain, whereas such a movement would be unthinkable in England, precisely because England does not really see itself as its own national entity, but as a part of Great Britain. English identity is closely tied up with that of Great Britain, which was always a very Anglo-centred construction. The close relation between the two comes with a great deal of historical baggage. This is the belief that because Britain had a disproportionate influence throughout history which persists to the present day, Britain is exceptional compared to its European neighbours and can somehow strike its own path in the world.
This British exceptionalism has many dimensions. Britain is special because of its “Island Story”, a small nation that came to dominate the almost half the world. During the EU referendum prominent Conservative and Leave campaigner Iain Duncan Smith claimed Britain is the greatest nation on earth, because its people are the most innovative in the world. Britain is a beacon of liberal democracy. It has world class culture and a great deal of soft power. As the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said, it is “Athens to America’s Rome”. The British establishment sees Britain as a world leader across many areas. Indicatively, David Davis during the 2016 campaign claimed that of course Britain will get a trade deal with Europe, as we are the 5th biggest economy in the world, a leading member of NATO, the commonwealth – and none of these things are owed to the EU. Slap the word “British” in front of something and it will become much better. According to the right wing, nationalistic Brexiter world view, the British armed forces are the best in the world; British democracy is much superior to the European version thereof thus making the European Union undemocratic.
But where does this unique confidence in anything British come from? During the referendum campaign Boris Johnson said that it was time to make “Britain great again”, which can only be an homage to Britain’s imperialist days – indeed Britain’s post imperial history has been very short. The first half of this history was spent as the sick man of Europe, the other half as part of the European Union. That Johnson was referring to this period is unlikely.
Johnson’s remarks are telling. Contrary to other European nations, England has a very different view of its Empire. Michael Gove once stated in a panel discussion that “there have also been more benign empires, and in that I would include, almost pre-eminently, the British". That is a very curious statement to make especially that in the 21st century “empire” ranks as a political taboo, in the same sense as fascism does, yet that does not detract from the Tory right wing’s veneration for anything British. Whereas other post-imperial states such as Germany or Spain have broken with their Imperial past, Britain has not. It does not see its Empire as a force for bad, but for good. Although most European member states rattle against the restrictions imposed by the EU, none would ever consider leaving to forge their own path in the world. But, the positive view of the British Empire and that British influence in the world is a force for good has meant that the British establishment has not yet given up their dreams of being a leading international power.
Of course, many of the above considerations may also be applied to France, for instance its defence of the francophone zone can be seen as roughly analogous to the British commonwealth. However, the crucial difference with France is that it has never been truly possible for England to accepted Britain’s place as a group of small to medium sized nation.
Whilst France integrated itself in the new post-war European order as a leading figure of integration, Britain did not. For Britain, it was difficult to accept that the former global power was reliant on cooperation with its European neighbours to prosper and achieve its global ambitions, especially a Europe dominated by the Franco-German axis. It is very revealing that the greatest catastrophe in British post-WW2 history is considered to be the Suez Crisis. Unlike other national catastrophes like the Second World War for most of continental Europe, the Vietnam War for America or the fall of the Soviet Union for Russia; the Suez Crisis was remarkably bloodless – there was no high body count, no invasion of British sovereign territory, no unprecedented political upheaval. The shock that shook the country’s establishment was that Britain could no longer singularly operate and get its way on the world stage without American support. It required partners in Europe to achieve its global aims. It is no coincidence that a few years after Suez Britain tried, unsuccessfully, to join the European Community.
Yet lessons from Suez and Britain’s diminishing influence before the nation joined Europe, where it attempted to influence the world on its own, have clearly been forgotten. Little heed is paid Britain already losing more of its standing internationally, with Theresa May being asked to leave EU summits early because Britain no longer has a say in the future of the Union. Or the fact that the special relationship with America will suffer too, as Obama warned. The hope that Trump would help Britain gain new trade deals has proved unrealistic, as he has shown no real interest. Of note is also the way America has ignored Britain’s interests in the ongoing Bombardier/Boing affair, where 5,000 jobs in Northern Ireland are now at risk. This is notable for another reason, showing the government’s inability to protect Britain’s interests against big business. Britain’s influence in the world has already receded since the referendum and it is difficult to see how this trend will be reversed.
However, a sense of invulnerability still prevails. The way the government has approached the EU negotiations is absolutely informed by this rationale. What was promised during the referendum campaign by the leave argument was that after we left the European Union we would still be part of the single market. This was merely on the grounds that we are too important, too wealthy and too great of a market for the Europeans not ignore. How could a deal be refused to Britain? Although this argument has been proven entirely misleading, it still to some extent informs the UK’s negotiating position at this stage. The negotiations have been characterised by British certainty that a deal will be made. In fact, the government has spent more time negotiation with itself in the past summer than it has with the European Union. Forget about the fact that the Europeans wish to retain the integrity of the single market and not have a Europe of opt in and opt outs.
Fundamentally, the story of Brexit is one of hubris and a strong lack of self-awareness. The government has little understanding that its erratic behaviour in the EU referendum, by refusing to meet its financial commitment to the European Union or guaranteeing the rights of citizens, will be watched by other future partners. It is forgotten that Britain did once rule half the world, and that an imperialist nation involved in the subjugation of countless peoples will not universally be seen as a beacon of liberalism and democracy. Especially a nation that abandons the largest block of liberal democracies in the world, only to have a member of its cabinet shaking hands with Rodrigo Duterte whilst swooning over shared values. It is forgotten that Britain’s economy is struggling, that we have no great export industry and very little leverage in international trade talks. What really Britain requires is a little more Realpolitik, rather than a government that is convinced in its own invulnerability. Most academics and thinktanks are agreed that leaving the European Union will result in a catastrophe. Britain is about to repeat the mistakes of Suez, but this time the consequences will be much direr and more difficult to salvage.