Replacing one slanderous Brexit narrative with another
Janan Ganesh almost gets it right (for once) in his FT column, accurately warning people away from the myth – especially popular with many foreigners – that the vote for Brexit was some kind of reflexive grasp to regain a long-gone empire and adopt a more swashbuckling, colonial-style role in world affairs.
There is a certain kind of Briton, often educated to the hilt, who believes that sick Americans are left to writhe around on hospital floors until they show the doctors a credit card. Even sophisticated people think in simple terms about foreign countries. They just need a plausible line-to-take that sees them through a dinner party as it turns to political chat.
Americans give as good as they get. To the extent that their smartest people talk about Britain, they focus on our imperial delusions: here is a country that never adjusted to its loss of empire and does odd things to compensate. In Europe and Asia, too, exit from the EU is read as a desperate lunge for a global role, an act nearer to therapy than to statecraft. Colonial nostalgia has become the one thing the world “knows” about modern Britain.
It just happens to lack the ring of truth if you live here. Vestiges of empire survive in public life and some Conservative ministers picture a new Commonwealth trade zone that diplomats call, in what must pass for office banter, Empire 2.0. But Britain is not Liam Fox. It voted to leave the EU for reasons that differ from those that animate the trade secretary.
Quite. In Britain, the only ones who really see Brexit as a ham-fisted attempt to reclaim the losses of decolonialisation are the pants-wetting, pseudo-liberal preeners at the Guardian and satirical news site the Daily Mash, who love to portray Brexiteers as angry, curtain-twitching retired colonels outraged by the sudden appearance of brown-skinned neighbours.
Talk to the average Brexiteer on the street, however, and this is not the justification that you will hear. Neither is the glib “hankering for empire” explanation borne out through the opinion polls, which – contrary to the race and immigration angle played up by the media – proved that freedom and national self-determination ranked most highly among the priorities of Brexit voters.
Unfortunately, in the course of refuting this particular misguided Brexit narrative, Ganesh goes off the rails and embraces a fatalistic “retreat from the world” narrative every bit as presumptuous and fatalistic as the original:
The regions that shaped and were shaped by empire voted to remain, including London, the old metropole; Scotland, the source of many settlers and administrators; Manchester, not just the empire’s industrial centre but its liberal intellectual heart; and the port cities of Liverpool and Bristol. Inland Birmingham voted to leave, as did the countryside and market towns of Deep England. What those communities seem to want is Nation 1.0 — the sovereign statehood that predated the globalised era —
So far, so good. Brexiteers do indeed want the United Kingdom to return to a norm which might be called Nation 1.0. In fact, this is not a dim and distant past but a present reality still enjoyed by every advanced country outside of Europe – enjoying the benefits of globalisation, but not plugged in to a supranational political entity with federalist ambitions to become the government of a united Europe.
Nobody ever argues that Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea need to be part of an homogeneous overarching political union with a shared parliament, judiciary and executive in order to thrive. Neither does anybody criticise these countries for “retreating from the world” or otherwise failing to play their full part in global commerce and cultural exchange. Only in Europe has the pernicious myth taken hold – helped along by media cheerleaders, both ignorant and cynically knowing – that to reject an explicitly political project is also to wish to sever all links with the modern world.
Sadly, this is the trap that Ganesh immediately falls into. To pick up the end of his previous sentence:
— when the population was more homogenous and the economy less exposed to foreign competition. Whatever these impulses are, they are not colonial.
[..] Since 1945, intelligent outsiders have overestimated Britain’s frustrated ambition and underrated its sense of resignation, its desire for a quiet life after a draining few centuries as a player. When the American diplomat Dean Acheson said the British had not yet found a role after empire, he rather assumed that we were looking for one. Insiders make the same mistake. The least effective argument for the EU in the referendum campaign centred on its usefulness as a power-multiplier for medium-sized nations. It is not that voters disbelieved this. They just did not care enough.
History keeps forcing countries into this choice between significance abroad and retrenchment at home. Imagine that it were possible to go back in time and make sure the empire had never happened, in return for much-reduced postwar immigration from the former colonies. I suspect that some of the voters now fingered as neo-imperialists would trade their nation’s record of world grandeur for what might delicately be called a more familiar population. A less extreme thought experiment is already in the news. If a UK-India trade deal were to hinge on freer migration between the two countries, would Mr Fox sign it? He must know his keenness would not be matched by his own voters.
[..] It is easy for foreigners to read imperial nostalgia into something much more parochial. The terminal point of empire is introspection, not a restless desire to do it all over again. Introspection is bad enough but the British cannot be guilty of that and the opposite at the same time. Outsiders are free to fault us, if they pick the right fault.
We now appear to be caught in an imperial / introspective false dichotomy where Brexit can be explained (especially to anxious faux-liberals like New York Times readers) only as a racist country’s dying grasp to regain imperial greatness or a shrunken, scared and insular country seeking to retreat from the dangers of the world.
(We’ll ignore the fact that it was America, not Britain, who just elected as president an authoritarian strongman who promised not to enhance citizens’ liberties but rather to keep them safe from any danger – particularly from China, Mexicans and Islamist terror – and free from all anxiety. But by all means, tell us again how Britain is supposedly the country in decline and fearful of the world).
In reality, neither of these two absurd characterisations get to the truth of Brexit. At its heart – and this is borne out by opinion polls which clearly showed “self determination” to be the key issue for Brexit voters – Brexit is about wanting to normalise Britain and cease participating in a federalist experiment which almost nobody wanted and for which even its loudest champions failed to properly advocate.
British voters simply did not understand – with good reason – why Britain’s participation in a modern economy and a globalised world requires us to dissolve our sovereignty into an explicitly political union, when other advanced countries around the world are not under any similar obligation. And the Remain campaign could give them no good answer, for they have none. The EU is a political project whose economic activities are but a means to the ultimate end. Knowledgeable Remainers could say nothing to the contrary without perjuring themselves.
But rather than admit the truth about the European Union, how much easier it is to sit at a keyboard and invent ever more daft reasons explaining away the vote for Brexit. How much easier for Remainers to use weak satire or hysterical doom-mongering to distract themselves from the vacuity of their own case and the failure of their campaign.
Janan Ganesh is right – Britain did not vote to secede from the European Union through some misguided attempt to timewarp back to the days of empire. But it is not good enough to refute this silly idea only to promulgate another equally lazy explanation, as Ganesh unfortunately also does.
Remainers have long tried to paint Brexit as some kind of aberration, an inexplicable and harmful departure from international norms. But in fact it is the European Union which is an aberration and which flies in the face of human instinct and history. It is the European Union which attempts to force on member states a model of supranational government for which no meaningful democratic consent was ever sought, which reliably becomes less popular the more it is understood and which no other countries or regions of the world have ever sought to emulate.
Brexit was a vote to return to Nation State 1.0, not because we never want to reach Nation State 2.0 but because the EU’s status quo (Nation State 1.5) is buggy, full of defects and leading us in the wrong direction. The European Union is the Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition of political governance systems, and deciding to uninstall it and wait for something better neither means that we are hankering for the past nor giving up as a country. It’s just the smart thing to do.
It may be difficult for self-regarding members of the political media establishment to accept, but Brexiteers were right to vote as they did. Remainers were wrong. And columnists would do better to analyse the failings, inconsistencies and non sequiturs in the Remainer case – the timidity, the tedious declinism, the remarkable ability to ignore the example of any country in the world outside the European Union – than continue to invent imaginary flaws in the case for Brexit.
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You seem to assume that the nation state is a self evident natural state but, in reality, it’s quite a recent notion. I have always been in favour of the EU not mainly for economic reasons but more for emotional reasons and the maintenance of peace amongst nations that have spent centuries at war. Over the last 43 years I have identified more and more with being a European, especially as it unites the different strands of European heritage in my own family. However, it is clear from the referendum result and your blog and similar others that at least half the country doesn’t share that point of view and I find your view of the world as incomprehensible as you probably find mine. The UK is now hopelessly divided and lost. It is hard to see a way out of this mess that will bring about some kind of unity – indeed the prospect of there being no way back to a unified national identity reinforces my feeling that I am, above all, a European.📻
You make a good point. I’m actually aware of the relatively short history (though much longer than that of the EU!) of the nation state as the primary building block of human organisation, and in principle I understand that it will not last forever and should ultimately be replaced with something better. European government, one world government are all well and good, but such governments can have no legitimacy until there is a true demos for them to serve – and while there are some stalwart “Europeans” like yourself, there are not presently nearly enough to justify such a large and heavy-handed layer of government at the European level.
This is the first time that the way humans govern themselves is in flux during the democratic age, when many people live in countries which are reasonably democratic. To my mind, it follows that the people should therefore have some say in what comes next to replace the nation state. Rather than princes and kings making the decisions, the people should have some say in what the nation state evolves into – the decision should not be left to political elites, lobbyists, corporate and NGO interests to determine behind closed doors. And this is what I found so offensive about the EU, I suppose. In the democratic age, here is an organisation which is designed to implement a vision which didn’t come from the ground up, which has zero popular mandate among the peoples of Europe, but which was dreamed up by a few intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century. Perhaps back then it made sense (or was at least forgivable), but for us to still be busily, unquestioningly implementing their masterplan from all those decades ago today, in the form of a supranational European government, seems profoundly wrong.
Advocates of a united Europe should make the case boldly, not lurk behind economic integration and denials of any greater purpose with the hope that the entire edifice will already be in place before anybody objects. To do otherwise is to sanction the behaviour of the EU’s founders and present day leaders, who are busy implementing a vision of supranational government which erodes the nation state while failing to admit their true purpose to the people.
We deserve better in the democratic age. When the nation state becomes anachronistic and is retired as the default model for human governance it should be because it is being replaced by something better, something that the people actually understand, want, and give their consent for its construction. The EU has none of these qualities. It’s motto is essentially “if we built it, they will come” – “they” in this case being a European demos happy to identify primarily as such and submit to a united European government.
Also, you say that the UK is now “hopelessly divided and lost”. I would point out that it is no more divided than before the referendum. All that has changed is that the eurosceptics are getting their way for the first time in 40 years, rather than the pro-Europeans. We were divided before – it’s just that nobody seemed to care that the eurosceptics were unhappy and not getting their way for so long, while everyone is brimming over with sadness now that the pro-Europeans have experienced a setback for the first time in many of their lives. The division is not new. All that’s new are the people who suddenly find themselves on the losing side of the argument.
Thanks for a thoughtful and intelligent contribution to the discussion, much appreciated!
I agree with much of what you say. The EU has always been promoted in the UK as a trade project, something that might bring benefit to the UK, rather than a co-operative venture for mutual aid, a marriage rather than a contractual arrangement. You say that the élites have tried to implement the European project by stealth but I think that this is more the case on the UK than in other EU countries because our politicians realised that many UK citizens were viscerally nationalist and the politicians failed in their role of political persuasion and education. It is an abiding trait of our politicians. It has long been the case, for instance, that the public would prefer a nationalised railway but the politicians fail both to give us one or to persuade us that their preferred private sector model is a better one. The UK citizenship test barely referred to the fact that UK citizenship included EU citizenship. What did our children learn in school about the institutions and governance of the EU? When was Europe Day ever observed in the UK? Which public buildings in the UK ever flew the 12 stars alongside their national flags?
Right on Sam, as usual. I’m having some lunch shortly with friends who very much part of the left-leaning, academic, north London liberal elite who, of course, voted to remain. (Although, inexplicably,
one of their great heroes was Tony Benn, who famously voted AGAINST joining the EU). Armed with your latest blog, as well as previous ones, I feel I should be able to hold my own. So thanks again Sam! Glad you’re still willing and able to continue with intermittent blog – small donation on its way.
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Many thanks Heather, and I hope your lunch went well! Things will certainly be interesting now that the starting gun has been fired on a snap general election!
I dropped you a quick email in response to your most generous and thoughtful donation to the blog, which was very gratefully received.
All the best,
I think a number of commentators have noticed this Empire slur being pushed by some Remainers. Your blog helped me join up some dots, I have been musing about some of the things you have written about but had not connected them. Good blog.