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Brexit Catastrophisation Watch, Part 11 – Neither Imperial Delusions Nor Fearful Retreat From The World

British Empire cartoon

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.

Ganesh writes:

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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Janan Ganesh Is Wrong: Britain Can Still Make History – If We Leave The EU

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A careless turn of phrase reveals a poisonous, negative attitude towards Britain held by prominent Remainers and EU apologists

What do passionate British europhiles and EU defenders really think about their own country?

This question is an eternal puzzle to Brexiteers, who have watched Remainers from the prime minister on down eagerly seize on every statement or piece of “proof” that Britain is too small and feeble to flourish without dissolving ourselves into the EU’s embryonic common European state.

And now, finally, we have something of an answer. In his latest FT column bemoaning the intra-party warfare currently consuming the Conservative Party, George Osborne biographer Janan Ganesh has the following to say about the United Kingdom:

Britain is not where history happens any more but our two flirtations with secession — Scotland’s from the UK, the UK’s from the EU — pique the curiosity of outsiders. They must look at the intra-Tory venom and assume its seepage into wider society. If Scots were lastingly politicised, and riven, by their referendum, Britons as a whole might be too. The stakes are as large, the facts as contested, the principals on each side as seethingly at odds as they were in Scotland in 2014.

And still we demur. The notable feature of this referendum is its lack of notoriety. With three weeks to go, pubs are not blazing with anticipation or rancour. Friends and relatives are not falling out. Campaign events are unmarred by anything darker than cheeky heckles. On the morning of May 30, only one referendum-related story made the 10 most-read on the BBC news website, and that was trumped by a crocodile attack in Queensland, Australia.

And there it is. Doesn’t that perfectly sum up the tone which pervades nearly all of the Remain campaign’s messaging during the referendum – the idea of Britain as a has-been nation, a place which was once consequential but no longer a place “where history happens”?

And of course this is exactly what Janan Ganesh, his colleagues at the Financial Times and many others in the Remain camp actually do believe. They (wrongly) think that we are a small island not only in geographical terms but also in geopolitical terms. They think that we don’t matter any more, that we will never again shape the world because we are not powerful enough and because we are not exceptional enough to do so.

To the mind of a Remainer, it is utterly perplexing why anybody would want a country as weak, fragile and inconsequential as Britain to leave the safe harbour of the European Union and head out into the storm. Sure, they grudgingly acknowledge, we made our mark on history in the past – and at this point they will often pause to apologise profusely for that very history – but we should never expect to do so again.

The future, they insist, belongs to those shining civilisations such as China and Russia, apparently – despite the fact that Britain remains the fifth largest economy, (by some measures) the second military power, and is home to some of the best universities, companies, popular and high culture in the world. And Britain should be grateful for any scraps we are fortunate enough to steal from a “top table” dominated by other, better countries.

But if the world really is now such a scary place that the only recourse for “fading glory” Britain is to shelter inside a remorselessly tightening political union, how come other countries, many of them much smaller than us, are not also busy dissolving themselves into regional political blocs?

The threat of terrorism affects Australia too, as we saw with the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis. Australia would also be threatened by any global conflagration involving Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And Australia is just as vulnerable to a world economic downturn as Britain – if not more so, given her remote geographic location.

So why isn’t Australia hastening to form a political union with New Zealand and other APAC countries? Why is there no Pacific Union headquarters being constructed in Malaysia, or elections being held to elect MPPs to the new Pacific Parliament? Why is there no Pacific Court of Justice being set up to adjudicate and enforce adherence to region-wide regulations and human rights laws?

Why, for that matter, is Canada not racing to form a political Union with the United States and Mexico, following the EU’s lead and turning NAFTA from a free trade group into an explicitly political union?

The answer, of course, is that political union does nothing – nothing whatsoever – to meet or tackle the most serious challenges facing our world. Australia and New Zealand are perfectly capable of intergovernmental co-operation without the need to create a new and unaccountable supranational body sitting above them and assuming their sovereignty. Canada and the United States are not only able to trade freely with each other, they also co-operate closely on military and intelligence affairs – again, without a Parliament of the Americas to pass laws binding on their respective citizens.

So the question goes back to EU apologists and British pessimists like Janan Ganesh: exactly what is it about Britain which means that we cannot follow the example of Canada and the United States, Australia and New Zealand? What deficiency afflicts Britain which means that we cannot co-operate closely with European allies on important issues without also dissolving ourselves into a political union with them?

The EU apologists won’t tell you, because they can’t. Because there is simply no good reason why Britain could not maintain exceptionally close links with the countries of Europe – remaining in the European Economic Area, retaining free movement of people, working together on common security challenges and those areas where our foreign policy interests align – while being a sovereign, self-governing country outside the European Union.

And those who persist in saying otherwise are either fearful and ignorant themselves, or they are cynically lying to promote a supranational or federalist agenda which they cannot openly embrace in public.

Why should Britain no longer be a place where history continues to be made? Why can Britain not be the first country to realise that a century-old dream of European political union being brought about by a 1950s model of centralised, supranational governance is hopelessly ill suited to the Europe of 2016? Why should Britain not be the first country to grasp this reality and strike out away from euro-parochialism, charting a better path toward global engagement which other countries may then follow?

Why, in short, do those who insist that we must remain in the European Union have such desperately stunted vision and ambition for the global future which Britain could build?

 

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Postcard From America: When Words Fail, A Musical Analogy

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I’m currently back in the United States to celebrate Christmas with family in Texas. These short “Postcards from America” will document a few of my thoughts as I escape the political whirlwind of Westminster and look back at Britain from the vantage point of our closest ally

A musical contrast between Britain and America

I have been trying to find a way to describe the feeling I always get when I arrive back in the United States of America, a land I consider to be my spiritual home even though I am not yet a citizen (though married to one).

It is very difficult to put into words the emotion that wells up even before exiting the airport, whether it be New York JFK, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Seattle or any of the other gateways I have used on my well over fifty arrivals here. The feeling of having arrived in a land of promise and possibility, an electricity in the air and a repose for the spirit which I feel even while waiting to collect the suitcases from the carousel.

But when words fail, music sometimes speaks. And the best way I can find to describe the difference experienced when travelling from the United Kingdom to the United States is with this musical analogy.

Two performances of the same piece of music, recorded by two legendary artists. Prelude no. 3 in C Sharp Major, BWV 872 from The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed first by Sviatoslav Richter and then by Glenn Gould, my favourite pianist.

Imagine that this first recording represents life in Britain:

This is the Richter version of the Bach prelude. Languid and undeniably beautiful, yes, with the edges softened by extensive use of the pedal. You can almost sense the nearly three centuries spanning the prelude’s composition and the present day in this warm but muffled recording.

Now imagine moving from this setting to the utterly different world of the Glenn Gould version, representing America:

The two recordings could hardly be more different.

The musical notes are the same, just as Britain and America share a common language and very similar cultures by virtue of our shared history. But the two interpretations are worlds apart, just as everything from local culture to local government is different on either side of the Atlantic.

Nobody had ever played the music this way until Glenn Gould came along. Prior to Gould, playing Bach on the piano was a dry and dusty affair, characterised by performances and recordings which shrouded the intellectual beauty and emotional resonance with thick layers of stultifying sameness. And then Glenn Gould turned things upside down and showed that Bach’s keyboard music did not have to be a revered but inherently boring exercise; that by engaging with the music with a creative mind, it was possible to bring dead music to life.

The Gould version is bright and clear. The first half of the prelude is strutting and unselfconscious, while the second part takes off like a rocket – joyful, vibrant and carefree. The individual lines of both the prelude and fugue are more clearly articulated and easier to distinguish, while still contributing to a powerful and musically convincing whole. E pluribus unum. That’s America, right there in this recording.

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To my mind, this is the experience of moving from Britain to the United States. From an ancient land of history and heritage – the mother country – to the bright promise of the newer, bold and assertive superpower. The place where even in these difficult times, all things still seem possible.

A land where the sun shines infinitesimally brighter (my first action on arriving in Louisiana was to purchase new sunglasses. In December.) A land where the sky literally seems bigger, and the horizon wider. A land where the flavours are bolder, the entertainment glitzier, the music more vibrant and the people unfailingly friendly.

A country whose best features and deepest flaws are both so much more exaggerated than is the case in Britain – whether it be the remarkable philanthropic and community spirit on one hand, or the endemic tragedy of gun violence on the other.

But more than that, a country which still feels consequential in terms of shaping human events. A country whose politics and politicians – however glib and anti-intellectual they can sometimes be – still possess the aspiration and self-confidence to deal with weighty matters, to forge ahead in search of the best pathway to freedom and prosperity. And whose people still believe in their country as a force for good in the world, when they stay true to their values.

You can see the difference by comparing the raucous presidential primary debates currently underway here in America with the spirit-crushing televised encounters in Britain ahead of the May general election. In America, issues like healthcare, immigration, government surveillance and foreign intervention are debated fiercely in public – with both sides making reference to that most wonderful of things, a written constitution which makes the people sovereign and grants government strictly limited powers, rather than the other way around.

In Britain, by contrast, our leading politicians and political parties competed to be judged the safest custodian of our creaking public services. We went to the ballot box to decide who we trusted most to reduce the budget deficit, make the trains run on time and the bin collections more reliable. In granting David Cameron a second term as prime minister, we didn’t so much elect a world leader as appoint a lowly Comptroller of Public Services, someone to kick when we feel short-changed as passive consumers of state-provided rations.

On existential matters like Britain’s place in the world, the best way to promote economic growth or to ensure future national security, the British political debate during the election campaign could not have cared less – and there was virtually no difference in the statist paternalism of the two main parties, other than in rhetoric. No political party had the courage to suggest that our outdated, 1940s model of state healthcare delivery might need serious reimagining in the twenty-first century, and only a handful of us cared enough to call them out for their craven refusal to acknowledge this difficult truth, and many others besides.

Fewer than four million of us believed strongly enough in the principle of national democracy and sovereignty that we cast a vote for the one party which explicitly objected to the gradual absorption of Britain into the supranational state known as the European Union.

And through it all, this blog has felt like something of a voice in the wilderness, with no politician or party to champion the causes of personal liberty, free markets and national sovereignty upon which everything else rests – but which too many other people seem happy to forsake in exchange for a chimerical, temporary measure of security and prosperity.

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Here in the United States, for the precious couple of weeks until we go home, I don’t have to think about any of that. Of course America has issues of its own – big, intractable problems and burning injustices which befit a country of her size and consequence to address and overcome. But at least Americans still (just about) know who they are. At least they have not yet fractured into a messy coalition of competing special interest groups, to the extent which Britain has now splintered.

Patriotism and love of country still mean something in America. Yes, sometimes the sentiment expresses itself badly, through an ignorance of the rest of the world and the lazy assumption that America is always the best at any given thing. But perhaps unnoticed by many in Britain, there is also here an abundance of that quiet patriotism – the celebration of Independence Day and Thanksgiving, the flags flown in school classrooms without the ludicrous fear that it might “offend” someone of minority ethnic heritage, or the way that veterans are honoured and soldiers in uniform routinely invited to fill empty first class seats on airplanes – symbols and gestures which are the bedrock of a strong and cohesive society.

Of course debates rage fiercely in America – over Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, the Koch brothers, the Tea Party, the Iraq war, the ISIS threat, birtherism, abortion, LGBT rights, church and state, the mainstream media and much more. The many are not always one. But when it really counts, they are one people. They bleed red, white and blue together.

America the beautiful: this is where I come to recharge my spiritual batteries. And as I prepare to throw myself into the battle for Brexit – defending the country of my birth and the concept of the nation state itself from an insidious form of supranational governance whose advocates have repeatedly failed to explain how democracy will be preserved in their brave new world – I will need all the power I can muster.

God bless Texas.

God bless America.

God save the Queen.

Britain America 3

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Happy And Glorious

“You are part of the fabric of my life. The mother of our country. At age five I remember watching your wedding procession driving past with my family all eagerly leaning out of the window of a family friend’s flat. Of course our big celebration was our street party in West Drayton. I am the same age as Prince Charles and I remember from early on pictures and newsreels of Charles and Anne being shown to me as they grew. Through these I followed your travels around the world. As a 1960’s fashion model I modeled hats outside Buckingham Palace the newspapers imagined Princess Anne would wear. Your travels, events and duties have been threads that have run throughout my life” – Sandra Vigon

This tribute, offered by a Telegraph reader on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II becoming Britain’s longest reigning monarch, is poignant and undeniably true.

Every British person born over the past six decades has known no other monarch, seen no other figure represented on their currency, celebrated no Christmas without the Queen’s annual message to her people. In hundreds of small ways, the Queen is part of the fabric of both our individual lives and also our shared national life.

Presented with a blank sheet of paper, nobody would design a hereditary monarchy as the preferred mechanism for producing a ceremonial head of state. And yet it has worked tolerably well for Britain, particularly these past couple of centuries.

The head says that a federal system with an elected head of state would make far more sense – fairer, logical, more egalitarian and less of an anachronism than the curiosity which is the British monarchy. The head says that pledging allegiance to a person rather than a flag or a constitution is quaint at best, and downright dangerous at worst. The head clamours for a constitutional convention and the bold re-imagining of the twenty-first century state. But not so the heart.

The heart is glad for what we have, odd though it is by modern standards: the capsuled history of our country represented by a single person of flesh and blood. The heart looks with pride and gratitude on the lifetime of service dutifully performed by Queen Elizabeth II – a role never democratically bestowed, but fulfilled far more faithfully and proficiently than can be said of many an elected official. And the heart shudders to think what would become of Britain if our head of state was drawn from the same pool of glib, superficial careerists as many of our politicians.

The day will come – not, we pray, for some years yet – when we will have to face these issues and reshape our country for a new age, looking the future square in the eye. But not today. Today, we can be thankful for a duty faithfully discharged for 63 years and counting. An anachronism, yes, but still an example to us all.

Congratulations, your Majesty.

God save the Queen.

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For The Left, St. George’s Day Was A Great Chance To Mock UKIP Supporters

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What did you do today to celebrate St. George’s Day?

If you’re like most people, quite understandably, you probably did nothing at all – after juggling work and the stress of daily life, there simply isn’t much time left in the day to celebrate the overlooked and unexciting Feast of St. George.

But of those people who did mark the day, a small but vocal minority were determined to use St. George’s Day not as a day to celebrate Englishness, England and her patron saint, but rather as an opportunity to mock and belittle those people who do try to celebrate our national heritage, and those who are proud (and brave enough) to be openly patriotic in modern Britain.

UKIP, virtually the only British political party that doesn’t view patriotism as something embarrassing or gauche (sometimes, on a good day, some Tories can still make a decent effort), called for all Britons to mark St. George’s Day by wearing a red rose, and lobbied for the day to be made into a public holiday.

From the Daily Express:

Ukip deputy leader Paul Nuttall said the gesture was needed as a way of registering protest against attempts by local councils and quangos to ignore or obliterate English identity.

“It saddens and angers me that this day marking Englishness is so low key compared to how days for the other three countries of the union are publicly celebrated,” Mr Nuttall said.

“The situation has improved over recent years but it passes by unrecognised by many English people. I have long argued that it should be a declared a Bank Holiday and I have not lost my passion for that idea.”

Ukip yesterday released a dossier of examples of public authorities attempting to ban or denigrate the England flag in recent years. They included supermarket staff and taxi drivers being ordered not to display England flags and pennants on their vehicles.

The response from the establishment was predictably scornful, sometimes verging on outright hostility.

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