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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