European Politics · Post-Brexit Britain

Britain is sleepwalking down a path of oblivion

Dieu et mon Droit. Honi soit qui mal y pense. These are the mottos of the British Crown and, by default, the British state. From a state’s motto, you can tell the attitude of its institutions and, to some extent, that of its perhaps more fervent supporters among the people. ‘Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit’; ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ – two respectable mottos from Europe’s two largest states, even if these mottos reflect values which have been horribly trampled on for much of our history. The Greek motto is nice, if a little dramatic: ‘Eleftheria i thanatos’ (Freedom or Death). Very benign is the motto of the Spanish Crown and State: ‘Plus ultra’, Latin for ‘Further Beyond’. Intended as a challenge, to suggest boldness and daring, it was the motto of Charles V, supposedly the inversion of the foreboding phrase inscribed on the Pillars of Hercules – the gateway to the Mediterranean from the Atlantic Ocean, through the Straits of Gibraltar – ‘Non Plus Ultra’.

‘God and My Right’, and ‘Shame on he who thinks ill of it’. These are not benign phrases. They are accusing. Demanding. They do not denote values to be fought for, a rebellious and turbulent past or the will to go further and succeed. Instead, they represent a power that is ancient and long entrenched, used to getting its way, and not used to being challenged. Britain has not lost a major war with another European power since 1783, when the Spanish, French and Dutch intervened on the side of the rebels in the American War of Independence. The hubris such a turn of events breeds can be felt in the British psyche. Britain is invincible in the eyes of many Britons; you only need to watch Al Murray’s piece on Britain defeating every other country to know it. As if the channel were a symbol of Britain’s strength of arms, Britons understand it as a line across which no meagre European power can cross, however which Britain can cross at will, intervening wherever it sees fit, and quickly withdrawing again before it has to clean up any mess.

This is the real problem then; the hubris, expressed in ‘God and My Right’, can also be seen in Britain’s words and actions. It is above the other European states, and as such, it cannot be tied down to them, or simply labelled just one of many. And so, if Brexit wasn’t understood as a very likely possibility by observers in Europe and elsewhere, given the right pushes and nudges, the descent of the Brexit negotiations so quickly into a confrontation, where Britain must once again prove itself in its Finest Hour, should have been seen as a development as close to inevitable as makes no difference. ‘Theresa May declares war on Brussels’, chillingly invoking forgotten memories of Europe’s scarred history, was used by The Guardian and (unsurprisingly) The Expressas well as journalist and Commentator Robert Peston on Facebook. What was the reason for this sudden explosion of belligerence? Europe very quickly dispelled all illusions that Britain might have, as to its role in these ‘negotiations’ – most famously through the leaked report of a dinner between Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May. As Yanis Varoufakis commented, like during the Athens Spring in 2015, Brussels hopes to force May into a position where she will be negotiating over her ability to negotiate more than any actual elements of a divorce deal. They are betting that Britain will not be so foolish as to simply walk away without any settlement at all. To the Commission, and Europe’s chancelleries, this is not a credible threat.

However, in this case, they’ve misunderstood the British psyche. Unlike the Greek government, which by 2015 had no illusions as to its power in relation to the Troika, Britain is still a great power in decline and as such its perception of the world is skewed. It baulks at the mere suggestion of the idea that it could be pushed around by the bureaucrats in the Brussels institutions. That Britain would submit rather than walk away, that she would relinquish this opportunity to relive her ‘finest hour’ when the whole continent had submitted to a dastardly power, determined to unite Europe against her, is anathema. Hence, we have arrived at this point not two months after the process of Brexit began.

It is a strange feeling, as a person interested in politics, to have contradictory and conflicting thoughts on a subject of current affairs. Namely, we are speaking about Theresa May’s speech, delivered after having gone to Buckingham Palace on Wednesday to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament, and begin the election process in earnest. There are two halves of this story. The first is one of domestic politics; the second, Britain’s identity and relationship with the rest of Europe and the world.

When it comes to the domestic agenda (and here I limit my analysis to the business of holding onto power), May has pursued the right course. Without a firm rebuttal, and certainly without any potentially prevailing counter-narrative, May would have looked weak and absurd in the face of the Commission, which has indeed perniciously released this report in order to do just that. We can cast our minds back to the Athens Spring two years ago, when it was not long before Alexis Tsipras and his entire SYRIZA Government had been written off as crazy leftists, willing to take Greece out of the eurozone, however with no plan of how to do so. Varoufakis has recounted this numerous times now. The European press had rallied to the Troika, and were determined to support the line that ‘there is no alternative’ but for the Greeks to submit. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is the vanguard of this force in the case of Brexit, happily willing to use anything from their friends in the Berlaymont to make the Britons look as foolish and unprepared as other Europeans think they are for considering separation from the Union. In the Greek case, the press were only caught off-guard when the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble went in the complete other direction and suggested that a ‘temporary’ euro-exit might be preferable to this constant cycle of extending and pretending with regards to the Greek debt. This, I doubt, will be the case this time. The other Europeans are happy for Britain to leave the Union, and that is because it is this way that Brussels can exert its will and make Britain pay the price for leaving the very Union that could have acted to arrest its decline in world affairs. To achieve this however, they have to write out the divorce-settlement.

In light of this rapidly developing image of the next few years, May’s response had to be a show of strength, which is exactly what she did. Indeed, since she just called an election to supposedly strengthen her hand against Brussels, having been totally out-witted by them only a fortnight later seems a rather poor start. And so the Tory-narrative machine whirred into action, and has begun spinning the story that Britain is being bullied, and is under threat from sinister bureaucrats in Brussels who, having tried to regulate Britain half to death before 2016, are now trying to meddle in the British elections. David Davis made such a point on Question Time this week: “The Commission was trying to bully the British people”, which allowed him triumphantly, in the only chance he would ever be able to out-Churchill his colleague Boris Johnson, to declare “The British people will not be bullied.” The Mail, The Sun, The Telegraph and The Express all joined in the chorus of determined patriotism and nationalism in the face of the continental bully, and lo and behold, the British people feel much more confident in a Prime Minister, who though full of contradictions and utterly unable to produce any reliable evidence as to why her plan for exit is a good one, will stand up to those bullies from Brussels and Berlin. The Conservatives made significant gains in the local elections on Thursday, gaining four of the six newly elected mayoralties, over five hundred council seats and control over 11 more county councils and unitary authorities. Most of these gains, it seems, were from UKIP, who were almost wiped out. The Conservatives are once more the standard-bearer of nationalist Britain.

On the other hand, there’s the perspective which is honestly more relevant to me. May’s actions, indeed prompted by Brussels, are poison in the already poisoned British mind. They are a disease in our body-politic, and worse, the exact disease the European Project was supposed to eradicate. Hateful and distrustful nationalism. As these negotiations go on, and the atmosphere becomes ever more nationalist, deceitful, and dominated by images of finest hours and the mentality of the siege, Britain will only become more isolated from the continent. A comment in The Telegraph was titled ‘The European Union’s antics serve as a reminder of why Britain voted to leave‘. And I fear that this may become only more true. Most of the media in Britain still friendly to Europe has stopped talking of the Union as anything more than a transactional arrangement, a trade bloc. One gets the sense that they’d be embarrassed to openly refer to it as anything more. The European Idea is slowly dying in Britain, along with anything it was supposed to mean for a different kind of internationalism, which, instead of a mix of the callousness of the free market and brutality of American militarism, was supposed to be the brotherhood invoked by the motto of the French Republic, and Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude. The defeat at hand, steadily unfolding before our eyes is a tragedy. And Britain is only another canary in the mine – if Emmanuel Macron were to lose on Sunday, this disease would gain its first major foothold on the continent.

As the days pass, looking on what’s happening in Britain makes me increasingly dispirited and pessimistic. Already the politics in the country have turned utterly inwards – were it not for the fact Britain is leaving a European Union you’d have no idea Brexit had anything to do with the continent judging by the mainstream political discourse. Britain seems willing to throw away its openness and internationalism, in order to maintain the pretence that it can still command the world’s heights on its own. It seems willing to burn its bridges with its neighbours, worsen the deep divide in its body-politic, close its borders to so-called undesirables, whether they be Polish nurses or Bulgarian students (or simply their families) and adopt the siege mentality of 1941. As if Europe had yet again fallen under the dominion of the Reich, conspiring perniciously against the plucky and honest Britons, we are increasingly treating Europe as if it were our enemy, and the channel, the walls of our mighty fortress. Britain has few times in its long history isolated itself in Europe – the era or Philip II and the Spanish Armada is perhaps one, during the American War of Independence when Britain was obliged to take itself down a few pegs a definite second, a short part of the Napoleonic Wars probably and finally during the Second World War under Hitler.

What’s maddening about this time is that the isolation is at its heart self-inflicted. Yet we turn around with indignation when Europe as a Union treats us as the outsider who declared they want no part in any continental enterprise. Britain vowed in 1783 after the defeat at the hands of the colonies and our neighbours never to be isolated in Europe again, for it knew that both this island and the mainland would suffer as a result. This has been true ever since. Now we are willing to forget that, and at a time when the world and our small corner of it has never looked more uncertain. To continue down this path would mean self-inflicted oblivion, a self-harm the damage from which would take decades to emerge from. I hope we realise this as we begin to walk this path. My greatest fear is that we do, and we don’t care.

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