The dangers of English exceptionalism
Charles Parselle, a retired lawyer, looks at how Britain’s history has shaped our attitudes towards the EU.
Since the referendum in 2016, more than two years of bad and worse economic data have not quenched the dream of Brexiters, yet none of them has successfully managed to articulate that dream. They use adjectives like ‘glorious’ and ‘piece-of-cake’ and slogans like ‘global Britain,’ but have remained resistant to overwhelming evidence that Brexit means economic decline with no compensating upside. Why?
While Brexiters and their fellow travellers (those government ministers who supported Remain but switched sides after the referendum) have not managed to reveal the ‘soul’ of Brexit, there are many over the centuries who have.
The Brexiters’ dream, considered in the best possible light untainted by self-interest, is poetic, romantic and nostalgic. After the 2016 Brexit vote, the mass-circulation Der Spiegel (German) paid us a back-handed compliment: "The British have an inner independence that we Germans lack, in addition to myriad anti-authoritarian, defiant tendencies.”
Perhaps the most evocative expression of England’s uniqueness was given in 1963 by another foreigner, the then President of France, Charles de Gaulle: “England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her interactions, her markets and her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions.”
But when de Gaulle spoke those words, the ‘EU’ (then EEC) consisted of only 5½ nations - France, West Germany, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy. The other half of today’s Germany was then East Germany, a Communist state. Each of those nations had been defeated and occupied during WW2, while Britain had been victorious and in 1963 still had a considerable empire. Today Britain’s ‘possessions’ consist mostly of a few tax havens. It is still an island but no longer ‘maritime’ and no longer ‘industrial,’ while the 28-nations of the EU comprise an economic bloc exceeding 500 million people on par with the United States and China.
To receive compliments is one thing, to compliment oneself quite another. The English have long been accustomed to think of themselves as exceptional, an extreme form of self-compliment. The sense of exceptionalism, encouraged by Brexiters, has a long pedigree and in its manifold expressions trumps even American exceptionalism. Americans have not claimed heaven as their exclusive realm, but Rupert Brooke in his 1915 hugely popular war poem “The Soldier” wrote of “some corner of a foreign field that is forever England…in hearts at peace, under an English heaven.” At the time, no one disagreed.
“Land of Hope and Glory,” by Edward Elgar, sung by huge crowds in England every year, is a full-throated paean to England’s now vanished imperial grandeur: Land of hope and glory, mother of the free, How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee? Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set, God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet. From Shakespeare to Brexit, exceptionalism has exercised its dangerous charm.
It is a narcissistic vision firmly rooted in a vanished past. That may be why Brexiters seem so dreamy as well as so fierce, yet incapable of a clearly articulated vision of the future. It is curious to hear Brexiters speak: it will be ‘a piece of cake;’ ‘glorious;’ ‘the easiest deal ever made;’ ‘global Britain;’ ‘our sovereignty in our own hands,’ bouquets of nostalgic unreality.
Brexiters share an historical, poetic and romantic vision of an island nation that for a while dominated our planet’s ocean and a good deal of its land mass; that planted English-speaking peoples around the world; that founded multiple English-speaking countries nations; that achieved the mostly bloodless dissolution of its vast empire and survived that dissolution; and accomplished a feat never before accomplished in world history, the peaceful transfer of imperial and world power to a mighty successor, the United States, speaking the same language, founded on the same values, and possessing similar institutions and priorities.
It is understandable, though cringingly louche, that the current Defence Minister, Gavin Williamson, who campaigned for Remain, now speaks of re-establishing military bases ‘east of Suez,’ and the former Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, who campaigned for Brexit on a coin toss, made a point of quoting Kipling’s poem: “Come you back you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay,” - extreme wishful thinking. The current Prime Minister, Theresa May, who campaigned for Remain, is now promoting a ‘Global Britain’.
This vision describes a four hundred-year story that ended and cannot be resurrected. From the moment India and Pakistan gained their independence in 1947, the empire was in the process of full dissolution. It cannot be revived or recreated with slogans.
Today the English are faced with Lenin’s question: What is to be done? And also “Who are we now?” “What do we want to become?” This is not a problem for the Scots or Northern Irish, neither of which is as addicted to the glamour of times past. Britain must think a new dream and create a new reality based on its actual position in the world, not on geriatric dreams and wishful thinking. The youth of England are in no doubt: by a large majority they see Britain as part of Europe and themselves as additionally citizens of the EU.
England is a different kind of country today. No longer maritime or industrial, but still commercial and international, it has a far larger and more mixed population; it is threatened with global warming and exists in a world with new and growing economic giants. It has great strengths and unique advantages but they will be of no value if Britain cuts itself loose from its roots as a vital part of the European project. If England remains aloof, not only will it cease to be a relevant player either in Europe or the world stage, but also the EU will become unbalanced and undermined.
If Europe fails, our island nation must also fail. Every time over the centuries when Europe has been in real trouble, England has had to come to its aid, in England’s interest as well as that of its European neighbours. Today Britain needs to be in the EU to support France as a counterweight to Germany, and to support Germany as a counterweight to France, and to support our traditional friends the Netherlands and Benelux countries, and to support the eastern rim countries of Europe against the rise of authoritarianism, and the Scandinavian and northern countries against Russian encroachments.
There are countless ways in which Britain is already an active member of the European project. To sacrifice all that for an indulgence, a wistful recollection of times past, to cut the country adrift from its traditional moorings, constitutes a betrayal of that past as well as the future. When I was born in 1941 the world contained 2.8 billion people, of whom Great Britain ruled about a quarter. I was born in Rhodesia, a British colony; my father in the British Raj (India); my mother in Malta, a British colony, and my sister in Egypt, a British mandate; we were an empire family stretching back to the 1850s, but we now live in a post-imperial world. We must come to terms with the way things are, not the way we remember them. If the Germans can transform themselves based on catastrophic failure in war, surely the English can transform themselves despite so much past success; different times, different realities.
The Europeans want us because they need us. The rest of the world does not; what may be the verdict of history as to the empire, no country in the world today is saying ‘come you back you British soldier, come you back to (pick a country)…” There are fifty-three members of the Commonwealth, but none of the other fifty-two would be willing to fill in that blank. The Europeans, however, need us even with our ‘very marked and original habits and traditions,’ (bloody-mindedness) and Britain’s youth is ready to march; at least, let’s hope so.
Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe