Book choice: A BogPo Longish Essay
“Peter Shore MP, the most persistent Labour party critic of Europe, during the 1975 referendum took up this theme: ‘What the advocates of membership are saying … is that we are finished as a country; that the long and famous story of the British nation and people has ended; that we are now so weak and powerless that we must accept terms and conditions, penalties and limitations almost as though we had suffered defeat in a war.’ It was a masochistic rhetoric that would return in full force as the Brexit negotiations failed to produce the promised miracles.”
I believe I can safely recommend a new book I have read only in a lengthy extract today (16 Nov.) on the Guardian website.
Heroic Failures, Brexit and the Politics of Pain, by the brilliant Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole, cleverly analyses the mentality behind the Brexit vote as a peculiar form of British national paranoia, arguing that many Britons see the EU perversely through a special kind of lens as a symbol of the defeat we didn’t suffer during the Second World War. A war whose filmic and literary tropes we seem entirely bound up in still.
Many masochistically wish we had lost – or, despite the bumsqueaking victory, wish we had more nearly lost, allowing us the opportunity to gloriously resist the invasion that never came – an opportunity of which treacherous British collaborators with the European Project have since deprived us by surrendering to economic forces, that are so easily confused in the din of war with force of arms.
The outcome of the war for many was insufficiently decisive, leaving a lingering resentment that has wormed its way into the national psyche. As I have occasionally mentioned, we seem to be getting bored with too much peace.
Judging by Comments on the many news threads that dribble towards the bottom of thousands of pages of more considered analysis – even the idea of consideration seems to infuriate these people – “Leavers” tend to see the EU as the ultimate triumph of the Third Reich, constantly referring to Hitler, the war, and how “we won it” to justify their obtuse facial expressions. Britain’s accession to the Treaty of Rome in 1973 was a betrayal of British values and a thousand years of history; in terms of what many refuseniks at the time called an “unconditional surrender” to German dominance in Europe; the British always seeing any move towards European unity through the wrong end of the binoculars, as some kind of dangerous conspiracy against us. And now, here we are, crushed under their heel. It’s too bad!
It doesn’t appear to have occurred to Leavers that 27 other European nations (as defined by geography), all with their own national mythologies, separate cultures and histories, all proudly declaring their own sovereignty, blood and soil, seem perfectly happy to be part of something greater than themselves. Even the Greeks and the Italians, the Irish and the Portuguese, at the mercy from time to time of ruthless German bankers and Euro-based capital flight, busily electing hyper-nationalist governments behind the barbed wire, have nevertheless declared that whatever the pain, they are better off in than out.
Yet here we are, doing okay, mostly, deliberately damaging our national interest for generations to come – if the climate allows any. Why?
Of course it’s not perfect. It’s only been going for 60 years, two generations. That’s not even a history. And every economy has its ups and downs. How easily we have forgotten that during her reign, Margaret Thatcher presided over two damaging economic recessions of the government’s own making.
This bolshy “We saved you in the war, so don’t think you can tell us what to do”, “put the kettle on, mother”, backs-to-the-wall, Dad’s Army, music-hall monologues nostalgia is, however, nothing new. During the brief pause between the two halves of the Civil War, in the mid-1640s the Levellers, a proto-socialist movement, and more specifically those who came to be known as the Diggers, campaigned vociferously against what they saw as the Norman yoke – the Normans having conquered Britain all of 600 years previously, they argued (while rebelliously, like Corbyn, planting vegetables in protest on newly privatized land), had nevertheless established a kind of supranational foreign dominance alien to the true culture and values of the Anglo-Saxon laboring man.
(Even 800 years has not been long enough to persuade a section of the Welsh that the conquest by Edward 1, having imposed an unjust colonial settlement by the English, is not still to be resisted, if only on the rugby pitch. Living here, but without a trace of correct DNA, I have several times been accused over some innocuous remark of being a colonialist, having patently refused to master the convoluted native tongue. Maybe they’ve got a point….)
Interviewed in a sidebar story also in today’s Guardian, some shopworkers in a Shrewsbury organic fruit & veg store perfectly illustrate O’Toole’s thesis. On the basis of absolutely no evidence of their irrational prejudices, and being as they are at least two, possibly three generations removed from the fighting, they nevertheless trot out all the old, familiar tabloid newspaper, comic-book tropes, such as:
“I voted out in 2016 and I’d vote out again if it came to it. I don’t know many people who would change their vote (polling shows Remainers are now in the majority and 20% of former Leavers would prefer to Remain… Ed.). We pay out too much money to the EU, we should be running our country ourselves.” And: “We’re better off leaving. There are too many foreigners around here. They are taking our jobs, getting the houses. That’s one of the main reasons I voted for Brexit.”
Time and again, such beliefs – founded apparently in perfect ignorance of the actual relationship between Britain and the EU – have been countered by a welter of facts and statistics, to no avail. European communautarianism is not taught in our schools.
If our opinion was ever sought, and valued without insult and cacophony, a Remainer such as myself might argue with those simple shopgirls as follows:
At the end of the war, that we so nearly didn’t survive, much of Europe lay in ruins. Seven million internally displaced German refugees were on the borderline of starvation, women selling their bodies for Hershey bars. Barely any women east of the Rhine under the age of 70 had escaped the Russian army’s campaign of mass rape. Millions more were in camps and in need to resettlement.
The European Union, a development of the original Coal and Steel Agreement, that in 1957 under the Treaty of Rome became the European Economic Community of six nations, was founded by eleven postwar visionaries, survivors of the Nazi occupations; among whom can be counted our own Winston Churchill. It was never a “German plot” to take over where Hitler had failed! An agreement for economic co-operation, the founders – Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann, Konrad Adenauer and others – intended that never again should the dominance of any one European nation descend into armed conflict; such as a war in which, some estimates suggest, as many as 80 million people died.
That aim of preventing the rise of any one nation over its neighbours through the checks and balances of economic and legislative union has always sat uneasily with the British, who naturally regard ourselves as the superior culture, forever maintaining the balance of power across the channel – by force, if necessary – sorting out the kids in the playground. We resent bitterly, the notion that we pay taxes to a supranational entity of garlic-munching foreigners, over whom we perceive we have too little or no control; although whose fault is that?
Under the American nuclear umbrella, that arguably threatens us with annihilation in the event of war with the Eastern powers, a two-edged sword, the Union has helped to maintain peace and stability and occasionally faltering economic prosperity in Europe for over 60 years. If Germany has become the controlling power in the EU, it is only because we have relinquished that role through the reluctance of a tendency of stubbornly nationalist politicians in Westminster to co-operate fully with the institutions of which we have been a member since 1973.
As members of the community we still run our country ourselves, within a framework of improving co-operation with our European neighbours – who still run their own countries themselves. No member country (apart from Belgium, obviously!) is in any sense “ruled” from Brussels by “unaccountable” bureaucrats, many of whom are British civil servants. Elections are held to a European parliament, but it does not “rule” the UK; it governs the affairs of the community as a whole, in conjunction with the Council of Europe. There is no real impetus towards a federal European “superstate”; even M. Macron’s idea of a pan-European defense force to back-up NATO and relieve the burden on America is viewed everywhere with alarm.
Our membership fees are calculated proportionately to our annual GDP, ensuring we can well afford them. What is causing too many Britons to go hungry is not the EU, it’s the sovereign will of the Tory government. Half the fees are returned to us in the “rebate”; and we benefit from added-value arrangements such as regional development grants, the much-criticized Common Agricultural Policy, that supports British farmers; and from automatic memberships of many scientific, industrial, academic and cultural co-operative organizations. Those will not be available as benefits of the kind of external trading alliances such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the World Trade Organization that Brexiteers talk about joining, once we leave. For British scientists, academics and even musicians, our departure is a disaster.
We may see an end, too, to co-operative projects such as those that have benefited us, along with everyone: Airbus, Concorde, the Channel tunnel, Galileo GPS, the European Space Agency. Our proposed withdrawal from UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural organization, will double-down on our isolation from the currents of global thought and research. Brexit is a dangerous, go-it-alone project with no certain future, dreamed up by ambitious politicians and City gamblers who financed the Leave campaign and stand to profit from it. The indications are, too, that Russian money may have been behind it, as Mr Putin seeks to destabilize Western institutions.
When they talk about “sovereignty”, they mean theirs – not yours or mine.
We still do make our own laws (Blair’s three governments introduced over three thousand new laws), our courts still rule on them; the vilified European Court of Justice is only a court of last resort, British judges sit on it too, and 95% of its decisions have gone in favor of British higher and Supreme Court judgements. Are we arguing that British courts can never be wrong? Or that they should be the final arbiter when issues of wider EU law apply? The ECJ really does not prevent us from expelling foreign criminals and jihadis without good legal reason! We have, or had, full representation and a respected position in the courts and councils of Europe. That’s now being thrown away.
Many of our own laws have been imposed (benignly, one hopes) vice-versa on our European partners, by mutual agreement. The EU has agreed rules. We’ve accepted product standardization, to the benefit of our industries, enabling more inward investment; quality and safety regulations and environmental standards, to the benefit of British workers and consumers. The City of London is pre-eminent: a vast hive of international financial trading. That position is now threatened. Our trading agreements are mutually beneficial: the EU does not prevent us from trading with more than 60 external “third” countries, under a framework of rules and tariffs that gives British exporters better, more risk-free access than other, global frameworks ever will.
Under President Trump, a rogue agent with close ties to Putin, our American “allies” meanwhile are busily seeking to dismantle the very international trade organizations and treaty alliances our Brexiteers hoped to join, in order to protect their own industries and services; removing banking regulations, for instance, that were imposed after the global financial crash they triggered in 2007; overinflating the dollar and instigating a damaging trade war against China. That’s not looking good for us, unprotected as we shall be outside the European Union. With its 450 million consumers, Europe is by far our largest market, where we can trade freely and without customs barriers we will now have to reimpose.
The vast majority of migrant workers and specialists from Europe who come here under the civilizing influence of free movement, one of the so-called “four pillars” of the community, are vital to the running of a successful UK economy, as our population is ageing. There is no evidence whatever that European migrants take our jobs away, enjoy privileged housing and other benefits or somehow dilute our British racial stock. Freedom of movement has also enabled millions of British workers, managers, specialists and retirees to live and work and travel and marry freely in Europe.
That’s another privilege we’re losing, to our great detriment and theirs. Many people, especially the younger generation, now consider ourselves “European British” by nationality, and bitterly resent the narrow, nationalistic, majoritarian Leave vote that is arbitrarily and without authority or legal standing – without asking us – depriving us of our identity and citizen privileges outside the UK. Leavers, I suspect, will soon feel unhappy queuing to get in and out of the country at non-EU transit channels. They will have become second-class citizens just 26 miles from the White Cliffs of Dover.
We have not “lost control of our borders”; an idiotic Eurosceptic “meme”. We are not signatories to the Schengen agreement, which guarantees open borders within the EU. We impose tight restrictions on non-EU immigration under what is being viewed by many in view of appalling Home Office excesses as an unfair and oppressive visa-based system that has led to absurd anomalies like the growing shortage of doctors and nurses in the NHS; or the deportation and non-readmittance of many Caribbean postwar “citizens by invitation”, who were given no papers to prove their right to remain when they arrived as much-needed labor in the 1950s and 60s, who settled and have British families.
Immigration numbers are cruelly distorted by Theresa May’s dogmatic insistence on counting-in the hundreds of thousands of foreign students, who bring much-needed additional revenue to our universities, as immigrants – even though the vast majority return to their home countries. Numbers are already falling as a result of Brexit, which seems to have licensed more violent attacks and abuse against non-native speakers. Are you happy about that?
Non-EU migration is not affected in any way by our EU membership. So if you object to seeing black or brown people in our streets, leaving the EU is not going to change anything. Even for EU arrivals, many of whom have been here for ten or twenty years, obtaining British residency or citizenship is increasingly difficult and expensive. Visas are already subject to ludicrously high bars – I have never in my life earned as much money as you would need to be earning before you could apply for a Tier One visa as a skilled worker.
The border is tightly controlled, both externally and internally, with much bureaucracy and multi-stage supervision of passport ID – not supposedly necessary within the EU. Border Force operations are conducted against “illegals” who, unless granted asylum – increasingly difficult, as application is expensive and legal aid no longer available – are automatically deported. Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work and must remain in hostels, living on £37 a week – and so cannot be taking British jobs and housing. We have one of the most sophisticated and intrusive State surveillance systems in the world to keep an eye on everyone.
How on earth our “borders” (there is only one!) could be more tightly controlled is never explained. It is only code for “We want you to think there are too many foreigners in the country”. But without them, the economy would be worse off.
“Brussels. It’s worse than Nazi Germany”…. Boris is talking out of his expansive arse. The history of the Second World War doesn’t really show that Britain “stood alone against the Nazi menace”; rather, it took a huge co-operative effort by a loose alliance of resistance fighters, exiles and volunteers and free national armies from all over Europe, Asia and the Commonwealth, plus massive military and industrial interventions by the USA and the USSR, to simultaneously defeat a resurgent Germany and an expansionist Japan. It was a “world war”, not one confined to the heroic defense of Walmington-on-Sea. No one is doubting anyone’s courage and endurance in that grim endeavor, not even the enemy’s; but the fantasy of British exceptionalism is a damaging national myth we would all be better off without.
All water off a duck’s back. If the girls in the fruit section had their way, the British resistance would have people like me shot as collaborators.
O’Toole quotes a Thatcher friend and minister, Old Etonian Nick Ridley, interviewed in the Spectator in the 1980s that the European monetary system (the Euro) being introduced by the EU was “all a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe … I’m not against giving up sovereignty in principle, but not to this lot. You might as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly … I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather have the shelters and the chance to fight back than simply being taken over by economics.”
You see, for many people our relations with continental Europe are still defined entirely by the war. Thatcher herself, O’Toole reminds us, spoke of the Falklands conflict in terms of restoring Britain’s greatness, giving new life to the metaphors of retreat and invasion.
“We have ceased to be a nation in retreat,” she said, implying that the nation had been precisely that for a long time. “Why,” she asked, “do we have to be invaded before we throw aside our selfish aims and begin to work together … ?”
Sentiments echoed many years later by the fatuous oaf, Boris Johnson reminding Britons of how we stood alone against the devilish European unifying forces of Hitler and Napoleon. And to remind everyone, “we” hadn’t been invaded! The Falklands conflict was touch-and-go, just like every other war involving the under-prepared British, the government and the media propaganda machine having made of the Falklands a fragile microcosm of halcyon prewar British society (flag-waving, English-speaking white-skinned cabbage-boilers with a village-green culture and red post-boxes), and not an occupied group of wind-blasted islands off the coast of Argentina, with more sheep than people.
There too, in that limited small-scale conflict we came within a hairsbreadth of defeat by a vastly inferior foe backed only by the logic of geography; near-defeat and the triumph of improvisation being absolutely necessary to the myth of historic British actions.
Significantly, as with Suez the Americans didn’t want to be dragged in, any more than we’d wanted to get involved in Vietnam. So much for the Special Relationship.
It’s frankly bizarre, a Jingoistic fantasy, a distortion of history, but it seems unlikely that a section of the British public in their race memory will ever get over the disaster of the Second World War. A disaster, because we were on the winning side at a time when we were already losing an empire and our dominant role in the world. The Commonwealth was scant consolation; a bunch of uppity, inferior black countries we’d once ruled over, who didn’t appreciate us any longer.
Winning the war left us weakened and economically – psychologically – unable to compete with the Marshall-plan-aided German Gewirtschsaftswünder when it came. The aim was to avoid the dangerous resentment of a defeated people whom we had seen after the First World War turn to a resurgent nativism based on violent racial myths. (Co-operation was not an option, apparently!)
That that was precisely where our US allies wanted us to be – and still do – is never much considered. Nor is the parallel, enormously successful economic experiment the US constructed with their erstwhile enemy, after the even more bitter Pacific war against Japan; an example of trust-building which we failed to follow in Europe; to our detriment.
Exulting in our insularity, a certain section of the British public clings to our brief moment of triumph in 1945, all the tropes of survival against overwhelming odds lived over and over again as a vindication of our furious impotence in the modern world. For a nation built on trade, we still look to force of arms and an indomitable, churlish spirit as the primary British virtues. But we couldn’t even hold on to Basra.
Instead, the 21st-century reality is that we are a relatively prosperous, settled, multicultural, middleweight nation like many another, still with useful influence in the world, but without the responsibilities and heartless brutalities of Empire. Successive administrations increasingly dominated by technocrats and money-breathers have wound down our manufacturing capacity to the detriment of traditional communities, and tend to ignore our real strengths in the cultural and innovations industries in favor of their friends in the City, who can magically breed money from money.
Pretending that the 20th century never happened and that England’s glories are merely waiting to be stirred anew is a minority pastime. It’s a myth propagated by cynical huxters that too many people from the industrial heartland who have been effectively sidelined, diseducated and beaten down with doctrinaire “austerity” are allowing themselves to believe in; although we should remember that austerity comes only at the end of a long period of stagnation and the near-collapse of capitalism, from which no lessons were learned, except that the guilty men can get away with it and hope to do so again.
That these people, mainly Leavers, still vote Conservative despite the economic wasteland around them, the food banks, the homelessness is evidence, not of loathing and despair of the government’s austerity program, but of their approval of it! This bleak devastation is how things should be, when we’re losing a war with our backs to the wall, shoulders to the wheel, noses to the grindstone, all pulling together and fighting the foreigners on the beaches.
We seem to be getting bored with too much peace.
Heroic Failures: Brexit and the Politics of Pain by Fintan O’Toole, is published on 22 November by Head of Zeus.