Britain is one of the very few European countries that have not experienced a revolution or other significant national trauma in the recent past – by which I mean the past couple of centuries. France, Spain, Russia and more have all come to a point where the old regime was sufficiently unpopular to endure; radical action was the way forward. Of those who did not experience this, the majority were forced into a fundamental rethink of their raisons d’être by virtue of World War Two. Only in Britain, despite the difficult conditions, was continuity the theme.
Further back in time there was the English Revolution of the second half of the 17th Century – but it was such an uncertain affair that historians cannot even agree on which event is best labelled as such. While it did bring an end to absolute monarchy, the fact that the Restoration took place shortly afterwards might cause one to doubt whether it really constituted a significant new start.
In the meantime, British national identity has come to be defined by two surprisingly short interludes, the first deriving from its economic prowess between around 1850 and the early Twentieth Century, and then the country’s military-political role in the Second World War, neither of which were as unequivocal or unilateral as the national story would have us believe, and certainly neither embedded in popular democracy. Combined with its insular outlook, it has arguably given this country a self-perception based on past glories which has seen no need to adapt to the immense changes in the world in the meantime.
Events like the Suez Crisis in 1956 perhaps dented the nation’s sense of pre-eminence – but did not destroy it. Deindustrialisation in the 1970s caused the last vestiges of economic dominance to fall away, and is perhaps the source of the country’s schizophrenic superiority-inferiority complex that we see today.
But adapt it could not. As U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said in 1971, “Britain lost an empire and has not yet found a role”. It is still true today – but as it became increasingly impossible to ignore this fact the country simply retreated further and further into the nostalgia that is the root cause of the Brexit decision. Despite having the outward appearance of a modern democracy, this country is still largely run by a small elite, in some cases the descendants of the aristocracy, but supplemented with those who have gained power through money. The old social calendar is still there, albeit largely unseen, for those with the money and connections to access it. Even being charitable, they can have little sense what life is now like for the ordinary people of the country.
The European Union represents a huge threat to these people’s hegemony – for a start it emanates from countries that have known real trauma in a way the British have not – and who have had to rethink their societies from the ground up. Post-war idealism set in place in many of those countries institutions that while by no means perfect, are based on a fundamental assumption of Equality. The E.U. is the greatest expression of that; anyone studying its workings or watching it at first hand (as I have) can be left in no doubt about that, even if the reality is not above criticism.
Such ideas threaten (or are perceived to threaten) the old order that still holds the reins of power in Britain. Principles such as Proportional Representation and consensual politics in general threaten the long-standing hegemony of the British Right, and are therefore to be panned. The E.U. was resisted at every turn when it tried to speak directly to the British People, and its implementation of policy that was not directly beneficial to the British Establishment was rejected or diluted in the form of opt-outs.
It would not be accurate, I suspect, to suggest that everything the British did to resist the E.U. was done for nefarious reasons; some of it is probably the entirely genuine response of an established patriarchy to perceived threats to its existence. But the British Establishment has a view of the world that has changed even less than that of the rest of the nation; it simply cannot get its head round the fact that Britain is no longer the pole around which the world revolves, and it simply does not ‘get’ the fact that the E.U., for all its imperfections, is a body intended to benefit ordinary peoples.
Widely- benign legislation such as workers’ rights, an insistence on democratic institutions in its member-states, and environmental and consumer protection have traditionally been far stronger than the British domestic equivalent. Likewise regional aid, which has to date done far more for Britain’s deprived further regions that Westminster ever has. Unlike the militaristic British it’s role in the wider world has been conciliatory (though admittedly not always effective). But they threaten the established order; why else would this country ‘need’ so many opt-outs from legislation that for the most part suits 27 similar nations well enough? Just what is so special about this country – except the privilege retained by and for those who run it?
Recent events, of which Brexit is merely the peak – have finally pushed British delusion to the point that it can no longer be ignored. The failure of neo-liberal economic policies to distribute wealth to more than a small minority, while simultaneously eroding both social infrastructure and welfare support for the rest, the failure to restrain the vested interests that now hamstring this country, and scandals such as M.P.’s expenses have finally shown the British that their domestic system is no less rotten than some of those to which they considered themselves superior by birthright.
But the hegemony of the British establishment is as strong as it is concealed. A sense of powerlessness and apathy exists amongst the ordinary people of this country; it is the inheritance of a nation whose ordinary citizens are in fact not citizens at all, but subjects of the monarch – a monarch in whose name many national institutions still technically operate, and who on theory can still have the last word on the laws of the land. Cow-towing to authority (and raging about it privately later) is the national instinct.
Despite the fine words, there is a tacit but distinct lack of the determination to build and defend a just society such as I have seen in those countries that have known still (just) within living memory what it is to lose it. Most people just shrug; I won’t decry the unwillingness to take the barricades – I don’t know if I would have the courage either.
Such is the ‘respectable’ plausibility of the Establishment that they have succeeded in deflecting the anger of many, towards the E.U. itself. Those people are gullible enough to believe the age-old platitudes about British greatness, dished out by those who have most interest in perpetuating the national myth. I fear that even many who march in favour of the E.U. don’t really know much about it – it’s just where they go on holiday. Where were they over the past decades when those of us who advocated pro-Europeanism met universal indifference – that is when we weren’t being shouted down?
But at least we are beginning to see the real state of things. The rottenness of the British political system is now in plain view – from a Prime Minister who claims to execute the will of the people while wantonly ignoring the wishes of at least half of them (that is not how true democracies work) – to the brazen use of public money to cling to office when the normal route fails. And now a blatant power-grab as laws are repatriated. People are decrying the loss of democracy – but didn’t they notice, we never really had it? A patriarchal, elective dictatorship (hidden behind that veneer of upper class respectability) was the perceptive phrase.
One of the weaknesses of European Integration is the fact that it still relies on stereotypes between neighbours who are still getting to know one another; the British have hidden behind that veneer of decency that our diplomats exude, concealing the rot going on behind it; the continentals were taken in. Now, their delusions have been well and truly shattered; we no longer have any more credibility than those nations on whom we traditionally look down. It is clear to all from the table-thumping that the British political class – let alone the rest – just don’t ‘get’ the fact that running a continent has to be built on negotiation, consensus and the sharing of risk; why would they? They don’t even run their own country that way.
I don’t expect to see blood on the streets if Britain any time soon – and I won’t suggest that that is a bad thing. But what else is it going to take before the order changes in this country? I suspect that many Britons still don’t realise how potentially serious this schism is – after all, national disasters only happen overseas.
My hope is that the continuing impossibility of the task ahead will eventually turn floating public opinion. Much national credibility will have been lost, and the damage to the social fabric of the country will take a generation to heal. But if that can happen, then we may look back on this period as the time when Britain did finally find a new role for itself. Maybe this trauma is precisely what is needed – a form of velvet revolution – for ordinary Britons finally to notice and understand the importance of the project that has been developing on their doorsteps – and choose to take an active role in it after all.