Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

If you want to understand the UK election result, look at Ireland, not the continent.

Back in 2015, at the end of a more innocent age, Tim Marshall wrote a book called Prisoners of Geography. In it, he argued that the principal governing force behind human activity is not, as we choose to think, free will – but the geographical configuration of the planet on which we live.

Geopolitics is not a widely-discussed subject – at least not explicitly so, though according to Marshall, much of what happens in the world is underpinned by it. This is no less true of the 2019 British General Election result, which saw a right-wing nationalist party returned with an increased majority – and the issue that underlay it: Brexit.

Pro-European Britons, particularly on the Left, may be reeling under what they see as the denial of the self-evident truth of the modern world, namely the U.K.’s future as a social-democratic member of the E.U. It was very attractive to a certain sort of well-travelled, often-educated Briton for whom the EU had increasingly felt like home – me included.

But our dream of the place we earnestly believe that Britain needs to be is, and always has been, compromised by those pesky geopolitics. The 2019 election has just shown this once again: our worldview is simply not persuasive enough to carry a decisively large percentage of the wider British public with it. The tough fact is, the U.K. is marginal to the European land mass, and it has always had split loyalties as a result; EU membership was simply not important enough to many enough for the issue to carry the election. And that’s without considering Britain’s history, which has left it with a deluded sense of its own importance. For centuries, British policy was to divide the continent in order to prevent an anti-British alliance (which itself may have been more neurosis than real threat – but it worked). What has really changed? But maritime nations are no longer strategically pivotal; instead, they have become marginal. The British seem not to have noticed.

The Interrail generation has always ‘read’ the U.K. from its proximity to the continent. We travelled widely; we formed international friendships; we eagerly grasped every shred of evidence that the U.K. was gradually becoming more like the rest of the Europe that we saw and admired. It was not a delusion: particularly in the last twenty years, since the internet turbocharged communications, there has indeed been convergence, some visible, some less so. Eurosceptics glued to their TVs during the Champions’ League know not what they do. Eurostar altered perceptions too – albeit mostly for those living in the South East. The fact that the British economy shed its post-war difficulties was probably also due to integration with a larger entity – that effect has repeatedly been observed elsewhere. In pure trading terms, the ‘economies of scale’ count. But we ignored the fact that they don’t work socially, culturally – and perhaps geopolitically. In reality, Britons as a whole are little more ‘Europeanised’ than they ever were.

If you want to understand Britain in those terms, don’t look at the continent; look at Ireland. For in doing so, we hold a more realistic mirror to our own place vis-à-vis the rest of Europe, and perhaps gain a better understanding of the true nature of our own country. Simply put, continentals perceive the U.K. in something like the way the British perceive Ireland.

I can’t claim to know Ireland intimately, though I have travelled over much of its southern half – and through my love of its music, I have repeatedly rubbed up against its people, both music-friends who live there, and Irish friends in the U.K. Playing ‘their’ music may have provided something of a cultural pass-partout that other Brits have not had. For my purposes here, I will also plead guilty to doubtful wisdom of blurring the political and geographical uses of the term ‘Ireland’, because we are really talking about a combination of the two.

To an even greater extent than the U.K., Ireland is not a modern European country. True, if you drive around the Dublin ring-road, you will see light industrial estates similar to those on the outskirts of Rouen or Ghent. True, if you take the empty new toll motorways to the west, you could easily believe that you were on a western-French autoroute on which they have been conspicuously modelled. True, in central Dublin, you can use the tram as you can in Strasbourg or Basel. But it doesn’t take long to realise that these things are symbols of desire, a statement of what the modern Ireland wants to be, not what it yet wholly is; that is still visible down the side-streets. Outside these bubbles, much of Ireland still struggles with its location on the periphery of Europe, where the land is often poor, and where the population, while youthful and rising, is low enough to make wider development problematic. You can see it in the difficulty that the Irish have had with developing their infrastructure: the place simply isn’t big or populated enough to compete successfully with a whole continent, now that continents matter more than seaways. Without the EU funds, it might not have happened at all.

You can also find it in the mindset. I don’t for a moment wish to indulge in typical English condescension towards a country whose culture is, in many ways stronger and more productive than my own – but it still has a largely nostalgic, provincial mentality. The modernity that I described strikes me as a somewhat contrived denial of a historico-geo-political reality that is still uncomfortably close to the surface. This is an island where religion has only quite recently lost a significant grip – and allowed the ‘permissiveness’ of modern internationalism seen in otherwise-universal matters such as abortion and same-sex partnerships – and where it is still seen as novel – even if proudly so – for the Premier to be non-white and gay.

It is a nation that still venerates its past – as seen in the enduring presence of traditional music – even though its actual practice is a minority interest in a nation that is prouder of having produced the likes of U2. But Irish exports still overwhelmingly play on traditional images of Ireland. It still takes little for bitter-sweet nostalgia for the island’s troubled past to come pouring out. While the small towns with their multitude of independent businesses may look picturesque, they are still demographically and economically precarious – often dated, and hardly an expression of modern Europe. They are resolutely inward-looking: while Irish hospitality is everything it is reputed to be, the communities feel introspective; the warm welcome is that extended to strangers, not the familiarity of fellow-locals.

Even the shiny buildings in Dublin’s docklands have been built using cash that had be attracted by an aggressive policy of ultra-low corporation tax, which is a distinctly un-European approach. When we first visited around fifteen years ago, much of the South resolutely failed the Cappucino Test: our tongue-in-cheek measure of how cosmopolitan a place actually is. On more than one occasion, the advertised cappuccino turned out to be filter-coffee topped with aerosol cream… and while things have definitely improved since, in our experience, it is still not certain that a decent vegetarian meal will always be available.

But above all, Ireland is a long way from the continent. Not necessarily in terms of kilometres – but because those kilometres are mostly water, in people’s minds they expand ad infinitum. You can only get in and out by ship or aircraft, as used to be the case in the UK too. The sheer practical fact of Ireland’s physical isolation alone is sufficient to explain most of the above – and indeed the admirable determination of the Irish that it will be otherwise. But you only have to arrive via the docks at Dublin or Waterford to be reminded that pretty much every expression of modern, cosmopolitan Ireland has to be imported.

While the practical, economic benefits for Ireland of belonging to a much larger economic unit are most visible, I can also sympathise entirely with Ireland’s Europeanism  on another level: as a peripheral lump of rock on the edge of both a large continent and a larger ocean, it actually has more to prove – including to itself – than those countries closer to the core of Europe, where it happens much more easily and naturally. It is not alone; it is a known cultural phenomenon that peripheral areas identify more strongly with their cultural cores than those cores do with themselves. (We see the same with the Ulster Unionists vis à vis the UK). In the case of Eire, there is also a strong imperative to define the modern nation in opposition to its historic master (on which it is nonetheless heavily reliant) – namely the UK.

At the same time, it is these peripheral areas that experience conflicted identities. The characteristics I have described above are not unique to Ireland; many outlying parts of Europe, from Scandinavia to Southern Italy, have difficulty in identifying unreservedly with the core European identity. In fact, we should not claim that Europe is only about that core identity: it is a dispersed and disparate place – but for all that, there clearly is a core, built around France, Germany and Benelux. While it has not been an entirely smooth journey, at least the Irish have had the sense to understand that their best future lies in a partnership with that core, in a way that many British still refuse to do – and they are getting on with it.

I do hope that Irish readers understand this is not criticism of their country. The key point is this: the British have historically tended to look down on the Irish as provincial, disorganised and poor. They have seen Ireland as a country riven by backward-looking sectarian tribalism and hamstrung by poor geography. Those geographical realities have indeed done more to shape the Irish state – and still do – than the modern Irish might be comfortable admitting.

But as I said at the outset, we British can learn a lot from Ireland. Our problem with the EU is that in relation to the continent, we are just the same. Jean-Claude Juncker quipped that “everyone understands English – but no one understands England”. It is truer than he realises – in much the same way as the English don’t really understand the Irish. They are islanders, they are ‘other’; their different geopolitics gives them a fundamentally different mindset as a result. Continentals – being continental – tend to underestimate it. Equally, no post-joining attempt was made at European state-building in the UK, because it was never understood to be important.

Like the Irish, we British are still essentially islanders, also more primitive, more tribal and more inward-looking than we care to admit, no matter what the aspirations of a minority. Insular cultures tend to be conservative, and they are habitually suspicious of ‘foreign’ influences. In some ways, our closer proximity to the continent only exacerbates the problem, amplifying the inequalities between the South East and the rest and making the identity-dilemma all the sharper. What’s more, while the Irish share with many continental countries, relative youth as a nation – and traumatic events in their recent past that has forced them to think hard and positively about the kind of nation they want to be – the UK was able to wallow in post-War triumphalism and ignore such issues – until now, when hard choices belatedly need to be made.

The recent election has simply showed this all over again: when the chips were down, the British voted for More of The Same. Very little has really changed. The prospect of a European future was sloughed off in favour of the usual insular, inward-looking delusion of purely national greatness that always prevails. Sadly for we pro-Europeans, this is the true nature of the British people. De Gaulle spotted it when he vetoed the UK applications to join in the 1960s. Little has really changed – because the fundamental geography that gives rise it never does. Such delusions can only come from un-connected living on an island, permanently decoupled from the greater tides of humanity that have shaped modern continental co-operation. Until the next ice age, when sea level falls and the land-bridge returns, it will be ever thus.

Most of us as quite literally too far away to see what we are missing.

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