Donald Rumsfeld probably deserved flak for a lot of things. But not the one that he took most for. His 2002 speech about Unknown Unknowns was entirely logical, if a little hard on the ear. In it, he identified a critical issue in human understanding – the problem that we don’t know what we don’t know. It is an issue that is repeatedly underplayed, because it seems like too much of an admission of the limits of human capabilities.
I don’t want to revisit the political aspects of Brexit again here – because I think that, if anything, the cultural aspects of the matter are more interesting, if more intractable. Even if the U.K. manages to find a political resolution to its current difficulties, the other aspects of our relationship with the continent will endure. Brexit has sparked a massive bout of introspection on the part of this nation, but for all of it, I can’t help thinking that we are still a long way from getting to the root of the problem: that requires a depth of insight that is simply not within the experience of most Britons. For the vast majority, the rest of Europe remains either the source of original evil, or a kind of cultural theme park where we take our holidays. Most of the resolution to this lies within the realm of what we don’t know we don’t know, within layers of cultural conditioning so deep that we don’t even know they’re there.
I remember the first time I met a French person who had never been to the U.K. I asked why. “Why would I need to?” was the answer. And in that single reply lies the whole problem for British understanding. It prompted in me a moment of introspection that I doubt many Britons have had. For the simple fact is, for the majority of Europeans, Britain is not the exceptional place that those who live here still believe it is. It is certainly not central to the functioning of their lives.
And yet many in Britain even today still struggle with the idea that their island is not ‘normal’ – nor the centre of the world as they have always believed.
Arrive in Dublin from Holyhead, and you will encounter a very functional working port, and it is immediately obvious that the whole of Ireland is, by virtue of its geography, heavily dependent on imports. Arrival in Dover from Calais doesn’t have quite the same impact, because private vehicles appear to make up the dominant flow – but one only needs to consider the fact that some 10,000 lorries pass through it each day to remember that Britain’s island nature makes us equally dependent on the outside world: in purely physical terms, we live in a place relatively apart from the bulk of human activity. And yet this is so ‘normal’ to Britons that the perceptual distortions that it causes remain for many, unknown unknowns. One might ponder the real reasons why many Britons say they prefer it this way.
One of main consequences of island-living is a very real inability to see what happens elsewhere – and this has the effect of making island cultures habitually inward-looking and self-referential. It is not only the British: the Japanese are in some ways our best comparator here, and they exhibit a rather similar bi-polar attitude to the wider world. What’s more, that very inward-lookingness means we often fail to notice potentially useful parallels even on our doorstep: the British have historically considered the Irish to be provincial and inward-looking, without seeing that the same could be said about them, when seen from the continent. “Why would I need to?” could just as easily be an English response to the prospect of visiting Ireland.
History shows us a thing or two about how the British treat other places: as Nesrine Malik pointed out in The Guardian recently, the British state has been a “machine for running and exploring the world” – but that obsession has left it not much good at modern state-building on the home front. Most of the effort went into building belief in a national brand whose main focus was external – except to the extent that it benefitted the ruling classes. It was largely blind to the need to build an efficient and equitable society at home, which is why even today much of the country suffers from poor infrastructure compared to our neighbours. Britain’s historic treatment of Ireland is also informative here: under British rule, Ireland was impoverished and neglected (unless you were part of the imported aristocracy); under the auspices of the EU, it has received investment and infrastructure, and has thrived – at least in relative terms. No wonder the Irish are Remainers.
The problem boils down to one of pluralism: an island state like Britain has a very different conception of itself from a continental one. When your national frontiers largely correspond with the limits of your land mass, the nation-state assumes a significance that it can never quite achieve on a continent, where one is ever-mindful that one’s nation is indisputably but one part of a larger whole. In Britain, one is rarely forced to accept such pluralities – and where we have to, in Ireland – we have not dealt with them well, even as recently as 2016, where it scarcely featured in the Brexit debate.
It is simply impossible in Britain to do the equivalent of what I have done many times in Switzerland: to sit in a tower-block in the Novartis Campus in Basel and look down on everyday life continuing quite normally in three countries, complete with language and cultural differences – all within a radius of a few tens of metres. It’s not true that everything is sweetness and light: the Swiss-German border seems more porous than the Swiss-French one, not least because of cultural affinities, but it is also possible to detect more antipathy towards the French than the Germans in that part of Switzerland. But above and beyond such sentiments – or perhaps because of them – one is daily reminded that one’s nation-state is not all there is to it. History only serves to reinforce that fact.
It takes a long time to appreciate the perceptual differences that this can foster. I have visited Switzerland perhaps thirty times in as many years, and have got to know local people well. I have had similar, if less protracted contact with others in several other countries. You need to spend serious time, and get to know them as individuals (as you would at home) before these things become visible. You need to reach the point where nationality as an issue becomes almost invisible.
The most obvious is the fact that continentals’ mindset operates at a supra-national scale: going to another country is ‘normal’, not novel. For quite a few, it is just a short drive away. They think little more of it than a Briton does when moving between Scotland, Wales and England. It means that co-operation across those borders is natural to the point of itself being an ‘unknown unknown’ issue – it is just taken for granted that that is the way the world is. Understanding this also rams home just what a tragedy Twentieth Century history was for those nations, in a way that, yet again, Britain could only observe from a semi-detached position.
Yet the basic facts of Geography mean that such interaction does not happen so naturally with respect to the British Isles. I suspect that the vast majority of British people even today have no regular contact with people on the continent – and probably vice versa. Where it does happen, it is most likely to be with ex-pats, who are by definition not locals. Going on holiday for a week or two simply will not do it: you need to sit in locals’ homes, socialise with them, visit their work places, live their daily lives with them before it even starts to soak in. You need to see them no differently from how you would see people who live in a different county.
And then you start to realise that they are indeed operating rather different software. They do not have the same deference to hierarchy; wealth is less directly linked to social status and particularly in republics, the sense that the People (rather than the monarchy) are the State, I believe makes a tangible difference to how they live their lives, the sense of ownership they exhibit towards their countries, the sense that their nations are collective, joint endeavours, rather than being run largely for the benefit of a small elite as is still the case in Britain.
It works the other way too, of course. Britain is just as remote to continentals, indeed more so, because if you have no business there, “why would you need” to visit? It is the same attitude that many British manifest towards Ireland – a remote, offshore place whose habits we don’t quite understand.
But the continentals, too, made one fundamental mistake in their relationship with Britain which they are only now discovering: they assumed that Britain was just another European nation, just like their own. They failed to comprehend the issues of island-hood just as we fail to comprehend their continental-ness. Our inability to explain them ourselves, did not help.
Their inability to see daily life here led them to conclude that the British Establishment’s projections of life in the higher echelons (as encountered through, for example, the diplomatic service) were an accurate representation of the true nature and mentality of the nation – which of course, they are not. To this day, I am often surprised by the strength of the upper-class stereotypes some continentals hold about the British.
They failed to appreciate the complexity of these islands – as some of their politicians admitted when they belatedly took a visit to the border lands of Ireland. The easy assumption that “we are all Europeans now” failed to allow for the superstitions of those who geographically can never be fully part of the continental project – but whose more significant frontiers are in the mind. They don’t understand the exceptionalism that insular geography creates – and they don’t know how to interact with it, because all their normal continental assumptions about the need for international co-operation, co-habitation and the Greater Good simply don’t work with a self-contained island race.
It has always been thus, even to the highest levels: British policy documents over the decades reveal repeated references to Britain’s ‘national interest’ in its European dealings. Well, all countries have national interests, of course – but in Britain’s case, the tone clearly presupposes a conflict between national and international interests; it is one of aggressive competitiveness, very rarely of the General European Good. One is left with the sense that such notions are unknown unknowns.
My repeated visits to the continent gradually shifted my perception; my default mental map is now that of Europe – with Britain stuck in its marginal position in the top left-hand corner. But in reaching this position, I also started to glimpse the different assumptions that operate on the continent as a result: the emphasis of nations there on the common societal good – a term one rarely hears convincingly expressed in Britain, where ‘Society’ is either insignificant – or a never-ending class struggle. It is shown in the way many continental countries are innovating in everything from social rights to environmental good practice – while at the same moment in time, Britain is discussing rolling back Human Rights post Brexit. What greater contrast does one need?
My experiences of the continent repeatedly suggest that those countries – under the umbrella of the EU – are making far more progress in terms of building good societies than is Britain. While there are always exceptions, people there generally live in better homes, more pleasant towns, they drive on better roads, travel in better trains, have more workplace and democratic rights, have less atomised communities, take their environmental responsibilities more seriously, they have less corrupted legislatures, and they generally have a more optimistic, positive view of life, than is common in this country. What’s more, fewer of them seem obsessed with wealth and celebrity and overt competitiveness – simply because getting on with normal life is not the trial for most, which it has increasingly become in Britain as the elite has sucked in more and more of our nation’s resources for itself.
And yet, the conversation in Britain, for all the soul-searching, betrays little evidence that these things are really known. Until we start to tackle these things, our chances of really addressing those highly significant differences in world-view between us and our neighbours will remain – Unknown.
I explored the issues discussed here in more detail in my book ‘It’s a Bit Late for that Now!’ available in paperback and e-book on Amazon.