In Brexit, Britain, EU

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Dover provides a telling parable about modern England because it not only contains side-by-side examples of the success and failure of globalisation, but it is filled with reminders of a more glorious past. Henry II’s magnificent 12th century fortress, the greatest medieval castle in the country, is close to the headquarters of the Dunkirk evacuation, dug deep into the White Cliffs.

By Patrick Cockburn

Published on Counterpoint, Jan 5, 2021
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Dover provides a telling parable about modern England because it not only contains side-by-side examples of the success and failure of globalisation, but it is filled with reminders of a more glorious past. Henry II’s magnificent 12th century fortress, the greatest medieval castle in the country, is close to the headquarters of the Dunkirk evacuation, dug deep into the White Cliffs. Both sustain the nationalist conviction that Britain is better off on its own. But an undiluted diet of ancient victories and achievements, with all the defeats and humiliations left out, fosters an over-confidence based on wishful thinking about the real world and a dangerously misleading belief that “we did it before and we can do it again”.

Such magical thinking is not exclusively English. On the contrary, what is striking about English “exceptionalism” is that it is so unexceptional. All nationalist movements down the centuries, from Hanoi to Warsaw and Harare to Philadelphia, have cultivated a sense of ethnic or cultural superiority or, at least, difference. A mistake of the Remainers in the referendum and in subsequent years was their failure to understand that the national state remains the focus of collective loyalty and identity for much of the population, a feeling reinforced by the relentless onslaught of cultural and economic globalisation.

A measure of English provincialism is that Dominic Cummings won both wide praise and condemnation for the supposed demonic cunning with which he devised all-embracing nationalist slogans, such as the notorious “Take Back Control”, which differs little from those chanted by liberation movements everywhere. Leave supporters would be horrified by the idea, but the mantras of the Brexiteers resemble closely those of Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”), previously the most successful nationalist movement in the British Isles.

The remodelled ultra-English nationalist version of the Conservative Party shares the strengths and weaknesses of all nationalist movements. Boris Johnson is often accused by the media of “over-promising and under-delivering”, but this is the common behaviour pattern of nationalist leaders.

Such promises invariably bump into reality, but nationalists seldom own up to their mistakes, instead blaming hidden enemies inside and outside the country. The Brexiteers claimed during the referendum that personal and national liberty were the same thing. But once in power, it is the former – in the shape of courts, parliament, free press – that is swiftly sacrificed in the interests of the national project.

Such projects are usually in trouble because they are  confected from dreams. Donald Trump promised to Make America Great Again, but he leaves it weaker, and more divided and discredited than ever. Johnson promises that Britain will “prosper mightily” outside the EU, though none of the Brexiteers have been able to produce a rational explanation as to why this should be so.

I have always argued that the greatest danger lies not in Brexit but in the Brexiteers themselves because they were selling political and economic snake oil and would go on doing so. Moreover, they were selling it to different people under different labels: the anti-EU coalition combined free-market, Thatcher-worshipping activists working in temporary concert with those who saw themselves as Thatcher’s victims.

Until recently, the Brexiteers seemed to be swimming with the tide. Everywhere, international alliances and global organisations like the UN, EU and Nato appeared to be on the wane. A former British diplomat remarked to me in 2016 that “Europe is full of think tanks and academic institutions studying integration, but it turns out that they should have been studying disintegration”.

His prediction seemed to be unpleasantly justified by events at the time and his thesis received further proof when the supreme test of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 saw nation states look exclusively to their own interests. But since the summer there are signs of a turn in the tide. Trump was capsized by his mad-cap incompetence during the epidemic. The EU set up a common €750bn relief fund. Whatever radical plans Johnson may have had to remake the British state may have been permanently holed below the waterline by his own incompetence and the calamitous economic damage inflicted by the epidemic.

Back in 2016 it did not look inevitable that the EU would become, at least temporarily, more united because of Brexit, while the UK would become more divided, probably permanently, with Scotland and Northern Ireland more and more detached from the union. As for England, Brexit was a symptom of terrible problems for people living in places like Dover, but there is no reason to believe that it will do anything to help them.

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