Friday, 16 November 2018

Sorry EU, we're just not that into you.


A foul-natured piece by Fintan O'Toole appears today in the Guardian. A typically cliche ridden delve into the British psyche. To the self-loathing Guardianista this probably passes as insight but it's actually just a long sneer at the British.

It basically boils down to the wearisome stereotype that leavers are Colonel Blimp types mourning the loss of empire and yadda yadda yadda. You don't need me to elaborate because it's not remotely original and you've seen it time and time again. You can read it yourself if you're that bored. His theory is that "In the dark imagination of English reactionaries, Britain is always a defeated nation – and the EU is the imaginary invader". Tedious. 

I do not discount that Britain's psyche is very much influenced by its military accomplishments. We do take some small pride in our role in World War Two and yes we do see the Falklands War as part of that long tradition. We have a sense of destiny. We are a proud nation, we value independence and we will fight to defend British sovereign territory. I fail to see why that is a great sin but yes, it is precisely that sense of nationhood that influences our own attitudes to Europe and the EU.

O'Toole has it that we never got over winning the war while the rest of Europe has moved on. To a point that's true. We're fascinated by it. It's a national obsession. For me especially. Every summer I manage at least three airshows because Britain has a vibrant warbird preservation scene and we do love our Spitfires. If ever the government decided to cut the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight we would crucify the minister responsible. We would not stand for it.

I'm similarly obsessed with D-Day. Only recently I toured the beaches of Normandy. I have a collection Second World War model tanks on top of my fridge. The books I own that aren't obscure texts on the WTO and international development are mostly war books. I visit the Fleet Air Arm museum at least twice a year, and Bovington Tank Museum whenever I get the chance. 

Similarly I an super proud of my uncle who served in the Falklands in the same way I am awestruck by Normandy veterans. These people are bloody heroes to me and in each case they accomplished something. This is the stuff I was raised on. The war cast a long shadow, and still the countryside of Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire are speckled with airfields, each at one time home to fleets of four engine bombers. It's still part of our surroundings. 

The names Finningley, Leeming, Elvington, Pocklington, Waddington, Scampton are not just the names of sleepy English villages. These are the bases of of fighting men and their legendary fighting machines. Not only did they play their part in the fight against Hitler they were also at the front line in the Cold War. 

We have a dozen air museums around the country - home to Lightnings, Buccaneers, Tornados, Javelins, Meteors and Vulcans. Testaments to British aerospace prowess and our role in guarding against the red menace. Certainly the British have a lot more to be proud of than a wire-haired mick penning quasi-racist poison for the Guardian.

As to our perceptions of Europe, mainly the places we know are synonymous with British air raids or Allied military victories. The only place I can think of in France not famous for a bloody battle is a Formula 1 racetrack. So yes, our wars shape our perceptions and political attitudes. 

All of this feeds into the belief that Britain is the guardian of European liberty. We stood ready to fight the Russians if they ever invaded Europe. We were the unsinkable aircraft carrier off the shore of France. Is their a hint of self-delusion there? Oh yes! Of course there is. But it is sincere. All of this contributes to a sense that Britain's military, political and economic independence is a matter of existential importance for Europe.    

As O'Toole illustrates, though, to the French and Germans, the EU represents a reconciliation, and for Germany a change to rid itself of its moral stains. For Eastern Europe it is symbolic of arriving in the West, escaping the Soviet sphere. For them it has real meaning. Britain, not so much. Relevance cannot be manufactured.  

Says O'Toole "England had no deep imaginative commitment to the European project. As an idea, the EU had a distinctly weak grip on English allegiance. It was always understood by most people as a more or less grudging concession to reality, a matter for resigned acceptance rather than joyous embrace". I could not disagree. 

And that there, separated out from O'Toole's prejudice and tired cliche, is really the whole rationale for Brexit. We're not mourning the loss of empire, we're just not that into you. We don't see a valid rationale for the transfer of political authority, and though we may in 1975 have resigned ourselves to the reality that trade integration was necessary, we've never really been all that keen on the supranationalism.

For decades now, our own political establishment has sought to downplay that aspect of le grand project. We took "ever closer union" as a motto, a statement of friendship. The political entity, though, read it as a root command in its operating system. Forty years on and it is increasingly difficult to conceal. 

It is perhaps because we are forever reminded of our military accomplishments that we do fetishise sovereignty, independence and democracy. We may have invented our own post-hoc justifications for fighting World War Two as Peter Hichens describes in his recent book, but all the same, these are notions at the core of eurosceptic philosophy. There are worse things to fetishise and the Eu is a direct threat to them through the weight of it bureaucratic incursions. 

But in terms of being hung up on the past, it is the Europhiles labouring under a superstition that without their political vanity project they would once again be at each others' throats. Unlike Britain, I suppose, they have good reason to think that. If anyone can't move past World War Two it is the europhiles clinging on to their blue flags and purple passports.

Britain, though, has recognised that we are heading into into a new age. We are almost twenty years into a new century of hyperglobalisaton where the tides of influence and power are shifting. We no longer feel that "pooled sovereignty" (ie the transfer of political authority) is in the national interest. It is necessary to have control over our domestic laws and there was never a particularly good rationale for giving it up. 

Concluding his piece, O'Toole says "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".

It's actually interesting that between Peter Shore, Michael Foot and Tony Benn, the central euroscepetic philosophy has not changed in all this time. The economic justifications for exit waxed and waned over the years between protectionism and economic liberalism, but the core idea that we should be able to initiate, repeal and reform our own laws is an idea that refuses to die along with the idea that the EU is no respecter of democratic will. 

Having made the choice to once again become a sovereign independent nation, the EU has issued an ultimatum. We can have trade but we cannot have democracy or sovereignty over our own affairs. And yes, our defeatist political class would have us resign to it. It really is as though we must accept terms and conditions, penalties and limitations almost as though we had suffered defeat in a war. All because we have the nerve to think we can and should be an independent country.

Being that, as we speak, the Prime Minster is taking to the airwaves to drum up support for yet another sell out to Europe, that "masochistic" rhetoric has returned in full force. We expect and demand that the 2016 verdict be implemented. Here we discover that the invader is not imaginary. The invader is the very European idea that democracy cannot be trusted and must be second guessed. In respect of that we are indeed an occupied territory. One would have thought that an Irishman would know that feeling better than anyone. 

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