Time to Call it a Day: Sometimes it is right for a country to recognise that its job is done

We revisit an article from 2007 meditating on the export of the possible break up of Belgium back across the channel to the country responsible for Belgium's creation in the first place
Tom Nairn
20 June 2010

The electoral success of the New Flemish Alliance has significantly increased the possibility of Belgium dividing into its two parts of Flanders and French speaking Wallonia, as described in a brilliant overview by Simon Jenkins, who expands the argument to democracy across Europe, noting: "Belgium's elite has looked to supranational bodies such as Nato and the EU for its status, even as statehood disintegrates beneath its feet". Remind you of anything? In 2007 the Economist wrote an editorial suggesting it was time for Belgium to "call it a day" and said that the country's "job is done". Tom Nairn wrote a neat spoof for OurKingdom which we republish. (There are also rumours of fine reflection on the Belgium example by Allan Massie behind the Scotsman's paywall.) Anthony Barnett

Tom Nairn (Livingston and Melbourne, RMIT University): I was reading, as I am sure you have too, this past week’s Economist editorial on Belgium and entered a strange trance. The magazine fell onto my lap and its pages starting turning ever faster, rushing through their future issues. I saw that despite vast lines of credit a growing economic recession had gripped the United States and the UK, the Queen had died and Camilla’s role in the coronation provoked a small riot; Brown had called an election and parliament was now completely hung; then the pages stopped as I found myself reading its editorial of Friday 5 September 2008: strangely, almost word for word it was the same as this year's, only ‘Belgium’ had become ‘Britain’...


Sometimes it is right for a country to recognise that its job is done

Sep 5th 2008, From The Economist print edition

Three months after its last general election, Britain remains without a democratically elected government. It may soon acquire one. But, if so, will anyone notice? And, if not, will anyone mind? Even the British appear indifferent. And what they think of the government they may well think of the country. If ‘Britain’ did not already exist, would anyone nowadays take the trouble to invent it?

Such questions could be asked of many countries. Britain's problem, if such it is, is that they are being asked by the inhabitants themselves. True, in opinion polls most Britons say they want to keep the show on the road. But when they vote, as they did on June 10, they do so increasingly along ethno-national lines, the Scots for their National Party, the Welsh for Plaid Cymru, and even the Northern Irish for a new cross-party coalition, the English for a now self-identified English Tory Party. The groups get on less well — hence problems in forming a government. They lead increasingly parallel lives, largely in ignorance of each other. They do, however, think they know themselves: when an English television programme was recently interrupted with a spoof news flash announcing that the Scottish parliament had declared independence, King Charles and Queen Camilla had fled to Canada and Great Britain had dissolved, it was widely believed.

No wonder. The prime minister designate thinks in terms of a country most British subjects fail to recognize: not just Mother of Parliaments but a Great Power revered world-wide for everything free and just, emancipator of (its own) slaves, renouncer of (its own) Empire, wily Greeks to the American Rome. A recent predecessor even saw it as a liberator of Iraq. The King who insisted on being crowned “defender of all faiths” has called Britain an “accident of history”. In truth, it isn’t. It served more than one purpose being created in disjointed stages from 1485 (Wales), via 1707 (Scotland) and 1801 (Ireland), to the 20th century Partition of Ireland, promoting stability as the basis for its overseas mercantile (then financial) imperium.

The upshot was neither an unmitigated success nor an unmitigated failure. Britain's industrialization was early and rapid, it grabbed a large part of the world, and ruled it in all sorts of ways ‘for its own good’ and its own immense benefit. Competitive threats from France and Germany fostered a common consciousness and patriotism, while thanks to its language-based alliance with the US it cleverly secured the central role in European financial services. Along the way it produced Charles Dickens, Francis Bacon, Agatha Christie, football and cricket; also fish-and-chips. No doubt more good things can come out of the swathe of territory once occupied by rebarbative tribes known to the Romans as Britons, Picts, Hibernians and Druids. For that, though, they do not need a down-at-heel, has-been ‘Britain’. They can emerge just as readily from two or three new mini and small states within the European Union.

Londinium/London could then devote itself to becoming the financial capital of Europe. It would no longer enjoy the heady atmosphere of self-intoxication and pretence that used to swirl around the Westminster Palaces with its operatic Lords and ermine. The air to-day is more fetid. With freedom now taken for granted, the old animosities are ill suppressed. Rancour is ever-present and the country has become a freak of nature, a state in which power is so devolved that government is an abhorred vacuum. In short, ‘Britain’ has served its purpose. A salt-and-vinegar divorce is in order.

Ex-Britons need not feel too sad. Countries come and go. And perhaps a way can be found to keep the king, if he is still wanted. Since he has never had a country – he has always just wanted to be king for everyone – he will not miss Britain. Maybe he can rule a new-old country, perhaps called Dianaland. King of Fishn’chipland doesn't sound quite right, does it?

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