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"Second star to the right and straight on till morning": leaving Europe for the imperial Never-Never Land

The Brexiteers believe in a myth of British exceptionalism. It's time they stopped telling themselves fairy tales.

Håkan Dahlström, some rights reserved

Self-evidently, Cameron’s settlement with the rest of the EU is deeply flawed. It has damaged the Union, loosened Britain’s already fraying links with it and strengthened the neo-liberal hegemony in the prosperous north of the continent. It does nothing to lessen the appeal of anti-European populists of the radical right. It has benefited our overblown and sometimes criminal financial sector, but it does nothing for the people of the United Kingdom. No one with progressive instincts could possibly campaign for it.

Yet a progressive vision of the EU and its future is desperately needed. So-called ‘big beasts’ have been flocking into the Brexit camp – Lord Michael Howard; Lord Nigel Lawson; Lord David Owen; Ian Duncan Smith; Boris Johnson; Michael Gove; and, in his own special way, Nigel Farage. But the big beasts have little brains. They offer a Houdini-like escape from the constraints of the real world. With one bound, they tell us, Britain can be free: free from pesky European judges, free from tiresome EU regulations, free from EU migrants, free from EU-made trade deals and, above all, free from the negotiation, consultation and compromise which are fundamental to the political process of the extraordinary confederation which is the European Union. 

They have either forgotten that the European project has given the continent the longest period of peace it has enjoyed since the fall of the Roman Empire or don’t believe that this epochal achievement matters. The fact that, albeit with occasional shortcomings, democracy and the rule of law now prevail from the Blasket Isles to the Byelorussian border and from the Arctic Circle to Cyprus means nothing to them. They inveigh against the allegedly sclerotic economic model of the Eurozone, but fail to acknowledge that Germany’s is the third largest economy in the world, and easily the most productive and competitive economy in Europe, characterised by a highly trained labour force producing high value-added goods. They make much of the so-called democratic deficit in EU governance, but they are indifferent to the manifest democratic deficit in the governance of the United Kingdom, whose union state systematically privileged England at the expense of the Celtic nations, goading the Catholic majority of Ireland into secession and (more recently) the Scots into voting overwhelmingly for a party whose ultimate objective is an independent Scotland. Outside the EU, they insist, we shall once again be able to paddle our own canoe. The fact that the canoe is patently leaky, and the sea crowded with ocean liners is neither here or there.

Behind all this lies a Myth: a myth of British exceptionalism; of Britain as a uniquely freedom-loving country, besting continental tyrants from Philip II of Spain, by way of Louis XIV and Napoleon, to Adolf Hitler; of Britain as a maritime and global power, carrying the blessings of free trade and laissez-faire to all four continents; and of Britain as the mother of nations from Canada to New Zealand. It is a venerable Myth. It goes back to Shakespeare’s hymn to England as a ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’, to the chauvinistic bombast of ‘Rule Britannia’, to Rudyard Kipling’ condescending pity for ‘lesser breeds without the law’, to Henry Newbolt’s ‘Drake’s Drum’ and to the ‘thin red line’ that stood between the advancing Russians and Balaklava during the Crimean War. As myths go, it is comparatively benign. It is certainly less obnoxious than the myth of Poland as the Christ among nations or the myth of Moscow as the third Rome. But its consequences have been as pernicious.

The old saying that the British won their empire ‘in a fit of absence of mind’ could hardly be further from the truth. It was won by a mixture of force and fraud. It was spawned, in large part, by the slave trade. In the eighteenth century, the people of Bengal were subjected to a regime of extortion and cruelty; later the great Indian Rebellion, once known as the Indian mutiny, was crushed with outrageous brutality. Hong Kong was acquired in a so-called Opium War when the British forcibly resisted attempts by the Chinese authorities to save their people from addiction to a dangerous drug. The indigenous people of Australia suffered an appalling genocide at the hands of British settlers. After World War Two, British troops waged a long series of (fortunately unsuccessful) campaigns designed to stamp out independence movements in colonies and quasi-colonies ranging from Cyprus to Kenya to Malaya to Egypt.

Much more damaging than any of this today is the strange survival of the mentality of empire in a post-imperial era. Nearly 70 years ago, the American statesman, Dean Acheson, mischievously pointed out that Britain had lost an empire but failed to find a role. He would have been closer to the truth if he had said that, after the loss of empire, the British political class retreated, Peter Pan like, into an imperial never-never land and refused to grow up. The results are omnipresent: the allegedly special relationship with the United States which the Americans themselves have never acknowledged; the Iraq war, which served no conceivable British interest; the archaic rituals of the Court and the preposterous gradations of the biennial honours lists, which symbolise a culture of subject-hood rather than of citizenship; the survival of a grotesquely swollen and unelected House of Lords; and the refusal of both the main political parties to accept that Trident is both enormously costly and irrelevant to the real threats which the British people now face, to mention only a few.

All of these ills would be aggravated by Brexit. Britain outside the EU would be a meaner, nastier, more inward-looking place. Indeed, the overwhelming probability is that ‘Britain’ would no longer exist. If Brexit were carried by English votes against the will of the Scottish people, Scotland would almost certainly leave the United Kingdom and the Treaty of Union which merged the two kingdoms of Scotland and England into Great Britain would be torn up. In the slightly longer term, Wales would probably follow suit: no self-respecting Welsh person would want to be shackled in perpetuity to a mingy, whining, Tory England. Brexit, in short, means break-up. David Cameron’s warning that it would be a ‘leap in the dark’ is an under-statement. It would be a leap from an imaginary frying pan into an all-too real fire.

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About the author

David Marquand is former principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. Among his many books are The Unprincipled Society (1988) and The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe, (2011) Princeton University Press.

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