Wednesday, 20 July 2016
Grieving for a lost empire
There has been a huge amount of analysis about the reasons why British people voted to leave the EU. Some of it is very good: some of it less so, saying more about the biases of the writers than it does about the motivations of the British (no, I won't link any of those posts here!). I confess, I have added to the literature myself. I leave it to you to judge into which of these categories my contributions fall.
But in all the vast verbiage written on this topic, there appears to be a no-go area - a taboo, if you like. And it is not immigration, nor even racism and xenophobia. Nor is it the loss of Britain's manufacturing and the seizure of its fisheries. Nor the divide between London and other areas, the old-young split, the fact that people with degrees tended to vote to Remain. Plenty has been written on all of these. No, the taboo subject is the legacy of World War II and the loss of the British Empire.
I grew up in the shadow of war. My parents were children during World War II. My mother was evacuated, which from the little she has told me was an unbelievably traumatic experience, even though (unlike many evacuees) she was sent to stay with relatives. And my father lived through the Blitz. The war scarred both of them for life, and their experiences as children in turn coloured my own childhood. Even though the war was long over, we dug for victory, growing large amounts of our own food. My parents told us stories about the war: I remember my father describing the sky lit up with fire the night the London docks were bombed, and my mother (who returned to London towards the end of the war) talking about collecting shrapnel. And my grandparents told us stories not just about the second World War, but the first one too. They had lived through both.
In my childhood, popular reading material of the time - even for children - was unashamedly triumphalist. Boys' comics, in particular, were full of stories about heroic British (sometimes Americans too) defeating the "Jerries". Films at that time were also dominated by war stories. But we also lived with the threat of a new war. So we had Soviet spy stories too. This was the age of James Bond, uncomfortably juxtaposed with the Dam Busters and "Where Eagles Dare". War was a constant risk. But we knew we could win. After all, we had won two world wars.
But - had we, really? The cracks in the British Empire were already showing by the time the First World War ended, with the secession of Ireland in 1921 and the creation of the Commonwealth in 1931. And much more of it peeled away after the second World War. India, the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, became independent in 1947. The Suez crisis of 1956 exposed Britain's political and economic weakness: rapid decolonisation of the Middle East and Africa followed, as Britain, struggling with high debts, rising inflation and a stagnant economy at home, was forced to relinquish the colonies it could no longer support. The British Empire effectively ended in 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China.
So although Britain won the wars (with a lot of help from its friends), it lost its status as the premier global power. For those who grew up in the post-World War II era of British triumphalism, this was bad enough. But worse was to come.
Britain was not a founder member of the European project. Indeed, its application to join the nascent European Community was twice vetoed by French President De Gaulle. And even when it finally joined in 1972, its membership was half-hearted: a referendum in 1975 confirmed that it would stay, but subsequent governments repeatedly fought against the terms of membership. Something in the British psyche just didn't like being drawn into a European project in which it was not the leader.
The further the European project moved towards integration, the more uncomfortable the British became. The creation of the Euro in 1999 - which Britain refused to join - created a "core" of which it was not part. Gordon Brown's decision not to join the Euro probably protected Britain from a major collapse in the 2008 financial crisis, but it meant Britain could not be at the heart of the EU. And David Cameron's famous "walkout", in which he refused to sign the fiscal compact that would draw the Eurozone countries into an austere embrace, left Britain sidelined. Britain had not only lost an empire, it was becoming a peripheral state in what was looking more and more like a new empire. And the Greek crisis showed all too clearly that the new empire was increasingly dominated by an old enemy.
I have been at a loss to explain the almost visceral hatred of the EU that I have experienced from people I have spoken to and from pieces I have read, particularly in tabloid newspapers. But I think I now understand.
Yesterday, my next door neighbour told me why she (and her family) voted to leave. "It was my mother," she said. "She reminded me that we fought two wars in order not to be run by the Germans. Now they are telling us what to do." And she continued: "That, for me, was the clincher."
My next door neighbour is a similar age to me - in her 50s. She has lived in this area all her life and is solidly working class (she and her husband run their own car respraying business). Like me, she grew up in the era of post-war British triumphalism. And for her, Britain becoming a vassal state in a new European empire run by Germany was a bridge too far.
I don't agree with her view. I don't see Germany in that way: I know how much soul-searching the German people have gone through since the end of World War II. I do believe that Germany does not wish to become an imperial power again. But in defiance of the post-war consensus - that Germany should never again be allowed to build an empire - the world is egging on Germany to take control.
For this, we must blame those who designed the European Union. The idea that European nations can simply put behind them their bloodstained past and cooperate with each other to create a greater whole was a lovely dream. And for a while, it appeared to work. But when the crises came, the nations fragmented, exposing the leadership vacuum inherent in the EU's design. Inevitably, the world looked to the strongest nation in the bloc to show leadership. And that nation was not the semi-detached Britain. It was the largest nation at the heart of the EU. Germany.
Whether or not Germany wishes to be an imperial power is beside the point. In the eyes of many older British people, today's EU is the German empire that they thought they had destroyed, rising like the Phoenix from the ashes of the financial crisis. No wonder they voted to leave. They did not wish to be part of such a monstrosity. And they further hoped that by leaving, they would destroy it. It has been very clear that a fair few Brexit supporters believe that the EU will not survive Britain's departure - and gleefully anticipate its unravelling.
I fully accept that this is by no means the only reason why people voted to leave the EU. But in my view it is a significant one. And I believe it goes some way towards explaining why it is older people, particularly, who voted to leave.
I know that what I have said here will raise hackles. I expect to get shouted down, to be told that I have written jingoistic nonsense and no-one in Britain really thinks like this. But I have one parting shot in defence of my case.
A few months ago, in the early days of the referendum campaign, I was invited to attend a book launch in London. I turned up not really knowing what to expect: the book itself sounded interesting and not obviously pro- or anti-EU. But as speaker after speaker presented an anti-EU case, I realised that I had walked into a Brexit meeting. As a committed Remainer ever since the Rochester & Strood by-election in 2014, in which I refused to vote for UKIP, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. But what made me uncomfortable was not the fact that they were as committed to Leave as I was to Remain. No, it was who they were - and the reasons they gave to justify Brexit.
The room was full of white men. Most were quite a bit older than me. They had all had senior careers, many of them in merchant banking, stockbroking and the law: some had been officers in the armed forces. They were not the "white working class" that we are told voted Leave to administer a massive kick to the elite that had failed them. No, they WERE the elite - in their day. But their day was gone. And they thought that leaving the EU would restore it.
One after another, they talked about restoring British "sovereignty" - which was a thinly disguised metaphor for "empire". They talked about Britain becoming a new global power at the head of a renascent Commonwealth. They discussed Britain becoming China's principal trading partner, ahead of the US and the hated EU. They seemed to believe that Britain could simply walk into any corner of the world and set up trading relationships on its own terms. It did not apparently occur to them that the Commonwealth might not be too keen on Britain trying to lead them once again, China might have other ambitions, and other countries might not wish to accept Britain's terms. For them, once Britain was out of the EU, the glory days would return.
I felt incredibly sad for them. And I still do. For leaving the EU will not bring back Britain's lost empire. It will not enable it to establish itself as the leader of the Commonwealth. It is unlikely to encourage China to treat it as the trading gateway to the world. It will not restore Britain's influence in the world. It might even reduce it.
For sure, even after leaving the EU, Britain will have an important role: it is still one of the world's largest economies, and it has powerful advantages in location, law, language and culture. But the glory days are gone forever. Far from bringing them back, the vote to leave the EU has ensured that they will never return.
Looking behind the Brexit anger - Flipchart Fairy Tales
Currency Wars and the Fall of Empires - Pieria
Gazing into the distance
Image from britishempire.co.uk