Our Undigested History: Britain and the EU

Europe map without UK

Many foreign observers are mystified as to why we British seem to want to leave the EU. Friends of mine from various countries just can’t understand our dislike of the EU or our seeming need to be apart from the continental mainland. And if you’re from another part of the world, just looking at the map tells you that Britain is in Europe: a collection of islands slightly offshore from the continental landmass of whose continent it is part. Now I know geography isn’t everything, the EU isn’t Europe, and that there are European countries like Switzerland which are not part of the EU. But the bigger point is, why do we make such a fuss over something which to most of the world looks like an obviously good thing? Lord Ashcroft’s recent opinion polls asking Europeans what they think about Britain, showed, perhaps not surprisingly, that the majority in all the other EU countries want the UK to remain in it. Interestingly, they didn’t say that solely for the sake of economics. Europeans actually seem to like us – the UK receiving almost the highest favourability ratings in the poll of any European country. So are we just that awkward bloody minded country – ‘perfidious Albion’? It is hard to understand why many Britons feel as we do.

It’s become clear to me that a considerable part of the passionate debate arguing for us to leave the EU is not what it seems on the surface. Much of the discussion isn’t even rational. Reasons given about us doing better financially out of the EU, often are merely rationales. An important part of the real motivating reason is deeper, more visceral and not articulated.

I’m convinced that there is a considerable element which stems from our not being sure of who we are; and hence being overly defensive and threatened by the EU conglomeration. We haven’t digested our history. We’re still in the state that US Secretary of State Dean Acheson tried to point out to us way back in 1962. ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role’ were Acheson’s words; and we didn’t like them then, but never really considered that as an Anglophile himself, he was only trying to be helpful. The concern that we might lose our sovereignty – or whatever part of it which is felt to be still surviving – is more authentic to what is deeply felt by many. But why would we fear that so much? Why don’t all the other 27  European member countries similarly feel that they will be sucked into and subsumed into the unaccountable Euro monster in Brussels? It may well be an authentically held fear, but why do we Britons hold onto it so strongly? Is it an echo of Mrs Thatcher’s famous remark and sentiment, ‘In my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe’?

We are not sure of who we are as a nation. It sounds trite but we still haven’t gotten over The Empire. Way back when we were confident of who we were as British, our purpose seemed like manifest destiny to us, then we were an Empire – The British Empire. When that dissolved, it left us as what? Actually, as still the 5th biggest economy in the world and remaining a considerable power in the world. But that is not our national self image at all. In the recesses of our national psyche, we still feel on the decline; we haven’t really become a country, because we used to be an empire. And with that stripped away, what was left? A tired place with no clear sense of British identity; still sparklingly and sarcastically witty, with perhaps some sense of groovy decay; our intelligentsia having long spun a brilliantly self deprecating refrain about our decline and international irrelevance.

Most of us don’t feel all this uncertainty about our national self sense very consciously. But when the referendum brings the issue of Britain and Europe to the fore, it stirs something deep in the more traditionally minded of us. The traditional and right wing of the Conservatives are often passionately against remaining in the EU. These are often people who do care about Britain and our heritage in their own way. But generally, being in support of Britain is equated as synonymous with being independent of the EU and of Europe. To my mind, I sense something odd when I hear people arguing about our negotiating new trade deals and becoming like Norway or Canada. I think that such issues are not the main point. It’s not really about these issues at all on a deeper level, but more a visceral sense that our precariously surviving nationality is under threat and must be protected. Raise the drawbridge and let’s trade independently with the rest of the world instead.

Then on the left, there’s a peculiar state of affairs characterised by the general lack of passion about the debate over the EU. Labour and the left seem surprisingly wishy-washy about Britain staying in the EU, although on paper, the vast majority are in favour. Where’s the passionate internationalism you might  expect from the socialist movement? Yet, post-Empire, the Left is uncomfortable about asserting positive national identity of any kind, apart from a few stalwarts of blue Labour like Jon Cruddas and John Denham, and of course, Billy Bragg and Eddie Izzard. I just heard Eddie Izzard being interviewed on the radio about his completing 27 marathons in 27 days for Sport Relief. He also mentioned that now he will be joining the referendum fray and Eddie said he backs staying in the EU for the benefit of humanity. This is a rare view about a vision for the european project these days, and especially so, on the left. The left is leery about supporting anything with even the possibility of a whiff of pride in Britain; it so easily might smack of Britain’s past colonialism and oppression.

We still haven’t gotten over The Empire nor integrated that whole period into a healthy national psyche. So no wonder we go bananas over a question like the EU referendum. Left and right, and in between and neither – one’s politics aren’t the main thing; the responses may be different but it strikes me that there is an irrationalism and plain peculiarity in our debate which doesn’t acknowledge our undigested history as a country. We need to embrace our whole national history, good, bad and indifferent – including all the iniquities of colonialism – to come to a more healthy and integrated national psyche. One where we can feel reasonably self assured as Britons and we don’t feel threatened by Europe or the EU. Really, it’s ok; our sovereignty is not disappearing.

Let me finish with Jeremy Paxman’s conclusion in his Empire about the effect that our disconnection from the past has on our British psyches.

‘Instead of trying to grapple with the implications of the story of empire, the British seem to have decided just to ignore it. It is perhaps possible that this collective amnesia has nothing whatever to do with the country’s lamentable failure to find a comfortable role for itself in the world. But it is unlikely. The most corrosive part of this amnesia is a sense that because the nation is not what it was, it can never be anything again. If only the British would bring a measure of clarity to what was done in their country’s name, they might find it easier to play a more useful and effective role in the world.’




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