This morning’s #SluggerReport featured this great essay from Ferdinand Mount in the London Review of Books (h/t Ciaran!). Here’s some of the highlights in the argument…
Splendid isolation’. ‘Very well, alone’. ‘Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off’. That is the name of the game, the only game that appeases the dreams and resentments of the Brexiters. It isn’t about economics. Decca Aitkenhead traipsed all the way to Nigel Lawson’s gentilhommière in Gascony to seek enlightenment on the economics.
But all she could get out of the long-serving chancellor, by far the most experienced voice in the Leave camp, was that ‘the important issue is democracy and self-government. It is about that principle. Self-government is more important than anything else.’ Lawson or Farage, it comes to the same thing: Nigels against the world.
But the voice is the voice of Enoch. Mr Powell, as he liked to style himself in his later prophetic period, never ceased to argue that joining the EU had been a great betrayal, but that it was a betrayal which could and would, sooner or later, be reversed. In 1994, not long before he died, he declared that ‘Britain is waking from the nightmare of being part of the Continental bloc to rediscover that these offshore islands belong to the outside world and lie open to its oceans.’
Powell had not only a passionate attachment to his own nation-state but a chilly indifference to everyone else’s. He thought the Cold War was a delusion (the only foreign country he had a soft spot for was Russia). He didn’t care a jot if Saddam Hussein swallowed up the whole of the Middle East so long as he didn’t invade Sussex.
He was quite unmoved by the break-up of Yugoslavia and the bloodshed that followed. Like Auden, he regarded the United States as ‘tiefste Provinz’, and derided both its culture and its geopolitical pretensions. He insisted that the Republic of Ireland be treated in all respects as a foreign country. Aliens began at Dundalk as well as Calais.
He was indifferent to whatever the Continentals got up to, so long as they didn’t impinge on the freedom of the UK to follow its destiny. Other countries, other minds have no meaningful existence. Weapons-grade solipsism.
But, he notes…
…there is a rough distinction worth making between those Outers, on the one hand, who are merely fed up with the daily frictions of life in the EU (often confused with the frictions of modern life generally and with excessively fussy regulations imposed by our own Parliament rather than by Brussels) and would like to see a looser arrangement with our neighbours, and, on the other hand, those who are gripped by a full-throated longing for untrammelled national independence.
There is a difference between those who want to make a dramatic protest and those who have a settled longing to live utterly apart, to be eternally outside – exotikos, as the Greek so nicely puts it.
Brexotics remain deaf to the rather more subtle thesis advanced by that great contrarian Alan Milward in The European Rescue of the Nation-State (1992): that the underlying purpose of the drive for European union was to retrieve the nation-state from its ignominy and demoralisation after two catastrophic world wars, and to anchor it in a network of institutions that would secure peace and prevent beggar-my-neighbour policies of protection and blockade.
Yes, Monnet and Schuman used devious means to chivvy the process along, but the end purpose was a worthy one: in return for a modest and ultimately retrievable (how else could we be holding this referendum?) sacrifice of day-to-day sovereignty and a piffling contribution from national revenues (the UK’s net contribution to the EU is well under one per cent of government spending), the nation-state would be able to hold up its head and bask in the sun again.
We shouldn’t tamely accept that Britain’s case is different because it never succumbed to fascism or extreme nationalism. We indulged in competitive imperialism and were often standoffish and inert in overseas relations. Britain too joined arms races, and sometimes initiated them.
You have only to compare the energy and farsightedness of Wellington, Aberdeen and Palmerston in maintaining the Concert of Europe for forty years after Waterloo with the flabby and self-centred diplomacy of Britain in the Edwardian period to see how far the sense of international responsibility had shrunk.
Enter Edmund Burke…
I am less concerned, though, to defend the ramshackle and blatantly imperfect institutions of the EU than to warn of the dangers inherent in nation-worship – something the Brexotics never confront. Many of those who will be voting to leave, such as Norman Lamont, take General de Gaulle as their model, but it was that cynical-romantic statesman who liked to quote Nietzsche’s scorching maxim that ‘the state is the coldest of all cold monsters’ (fromAlso Sprach Zarathustra – it’s even more chilling in the German: ‘Staat heisst das kälteste aller kalten Ungeheuer’). Even de Gaulle held back from quoting Nietzsche’s next sentence: ‘The state also lies in a cold fashion, and the lie that crawls out of its mouth is “I, the state, am the people.”’
It is a heresy to identify state-worship with ‘traditional conservatism’, or to imply, as the Brexiters often do, that they are the only true patriots. Patriotism is certainly a conservative virtue, but it is not the only virtue, and it is not enough.
Burke insists that the love for the ‘little platoon’ we belong to in society ‘is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind’. He also insists that ‘it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society.’
He finishes with a consider of economic and political risk factors, which he concludes:
The purpose of sketching out these half-dozen areas of risk is not to claim to know how bad they would turn out to be, but simply to point out how little thought the Brexotics have given to them, or to the suspicions and fears they have roused, not just in their own country but across the whole continent.
There remains the last and to me the worst suspicion: that they would be quite happy to put their supposedly beloved country through a period of prolonged turmoil and stagnation simply for the exhilaration of being on their own at last. No one since Greta Garbo has said ‘I want to be alone’ with such feeling.
Or perhaps it’s not so much Garbo as the chant sung by the fans of Millwall FC that I should be thinking of: ‘No one likes us, we don’t care.’ At the time of writing, Millwall are lying fourth in Football League One. For the uninitiated, this is really the Third Division.
It’s probably the firmest political grip I’ve read on the Referendum to debate thus far. Do take the time to read the whole thing.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty