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Brexit: An Unnatural Disaster

di - 14 Febbraio 2018
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Alongside the unconvincing arguments for uniqueness can be found a strong element of nostalgia for a past when Britain was one of the world’s great powers, if not the first superpower. The current obsession in Britain with remembering the Second World War as a conflict when Britain stood alone to rescue Europe from tyranny plays to the Brexit sentimentality about the past. The recent success last year of the film Dunkirk and this year Darkest Hour (on Churchill’s takeover of the premiership) may not have been deliberately linked to Brexit, but both films play on the theme of Britain alone against a Europe dominated by German authoritarianism, an echo of the current hostility to Germany’s role in the EU, a prejudice completely without foundation except that Germany is the villain in British popular memory of the world wars. There is a similar sentimentality about memory of the British Empire after decades of left-liberal criticism of British imperialism. The Indian raj has now become a benign and paternalistic system; the idea that empire was always a cause of progress for the colonized peoples, in contrast to the empires of other states, has a widening circle of support.
The renewed interest in an uncritical view of Britain’s imperial past fits well with a new intellectual fashion to talk of the ‘Anglosphere’ as an alternative to Britain’s flawed relationship with the rest of Europe. The term is intended to embrace Britain, the United States and the former Empire areas of white settlement – Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Those who argue for the Anglosphere as a feasible project point to the long history of connection, economic, cultural and strategic, between the different English-speaking communities. This historical background is supposed to provide a foundation for forging a new sense of Anglo-Saxon identity, common economic and cultural interests, even shared security. Like much of the post-Brexit speculation, the Anglosphere is a fantasy. Britain and other English-speaking states have moved too far apart. The idea that the United States would willingly embrace an idea that is deeply resonant of Britain’s imperial past flies in the face of reality. The uncertainty in the argument about whether or not India should be included in the ‘Anglosphere’ is insulting to a modern India that has forged its own post-imperial identity and would have little desire to reconstruct an Anglo-centred sphere. There is no longer any common ground for economic co-operation, which was always based in the past on an unequal relationship between Britain and its imperial outposts. The United States, with traditional interests in South and Central America and a face currently turned towards Asia and the Pacific, has little or nothing to gain from an ‘Anglosphere’ whether informal or formal. It is a jargon-word, intended to mollify the uncertainties that exist about what Britain’s identity in the wider world will be after 2019.
That identity is also threatened by the internal consequences of Brexit. The United Kingdom may not remain united for long. Scotland enjoys a good deal of autonomy already, but a large majority of its population wishes to remain in the EU. Independence now would not guarantee immediate access to the EU, but Scotland would be a perfectly viable economy and membership ought to follow separation from England. The problem of Northern Ireland, whose Protestant MPs are shoring up Theresa May’s government, is a profound one. After years of growing peace and a more open border between Ireland and the North, it seems likely that a firm border will again be established. Irish nationalists may want to revive the campaign to integrate the whole island, and there may well be a strong argument, even among Protestant voters, that belonging to Europe would give them greater benefits than belonging to a United Kingdom facing economic crisis and the possibility of a strident English nationalism. It is indeed striking how often discussion surrounding the future uses the word England. Britain is a reasonably successful federal state but Brexit has, and will, expose how fragile that state might be once nation replaces membership of the EU as the defining category.
It is well-known that the new nationalist wave in Europe is not confined to Britain. But the Brexit decision will have done much to strengthen political forces in favour of a narrowly defined sense of nation. The consequence will be to take Europe back to the twentieth-century obsession with national identity and all the political and international tensions and conflicts to which it gave rise. Brexit is an entirely retrograde step, a statement that decades of closer economic, social and political collaboration have achieved little if they can be overturned by a simple yes/no vote by an electorate woefully ignorant of the issues. The philosophical foundations of the European Union are seldom articulated, certainly not in the debate in Britain. Yet there are powerful arguments in favour of collaboration over competition, open borders over a tightly controlled frontier, cultural and social tolerance over the politics of exclusion and cultural difference. The philosophical argument in favour of Europe requires a proper sense of Europe’s recent history and a mature understanding of where Europe’s future lies. Sadly, perhaps most of these who voted Brexit had little of either.

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