A year after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Vernon Bogdanor, who is hardly a mouth-frothing leaver, declared:
It seems to me therefore questionable whether there is any such animal as a so-called ‘soft Brexit’. This form of Brexit seems to me to mimic EU membership, to give Britain many of the advantages of membership without the ability to influence EU legislation. They would in practice turn Britain into a satellite or colony of the European Union. Theresa May has been criticised for saying that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, but that is not a mere meaningless mantra. She has said that we are not staying in the internal market or customs union. Perhaps she has merely drawn out the logic of Brexit. Perhaps the only real alternatives are the so-called ‘hard Brexit’ and remaining in the European Union.
‘Colony’ is a dangerous word to throw around, particularly in British politics, but it is hard to disagree with Bogdanor’s usage.
We may be about to embark on a rather dull-witted exercise in historical re-enactment. Over the course of three centuries, Britain established colonies of settlement in North America and Australasia. The settler populations were ethnically (and often culturally) indistinguishable from the population of the British Isles, and held British citizenship. They were largely autonomous in their local affairs, often relatively prosperous, and, in their daily lives, not particularly oppressed in the grand scheme of historical experience. However, they were subject to foreign policies and commercial regulations drawn up in Westminster, a body in which they enjoyed no formal representation. There were colonial lobbyists in London, but no colonial MPs.
This system proved unsustainable for two reasons. Firstly, Britain itself became increasingly democratic. In the oligarchic age, it was conceivable that the class of landed aristocrats and gentlemanly capitalists who governed the British Isles could govern other places too without any great inequity. But once Parliament was a representative assembly, then the British people were effectively making laws for the colonists. Any spectre of political equality between settlers and homelanders thus evaporated; the system became indefensible to the liberal mind. Secondly, the colonies themselves grew into mature societies with complex interests of their own. Their dependence on British protection diminished, and their economic interests diverged. It was no longer either ethical or rational to be governed by foreign and commercial policies made by others.
This logic underlay the amicable divorce of Britain from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand during the last century. And it is the lesson of this aspect of decolonisation which the more faint-hearted Remainers – those who are not seeking to remain in the EU entirely – have thrown to the wind, as they grasp at the vestigial tail of the EU’s political system. In the unravelling of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, we are being pointed towards a relationship with the European Union that mimics the relationship between Britain and Canada a hundred and fifty years ago, at a time when the latter was a strip of sparsely populated farmland skirting the 49th parallel. Shrewd policymakers in Britain and Canada recognised that such a state of affairs was unsustainable in the 1860s. It is unlikely to work among modern economies in the twenty-first century.
The comparison itself invites little quibbling: it simply considers a situation where a country obeys laws that it has no hand in making, which is the basic definition of colonial status. And it is an important comparison, because it cuts to the most important part of the matter – which, naturally, attracts the least attention. It is not about why Brexit happened or whether it should have happened, but about how it is to be achieved. Given the cross-party consensus about respecting the result of the referendum, this ought to be the main matter at hand. After all, the first business of government is government, not argument – something to which the post-Brexit House of Commons will have to adjust.
But try making this argument, and a surprising response will often come your way. ‘But that’s what we did to lots of countries’, you will be told, sternly, as if this washes away the folly of joining EFTA. To any kind of liberal, this view is anathema. If colonisation is unethical – and it is very difficult to find an ethic in favour of it – then the identity of the colonised, or their past misdeeds, is utterly irrelevant. To give an extreme example – not unreasonably because we are faced with an extreme argument – few in the west said that the Communist regime in post-war East Germany was justified by the behaviour of the Third Reich.
How did this retrograde nonsense stumble back into vogue in the unlikely context of Brexit? It is tempting to find the reason in a resurgent notion of collective guilt. It is rarely suggested that the sins of the father ought to be visited on the son these days, let alone to the sixth generation. But the rhetoric of ‘white privilege’, ‘patriarchy’, and ‘affirmative action’, imported from the United States in the last couple of decades, furnishes a similar set of ideas. Alongside them is a lingering, Leninist fringe, which has long seen the affluence of western society as an historical aberration based on the oppression of (amongst other victims) the third world – despite the fact that the economic growth of Asia and Africa has dwarfed that of Europe and North America since the 1970s. This may be why many Remainer spokesmen seem to flinch whenever the mere concept of national identity is even raised. Through the prism of these ideologies, the history of Britain – and a great deal of its present – is retold as a story of imperial exploitation, racism, and slavery, and very little else.
The magnitude of this change in popular imagination is easy to overlook. Brendan Simms, who is by far the most compelling European federalist currently writing in English, argues that the European project has little valence in British culture because Britain survived the last century without succumbing to invasion or dictatorship. It is different on the Continent: a few weeks ago, I asked the leader of one of Spain’s largest parties what ‘Europeanness’ meant. His answer, immediate, was ‘democratisation’. The greater share of that honour ought to go to Juan Carlos and Adolfo Suárez, but his perspective is understandable: he was born under Franco; Europe came after dictatorship. This narrative of European democracy replacing nationalist dictatorship has no mirror in modern British history. Britain’s institutions weathered the storms of the twentieth century remarkably well. The spread of peace and democracy on the Continent may well command sympathy and support, but to a great many ordinary Britons, it looks like someone else’s business. And the reason why this project should entail the wholesale restructuring of British democracy seems, to say the least, obscure. Thus European integration was reduced to an economic question in British public discourse because ‘Europe’ was not a benign liberator from a dark and threatening history.
But many Remainers no longer seem to subscribe to this relatively positive narrative of British history. ‘To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the World when he was twenty’, Napoleon is supposed to have remarked. We must get away from over-simplifications like ‘the young voted Remain’. Nevertheless, Remainism was strongest amongst those who came of age in the first decade of this century, which was a fallow time for Britishness. As Gordon Brown – not exactly a reactionary voice – has observed, the patriotisms of the Blair ministry, from ‘Cool Britannia’ and ‘Young Britain’ were rootless and vapid compared to the old narratives of Whig liberty and the Beveridge Report. And then there was the Iraq War, which was not exactly a propaganda coup for British values. Tony Blair did battle with a bloody tyrant, and managed to come away from it looking like the bigger villain.
A pressure group called ‘Stop the War’ captured a great deal of public support. It did so, firstly, by importing a set of theories about ‘American imperialism’ (notably collated by the conspiracy theorist Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11). Secondly, it revived criticisms of British foreign policy which had most recently been articulated by fellow-travellers of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. These criticisms, hitherto confined to the most nihilistic fringe of the Labour party, an ocean away even from the policies of Michael Foot, finally gained an air of respectability. A decade later, one of the movement’s more obscure acolytes became leader of the Labour party. Other innovations were in the air too. In Scotland, nationalists began to claim – erroneously – that the Highland Clearances had been an English act of genocide.
Towards the end of last year, the theologian Nigel Biggar published a short pamphlet on ‘What the United Kingdom is Good For’ as part of the launch of an outfit called These Islands, which opposes Scottish independence. His argument focussed on the multi-national solidarity expressed through the welfare state, the development of liberal democracy and personal freedom, and support for a liberal and humane international order through charitable and, at times, hard power. The small firestorm this provoked on Twitter was instructive. Biggar’s account would scarcely have raised an eyebrow a few years ago, and it was generally similar to the vision of Britishness outlined by Labour’s most recent Prime Minister. But to many of his readers, it was a wholly unsanitary attempt to whitewash the evils of Britain’s past. The larger storm, which spilled into the national press, provoked by Biggar’s project on ‘ethics and empire’ in the New Year was still more instructive. For the criticisms were the same. Support for a liberal international order and imperial expansion are not easy to confuse. But his detractors were incapable of recognising the difference, seeing only another confirmation of the British pathology, of which they see Brexit as the ultimate manifestation.
A major theme of Remainism is a fatalistic belief in decline, but alongside that runs a deep suspicion of Britain as a nasty, backward, and particularly xenophobic country that needs to be pinned-down for the good of itself and others by benign European masters. This narrative was already taking shape during the referendum campaign, when many Remainers began to assert that Brexit would imperil the human rights of British citizens. It was almost wholly untrue: firstly, the European Convention has nothing to do with the EU; secondly, most of the protections exist independently in British law; and thirdly, the Convention is largely modelled on British precedent anyway. This was training for the spurious use of ‘hate crime’ statistics after the vote, not to mention the claim that Brexit had ‘emboldened’ bigots – bigots, of course, are quite capable of emboldening themselves.
The groundwork for this hysteria has been laid over at least two decades, during which many facets of British history and culture have been reimagined as crypto-fascist. Its fruit is a large number of people who see Brexit as a mortal threat to Britain’s wellbeing, not merely material but spiritual too. For they see that wellbeing – the liberty, democracy, toleration, and security that we used to attribute, far more persuasively, to British values and a couple of centuries of comparatively liberal government – as a benign imposition from Europe. Remainism’s lack of faith in Britain’s viability as an independent state travels far beyond patterns of trade. It is a species of that curious form of self-loathing, now widespread in the west, which the philosopher Roger Scruton calls ‘oikophobia’ – fear of oikos, the Greek word for home. And it is this sentiment, above all, which seems to have eroded the faith of so many Remainers, even in Parliament itself, in the very principle of self-government.
This is masochism, but as members of the House of Lords never tire of demonstrating, masochism is hardly an unusual fetish. Nationalism, George Orwell reminds us, is often a purely negative impulse, and just as often transferred – with all its obsessive and delusional habits of mind – to groups to which the nationalist does not immediately belong. We have seen its like many times. ‘Within the intelligentsia, a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory’, Orwell wrote in 1945: ‘in foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be wrong’.
For Orwell, the mark of the nationalist was the inability to entertain basic facts or possibilities that challenge his creed. Very few people are without some impulse of this kind, and it can certainly be found in Eurosceptic circles too. But my impression is that Leavers are generally more comfortable with the thought that ‘Brexit might be challenging’ than Remainers are with the notion that ‘Brexit might be workable’. Remainer spokesmen are also much more inclined to assign a ‘national character’ to their detractors. Unable to stomach the thought of disagreement, they seek to explain the Leave vote through psychological characteristics and social practices. The callipers will be out next.
If a European National Party was set up in Britain, Nick Clegg would be a leadership contender. As if the title were not proof enough, his recent book How to Stop Brexit and Make Britain Great Again is exactly such a nationalist tract. It notes some of the basic divergences between British and European politics – the lack of an invasion in the twentieth century chief among them. But it is incapable of recognising their significance. As the diatribe circles back, yet again, to the Olympian presumption that credulous voters where led astray by a gang of pied pipers, Britain’s comparative peace and stability is stealthily recast as an unfortunate accident of history, an inconvenient deviation from the European norm. His fidelity to the EU project blinds him to any real understanding of UK-EU relations: his book’s crowning achievement is complete obliviousness to the existence of European nationalism itself. In the absence of such understanding, his work can only be destructive.
As a political force, Remainism is no longer primarily concerned with keeping Britain in the European Union. In some ways, however, this has only made it a more dangerous creed. As Lord Ashcroft’s polling demonstrated, the most powerful motivation for Leave-voters of all party persuasions was national independence: ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’. For many of us, it was as much a thin-end-of-the-wedge argument as an aversion to current circumstances. European integration had proceeded with neither let nor hindrance nor much apparent thought about the consequences for forty years. Mildly put, the direction of travel was ominous.
Now, the Remainer rear-guard is proposing a UK-EU relationship that is more dependent, more colonised, than the state of affairs before 2016 – and they are dressing it up as a moderate form of Brexit. Leavers should not be taken in by the claim that this is some kind of reasonable compromise with their views. For some legislators, it is a way of forestalling Brexit long enough for it to become someone else’s problem. But for a great many acolytes of Remainism, it is the offshoot of a profoundly self-loathing European nationalism. Whatever uncertainties were created by Brexit – and there are many – this is the greatest threat to the long-term freedom and prosperity of the United Kingdom around today.
We come back to the point Gordon Brown made about Britishness during the referendum before last. If the UK is going to flourish, Britons and their representatives will have to rediscover their sense of self-worth: that collective story of liberty, security (social and bodily), and solidarity which made the country into the only genuine success story that the last century of European history has to offer. Perhaps Mr Brown’s current successor would like to take the lead?
1 Vernan Bogdanor, ‘Britain and the EU: In or Out – One Year On’, Speech at the Museum of London, 21 June 2017, 34 minutes in: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/britain-and-the-eu-in-or-out-one-year-on, also available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9edfG1utRg (accessed June 2018).
2 Obviously, this is not to ignore the existence of other forms of colonialism, the ideas of racial hierarchy that coloured some aspects of modern imperialism, or treatment of indigenous peoples in general, within and beyond the British experience; and is simply to confine the comparison to Britain’s relationship with its settler-colonies and their white European populations.
3 Leftist anti-semitism, incidentally, grows out of the same origins.
4 Brendan Simms, ‘The World After Brexit’, New Statesman, 1 March 2017.
5 Lord Ashcroft, ‘How the United Kingdom Voted on Thursday and Why’, 24 June 2016: https://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/ (accessed June 2018)
6 Gordon Brown, My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing, (second edition, London, 2015), 187-199.
7 Nigel Biggar, What the United Kingdom is Good For, (London, 2017): http://www.these-islands.co.uk/publications/i260/what_the_united_kingdom_is_good_for.aspx (accessed June 2018).
8 George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism,  (London, 2018), 23.
9 Nick Clegg, How to Stop Brexit and Make Britain Great Again, (London, 2017). Available at £8.17 a copy on Amazon. Curious readers may wish to know that the leaflet is available through second-hand sellers at the altogether more fitting price of 1p (plus postage and packaging).