Dec 7th 2018

A Second Chance for Britain 

by Ian Buruma

 


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit. 


 

NEW YORK – On May 9, 1950, when European countries were just beginning to emerge from the ruins of war, the French statesman Robert Schuman announced his plan to create the European Coal and Steel Community. By pooling these vital war materials under a common European authority, violent conflict between France and Germany would become unthinkable. The Germans were delighted. The Benelux countries and Italy would take part as well. A first step toward a European union had been taken. Shortly after Schuman’s announcement, the British were invited to join in the discussions.

They reacted with a mixture of horror and disdain, suspecting a French plot to lure a pragmatic people into some utopian foreign project. The Labour Party, then in power in Britain, couldn’t imagine sharing sovereignty over the United Kingdom’s vital industries. And Conservatives failed to see how a global power could possibly be part of such a narrow European club. It was all very well for the Continentals to band together. But Britannia would continue to rule the waves, together with the other English-speaking peoples in the Commonwealth and the United States.

It is easy, in hindsight, to mock the British for missing the European boat with such blithe arrogance. But it is at least understandable. After all, the British with their proud democracy had stood alone against Hitler’s Germany and helped to free the European countries that had surrendered to the Nazis. One cannot really blame them for feeling a trifle superior.

What is depressing, however, about the Brexit disaster that is making such a mess of British politics now is that the basic arguments against “Europe” have not changed at all since 1950. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party ideologues view the European Union as a capitalist plot to undermine the purity of their socialist ideals. And Brexiteers on the right still dream of Britain as a great power, whose global reach should not be hampered by membership of European institutions. Another strand of nationalism, which is more English than British, is the romantic attachment to a “special relationship” with the US.

Alas for the British, the world has changed a great deal since 1950. The British Empire is over, the Commonwealth is little more than a sentimental relic of the past, and the relationship with the US may be very special to the English, but it is much less so to the Americans.

But something else, perhaps even more important, has changed as well. When the British government turned down the chance in 1950 to help shape Europe’s future, some Conservatives criticized Labour for being a bit too hasty. As the opposition, the Tories had to say that. But their hearts were not really in it, for, as the New York Times reported at the time, the government’s position “reflects a good deal of British feeling toward Europe, regardless of party lines.”

Britain – if not every part of England – is now a much more European country. London in 1950 was still a completely British city, where “aliens” were a distinct minority. In the last decades of the twentieth century, it became the unofficial capital of Europe. More than three million Londoners are foreign born, with hundreds of thousands of young Europeans working in banking, law, fashion, catering, the arts, and many other industries. London has a larger French population than many French cities.

No wonder, then, that the majority of Londoners voted to remain in the EU. And so did most young people in Britain who bothered to vote in the referendum. The Britain of 1950 would be unrecognizable to them.

So who are the 51% who voted to leave the EU? And why? Protecting socialism has limited appeal, as do ideals of pure national sovereignty or fantasies of Britain striking out alone as a global power. Fear of immigration appears to be the main reason why people voted to leave. In some cases, this stemmed from genuine worries that Eastern European builders, say, were making it harder for British citizens to do the same jobs for a decent wage. But very often, the people who are most afraid of being “swamped” by foreigners live in areas where immigrants are very few.

At the same time, most British citizens take it for granted that they are nursed and treated in hospitals by immigrants, served in supermarkets by immigrants, and aided in banks, post offices, social service centers, airports, and public transport by immigrants. Without immigrants, the British economy and services would collapse.

Some pro-Brexit politicians have stoked immigration fears more brazenly than others. The most notorious image used in the Brexit campaign was a poster showing a stream of young men, looking vaguely Middle-Eastern, with the text: “We must break free of the EU and take back control.” In fact, the young men in the picture were nowhere near the UK’s borders. The photograph was taken in Croatia.

The more respectable Brexiteers talk more about sovereignty than immigration. Their anxiety about losing control may be genuine. Figures like Boris Johnson, with his Churchillian pretensions, or Jacob Rees-Mogg, who resembles a minor character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, are anachronisms. In earlier times, they might have run an empire. Now they are mere politicians in a middle-ranking state.

Brexit for the likes of Johnson or Rees-Mogg is more like a deluded grab for power, undertaken in the name of the common people, supposedly in revolt against the elites of which these politicians are themselves conspicuous members. Their nostalgia for grander forms of rule has already done great damage to the country they claim to love. This is all the more reason, now that the potential catastrophe of Brexit is so plain to see, why those common people should have a second chance to vote for a way to avoid it.


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
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