Nations have joined the European Union with disparate motives. It was basically a Franco-German construct: history beckoned for these two countries to create an alliance which would put an end to a sickening series of wars between them. The idea of a single market and a shared destiny appealed readily to nearby states who joined for commercial advantage – Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg and Italy. Other countries were attracted to the Union for political reasons – Finland, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czechs, Slovaks and the Baltic states, who sought security and safety in numbers.
Perhaps Britain was coaxed into the Union by a combination of these incentives – commercial, political and historical – but her entry might be viewed as reluctant, half-hearted and of course there was the spot of bother with the Général. Like Sweden and Denmark, the UK declined the idea of a single currency and increasingly figured as a fringe member of the union, not only geographically.
Eventually most of Cameron’s demands for more favourable terms were rejected by the founder members and when he threatened to hold an “in-or-out” referendum, it is questionable if most fellow-members viewed the idea with great seriousness. Who would voluntarily give up membership of the world’s biggest market (500 million and still counting)? Why would the world’s fifth biggest economy disturb relations with her largest trading partner?
As Brexit-day approached, Europe exhibited mild nervousness, while in Britain itself, with Cameron now championing the Remain crowd and Scots and Irish backing him to the hilt, there was a general feeling that common sense and considerations of safety would prevail. The idea of Brexit would blow over.
But it did not. By three in the morning, as the numbers for LEAVE mounted relentlessly, it was all over. Britain had voted getting out of the Union. The shock was sudden and widespread.
And yet it should not have been. Over 500 years ago the English King Henry the Eighth took England out of Europe, shook off the clinging bonds of the Roman Empire and dismissed Papal authority. The Reformation ushered in a centuries-long affirmation of Protestantism as the defining factor of the English way of life.
Who are the English people and what are they like? They are not the British, although they constitute 85 per cent of Britain’s inhabitants. The other British are Celtic – Welsh, Scots and Irish – they are of a different breed and know clearly who they are. The English – a relatively recent concoction of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Scandinavians and later Normans, have often been referred to as mongrels. They are reserved, insular, sentimental and occasionally belligerent. Like King Henry, they dislike being dictated to. Similarly they are mildly contemptuous of foreigners, though they exempt the Nordic peoples and perhaps the Dutch and the Germans. They are linear in their thinking and, like other linear groups, consider themselves superior in commerce, management, world view and general way of living. Linear group superiority may derive from cold climate efficiency, Protestantism or historical accident or context, but it is palpable and enduring among Northern peoples. They tend to look down on less organized, more emotional individuals such as Latins, Slavs and Mediterranean peoples. The reason for England’s Brexit was neither political nor commercial. It was cultural.
The Scots and the Irish – more temperamental than the English – were happy to be European and supported REMAIN solidly. The Welsh, closer to the English, voted LEAVE. London, more cosmopolitan, largely supported REMAIN. The provinces were rampant in the desire for separation.
Where do the English go now? While BREXIT may weaken both the UK and the EU, one should think twice before discounting England’s aspirations to independent prosperity. The French member of Parliament who wrote off lone Britain as a “small island reduced to the importance of Guernsey” ignores the fact that the tiny kingdom in the 18th and 19th centuries created the vast British Empire, ruling 5 continents, 150 years before the EU was born.
The 20 miles of water between Dover and Calais have been, historically, of unimaginable importance. English became the world’s leading maritime power and emerged successfully from two World Wars. Interestingly, another stretch of water, the Sea of Japan, created a parallel situation where the Land of the Rising Sun – three or four smallish islands lying off a large continent – carved out its own prosperity and political significance, as Britain did. Japan, like Britain has demonstrated a historical reluctance to integrate with continental neighbours.
Notwithstanding the fortitude and durability of these two island strongholds, current reality suggests that the English have erred. They now face not only reduced access to a market of half a billion customers, but also the likelihood of higher unemployment, a weakening currency, political turbulence, a niggling divorce, tortuous renegotiation of trading terms, and, worst of all, a possible break-up of the UK.
How could they be so irrational? It seems that when jingoism comes in through the door, rationality flies out of the window. Are the English so nationalist? They seem normally not to be, but we must not forget their reaction when Argentina invaded the Falklands. “The lion’s tail had been twisted” and it took Thatcher less than 48 hours to mobilize the Royal Navy and send it to the other end of the world. Indeed the LEAVE campaign resonated with a wave of xenophobia and “take-back-our-country” rhetoric. The English have exhibited anti-establishment rage, intimating the spectre of our time to be a dark, controlling global force stealing our national identity.
England may expect some sympathy from people who increasingly believe that politicians have failed to garner the full benefits of globalisation (the American public believes this) but in the long term friends may be few and far between (or far-off, like Australia and New Zealand). The US have their own problems with a large Trump following, Canada is bound to her large neighbour. The Scandinavians, Finland, Holland and Belgium are likely to remain pro-British, but support from such populist or right-wing, anti-EU sources such as Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders or Viktor Orbán (Hungary) would be unwanted and rejected.
To sum up, the UK is in for a rough ride for perhaps the next decade. As I asked two months ago, when a government allows a Prime Minister to indulge a whim and jeopardise the nation’s political and economic future by permitting the general public (ruthlessly manipulated by biased media) to decide an issue which is fundamentally and quintessentially a matter for Parliament to determine (and that only after prolonged scrutiny and agonizing debate), what can one expect?
Historically, Britain has punched above her weight in world affairs. Can it be that this wild initiative will be emulated by others anxious to dismantle powerful, sinister, self-interested establishments that we are all aware of? Though, as an Englishman, I find this scenario attractive, I cannot believe we have the leaders, in England or elsewhere, to realise these aspirations. The 21st century is more complex than the 19th. Neither Cameron nor Boris Johnson is a Winston Churchill, though they would both like to be.
Richard Lewis – One of Britain’s foremost linguists and founder of the Richard Lewis Communications