By Swapan Dasgupta
When the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey detected the lights going out all over Europe on a summer evening in August 1914, he was being both poetic and prescient. The war that ensued following the accidental assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had no real victors and signalled the end of Old Europe. The scars of that war still live us as Great Britain commemorates the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, a single devastating battle that could be said to have begun the process of the end of the British Empire.
There was a lot of melancholic poetry that accompanied the referendum over continuing membership of the European Union on June 23. As the dramatic decision of the electorate to leave the EU became apparent, there was an outpouring of emotion from those who had endorsed the losing side. ‘Our futures dashed’, ‘youth disenfranchised’ and the ‘end of the United Kingdom’ were among the more parliamentary expressions of sadness. On social media—an invaluable archive for future historians—the losers turned their anger on the surprise winners of the Brexit campaign. The No voters were dubbed ‘morons’, ‘bigots’ and ‘racists’ and the heavy artillery was directed at the UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and the two Conservative Party stalwarts—Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. The 17 million ‘idiots’ who had voted No were accused of succumbing to ‘lies’. In a spectacular display of the crab mentality, the media reserved its harshest abuse for fellow journalist Johnson because he was said to have pilloried the EU in order to get his foot into the door of 10 Downing Street.
Never, in recent memory, has a democratic outcome been subject to so much vilification. This included a demand for the disenfranchisement of elderly voters, the social vanguard of the Brexit army, and a demand for Parliament to overturn the sovereignty of the people. A Leftist pamphlet I received on email observed: “There seems to be a special brand of bigotry aimed at white working class voters, with talk of ‘sewers’.”
Unappetising decisions often result in lamentation. Sir Winston Churchill’s eloquently horrifying prognosis of the India that would emerge after the Union Jack had been lowered must surely count as one contemporary history’s most famous wrong numbers. But there have been more considered, but no less heartfelt, expressions of despair. In July 1971, shortly after Britain announced its intention of entering the European Common Market (as it was then modestly called), the British High Commissioner to Australia wrote to his Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home in London: “The world seems chillier and more lonely than it did a fortnight ago. Speeches are made and editorials written, drawing the inference that in a world where Britain seeks her future as a part of Europe, Australia must henceforth base her relationships on the Pacific and on Asia… But it is all done somewhat against the grain. This is not yet an Asia-oriented country but a displaced European one, and in a deep sense still British.”
As diplomatic despatches go, this was remarkably forthright. More important, it was prescient too. Britain’s entry into the Common Market in 1973 led to a corresponding downgrading of the Commonwealth, particularly as far as the old Dominions were concerned. Australia, as the High Commissioner quite rightly anticipated, was dragged into becoming more of an Asian country, as it is today. But the emotional links that tied Britain to Australia, New Zealand and even Canada are still alive, even if there is lack of intensity.
In their articulation of a post-Brexit world, the leading No campaigners (and I am not including Nigel Farage who seems quite content with his contrived golf club conviviality) have stressed that liberation from the EU is likely to give Britain more elbow room in the world. Using a combination of trade and strategic partnerships, the UK, it is argued, can revive its older links with the Anglophone world (including India) and China and give these a new direction.
Whether the move away from an increasingly Federal Europe leads to Britain discovering a new national purpose is best left to posterity to judge. To begin with, there is the open question of the ability of the Brexiteers to identify a new leader that can unite the four nations of the UK in a common endeavour. As of now, it will require considerable nerves for the new leader of the Conservative Party to balance the scepticism of the financial markets, the cussedness of the Scottish Parliament, the bloody-mindedness of the Brussels Eurocrats with the “Independence Day” mood that has gripped the proverbial “forgotten people” who prevailed on June 23. As of now, David Cameron’s plea to the EU to show some flexibility and concern for national sentiment on immigration has fallen on deaf ears. But if other expressions of national resentment—as in France, Hungary, the Scandinavian bloc and even Germany—starts affecting Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Hollande, it may still be possible to secure a happy blend of market access and nationalism.
The UK referendum outcome is momentous because one of the big European power with membership of the UN Security Council—and not some Ruritanian enclave—has questioned the efficacy of the grand post-War European project that sought to dissolve national boundaries. The Euro has not been an unmitigated success, and can’t be if there isn’t a political union. The efficacy of the Schengen arrangement of seamless borders was a great idea when the EU was confined to Western Europe. However, with Eastern European nations joining the club and the fear of the Islamic State triggering a huge movement of peoples, the EU is confronted with stark choices. Either it can grudgingly admit that British voters were wise and that the world is too imperfect to twin free trade with the free movement of people. Alternatively, it can dig in its heels and proclaim that the present imperfections can be done away if the EU has a common foreign policy, a European army and national parliaments are reduced to a decorative role. The EU is asking for its member states to be less French, German, Dutch, Italian, Greek, English and Hungarian and become more European. The EU project is aimed at reversing a process that began with the Treaty of Westphalia.
Curiously, this is a debate that a section of the British intelligentsia are familiar with. In the 1960s, there was a schism between the Old Left and the New Left. It was claimed by the New Left radicals such as Perry Anderson that radicalism in Britain had never taken off because it was still influenced by both empiricism and the moderate radicalism of its Labour movement. The likes of Anderson implored their British colleagues to become more European and embrace the ideas flowing from the Left Bank and the Frankfurt School. The lively debate between Anderson and Edward Thompson on the “particularities” of the English was an important feature of intellectual life in the UK at the time of the first referendum in 1975.
The UK has certainly become more European in the 43 years of its membership of the European project. But it says a great deal on the quality of that experience that the generation that voted so enthusiastically for the Common Market in 1975 has now resoundingly turned its back on the EU in 2016. That in itself tells a story—if only we could gauge its complex meaning.
The Telegraph, July 1, 2016