As Britain leaves the EU on 31 January 2020, James Melville argues that a deep sense of unease with its identity in the world has led to a flawed solution: Brexit.
And so it came to pass. Britain’s 47 year relationship with the EU is coming to an end.
This long-term relationship isn’t ending with dignity. It is ending with embarrassing delusion. Brexit has become a bit like someone who is having a midlife crisis and walks out on their marriage of 47 years and ends up with a fake narcissist who is bad news.
The rationale behind Brexit is incredibly complex and would probably involve Britain having a series of intense therapy sessions with a psychologist specialising in identity and self-worth issues. But it is an enormous act of self harm, based on an insecure delusion of what Britain was, what Britain is, and what Britain should be.
Brexit is what happens when a false sense of superiority combines with a false sense of victimhood; an insecure and paradoxical notion that Britain is somehow superior to other countries, yet standing alone against perceived threats from other countries.
Since Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech to the College of Europe in 1988, in which she said that “we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”, Britain has approached its European neighbours with a sense of haughty detachment, self entitlement and insecurity.
From 1988 onwards, Euroscepticism took hold of some Conservatives in Britain and it has become a psychodrama within the Tory Party. In many ways, every Conservative Prime Minister since Thatcher has been slayed by its forces within their own party.
After the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, John Major couldn’t control the “bastards” in his party and David Cameron lost the 2016 EU Referendum that he himself called. Theresa May spent three tortuous years failing to deliver Brexit. And now we have Boris Johnson ‘getting Brexit done’ but without a clear plan on how.
This 30-year Tory existential crisis over Britain’s role in Europe is rooted in a deep sense of unease about how Britain’s role in the world is declining. The days of glorious Empire, ruling the waves, defeating Napoleon, Hitler and the Nazis have gone, and what is left is a country that still hasn’t quite worked out what to do with itself next.
what the papers don’t say
So, rather than manage expectations about where we are as a country and a sense of realism about what we can achieve within the continent of Europe and the world at large, there is still a prevailing attitude that, somehow, we are better than them – but at the same time, combined with a sense of unease that we aren’t better than them. So, rather than joining them, working with them, and even having the humility to learn from them, instead we want to isolate ourselves from them. And so we end up conducting a monumental act of self harm that is based on exceptionalism and the delusion of ‘sticking it up to Johnny Foreigner’.
A New Golden Age?
The EU is one of the most successful alliances between neighbouring nations history has seen. It was set up to try and stop a perpetually warring Continent from descending into any more of the horrors seen through the Napoleonic Wars, World War One and World War Two. The key to achieving this was through balanced trade agreements and the establishment of the common market and then the single market to create tariff-free trade and freedom of movement of people across Europe.
Britain was a founding father of this concept and should have been a key player towards further European integration with trade, economics and security right at the heart of it. After the first British victory of the Second World War at El Alamein, Winston Churchill wrote to his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on 21 October 1942: “Hard as it is to say now, I look forward to a United States of Europe, in which the barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised and unrestricted travel will be possible”.
In his famous Zurich speech of 1946 Churchill said: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe. The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important… If at first all the States of Europe are not willing or able to join the Union, we must nevertheless proceed to assemble and combine those who will and those who can.”
In May 1947, at the Royal Albert Hall, Churchill spoke as the chairman and founder of the United Europe Movement to “present the idea of a United Europe in which our country will play a decisive part”. His views on European integration would probably get him expelled from the Conservative Party today.
When the accession of the United Kingdom to the then European Economic Community took effect on 1 January 1973, an initial Europhile view that was tinged with haughty superiority was adopted by large parts of the British media. The Daily Mail celebrated Britain’s entry with the headline Now We Can Lead Europe!, while the Sun told readers that membership offered “an unrepeatable opportunity for a nation that lost an empire to gain a continent”. Instead of showing warmth to working on equal terms with our neighbouring European countries and allies, our tabloids wanted us to rule them.
This delusion of Britain being born to rule over others was impossible to achieve in the EU due to an equal membership structure of a multinational community and deeply woven collaboration. Successive UK governments persistently refused to re-imagine themselves as an equal partner, and, for the Eurosceptics, Britain instead became a “vassal state” of the EU or “told what to do by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels”.
Even now, this superior yet insecure mentality continues with notable Brexiters repeatedly stating that “they need us more than we need them”. This fake superiority was on display even during Britain’s last week of EU membership. While European Parliament MEPs sang Auld Lang Syne to respect the end of Britain’s EU membership, so that old acquaintances shall not be forgotten, the UK’s Brexit Party MEPs hurled insults at the European Parliament, boasted about Brexit and waved Union Jack flags.
The EU and its remaining 27 member states are like someone who gets dumped by a toxic and abusive partner and yet they handle the separation with such civility, grace and decency that they prove that they aren’t the problem – the partner is.
Britain is now walking away from the EU to try and find some sort of Utopian sunlit upland of splendid isolation that is completely out of sync with the globalised markets and trading structures of the modern world. Brexit has become a roadmap where the navigators are fixated on a road that doesn’t go anywhere. Boris Johnson wants Brexit to be a path towards to a new ‘golden age’, but it is a path that is likely to lead to fool’s gold.
The golden age that Britain actually needs is not independence from Brussels, but freedom from its own delusions.