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Britain’s Descent: Supremacy Not Sovereignty was Always the Dark Heart of Brexit

The central myth of Britain leaving the EU reveals the country’s insecure imperial ambitions and unresolved identity crisis, says Hardeep Matharu

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen ahead of Brexit talks in December 2020. Photo: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Britain’s DescentSupremacy Not Sovereignty was Always the Dark Heart of Brexit

The central myth of Britain leaving the EU reveals the country’s insecure imperial ambitions and unresolved identity crisis, says Hardeep Matharu

In many a mythic tale there is a descent. A self-destructive and lost lurching through the dark crevices of one’s own soul. And so it is with Brexit.

Unable any longer to try to transcend its insecure ambitions and deluded belief in being a ‘winner’ as its birthright, Britain’s steady descent over the Brexit cliff is now accelerating, as the end of the transition period imminently approaches. 

In its free fall, it is still proclaiming that things have never been better – that by cutting itself free from the oppression of the European Union, this plucky little nation is now free to return to greatness once more.

What will happen when it hits the ground?

Regaining Britain’s lost ‘sovereignty’ was, we were told, always the central aim of Brexit. Despite the recognition of sovereign member states freely choosing to join an entity bigger than themselves for a greater good being at the core of the EU project, this has never seemed to satisfy Britain.

For the story of Brexit is not one of sovereignty but supremacy. Being better than others. Leading them, ruling over them. 

Viewed through this lens, Britain being part of the EU was always doomed because it has never confronted its unresolved identity crisis in the wake of the end of Empire. If Britain being the best can no longer be demonstrated through its control over a quarter of the world coloured pink on a map, then how? What is Britain’s role? What sort of country does it want to be? How does it see itself – beyond believing that it is better just because it says it is?

These questions remain unanswered but have found a misplaced vessel in leaving the EU.

Sovereignty is having a sense of self-ownership; feeling secure in who one is. Supremacy is something darker. It is the hunger of insecurity, fed by comparison and benchmarking and the need to create lesser ‘others’ over which this supremacy can be played out.

It is this which the acclaimed writer John le Carré, who died this weekend, was getting at when he observed that “a patriot can criticise his country, stay with it and go through the democratic process. A nationalist needs enemies”. 

Deeply critical of Brexit, he saw it as an abandoning of Britain’s allies in Europe. “To actually turn them, through the rhetoric that’s thrown around, into enemies is quite extraordinary,” he added. 

This desperate need for supremacy has been clear to see in the UK and EU’s negotiations this past week.

It can be seen in Johnson’s threat to deploy gunboats to patrol Britain’s fishing waters in the event of a ‘no deal’; in the talk of any deal being a betrayal by the Ultra Brexiters; and in the constant childish chatter of exceptionalism spouted in all spheres of British political life.

Arancha González Laya, Spain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, EU and Cooperation, hit the nail on the head when she said: “I’ve done many trade agreements in my life and trade agreements are not made to assert one’s independence, they are made to manage our interdependence… this trade deal that we are building post-Brexit is not to assert sovereignty… it’s pretty clear when you do a trade deal that you’re a sovereign nation. The UK and the European Union are interdependent so let’s build a deal which reflects the need to manage this interdependence.”

The biggest tragedy of Britain’s Brexit descent is that it is a descent without the gaining of any insight.

It is this very idea of interdependence which was always on a collision course with Britain’s need for supremacy.

When the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson claimed earlier this month that Britain was the first to approve a COVID-19 vaccine because “we’re a much better country than every single one of them”, a European Commission spokesman offered a more mature response. “We are definitely not in the game of comparing regulators across countries, nor on commenting on claims as to who is better,” he said. “This is not a football competition, we are talking about the life and health of people.”

Yet, all Britain seems to be obsessed with doing is asserting that it is better. 

In September, Boris Johnson claimed that Germany and Italy didn’t have lower COVID-19 rates because of effective test and trace systems compared to Britain – but because “there is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world and that is our country is a freedom-loving country”.

“Over the last 300 years virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country and it is very difficult to ask the British population, uniformly, to obey guidelines,” he announced.

Seven months earlier – as the first cases of the Coronavirus were recorded in the UK – the Prime Minister told an audience in Greenwich: “When there is a risk that new diseases such as Coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom.”

He went on to suggest that Britain would be the country “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion”.

Fawlty Britain

John Cleese’s repressed, masochistic character of Basil Fawlty is in a near-permanent state of descent in the two series of the hit comedy Fawlty Towers, set in a Torquay hotel.

Aspirational yet bitter, Basil is a rude middle-class snob. Impressed by doctors and lords when they come to stay as guests, the mania and fury of his inferiority complex is routinely targeted at the hotel’s other residents.

In a 1979 episode called ‘Waldorf Salad’, an obnoxious American guest and his wife incur Basil’s wrath when they tell the hotel owner exactly what they think of service at Fawlty Towers, branding it a disgrace to Western Europe. 

Basil Fawlty confronting his guests in the 1979 episode of Fawlty Towers, ‘Waldorf Salad’

As Basil attempts to glean positive reviews from his other guests, they too start acknowledging problems. Likening them all to Nazi Germany, he tells them to pack up and get out, just as his wife Sybil asks him what he is doing. Basil tells her that either the guests leave or he will, before making a grand exit. He returns just a few minutes later, having stood a few metres outside the hotel in the pouring rain, and requests a room from Sybil as a guest.

The biggest tragedy of Britain’s Brexit descent is that it is a descent without the gaining of any insight. The country is barely keeping its demons at bay and it’s not clear whether, like Basil Fawlty – who out in the cold and rain momentarily confronts the consequences of his own need for supremacy and contempt for inferiority – will any time soon. 

But the faster we pull away from our demons, the quicker they drag us back. We can’t get up and walk away from them forever.

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