A careless turn of phrase reveals a poisonous, negative attitude towards Britain held by prominent Remainers and EU apologists
What do passionate British europhiles and EU defenders really think about their own country?
This question is an eternal puzzle to Brexiteers, who have watched Remainers from the prime minister on down eagerly seize on every statement or piece of “proof” that Britain is too small and feeble to flourish without dissolving ourselves into the EU’s embryonic common European state.
And now, finally, we have something of an answer. In his latest FT column bemoaning the intra-party warfare currently consuming the Conservative Party, George Osborne biographer Janan Ganesh has the following to say about the United Kingdom:
Britain is not where history happens any more but our two flirtations with secession — Scotland’s from the UK, the UK’s from the EU — pique the curiosity of outsiders. They must look at the intra-Tory venom and assume its seepage into wider society. If Scots were lastingly politicised, and riven, by their referendum, Britons as a whole might be too. The stakes are as large, the facts as contested, the principals on each side as seethingly at odds as they were in Scotland in 2014.
And still we demur. The notable feature of this referendum is its lack of notoriety. With three weeks to go, pubs are not blazing with anticipation or rancour. Friends and relatives are not falling out. Campaign events are unmarred by anything darker than cheeky heckles. On the morning of May 30, only one referendum-related story made the 10 most-read on the BBC news website, and that was trumped by a crocodile attack in Queensland, Australia.
And there it is. Doesn’t that perfectly sum up the tone which pervades nearly all of the Remain campaign’s messaging during the referendum – the idea of Britain as a has-been nation, a place which was once consequential but no longer a place “where history happens”?
And of course this is exactly what Janan Ganesh, his colleagues at the Financial Times and many others in the Remain camp actually do believe. They (wrongly) think that we are a small island not only in geographical terms but also in geopolitical terms. They think that we don’t matter any more, that we will never again shape the world because we are not powerful enough and because we are not exceptional enough to do so.
To the mind of a Remainer, it is utterly perplexing why anybody would want a country as weak, fragile and inconsequential as Britain to leave the safe harbour of the European Union and head out into the storm. Sure, they grudgingly acknowledge, we made our mark on history in the past – and at this point they will often pause to apologise profusely for that very history – but we should never expect to do so again.
The future, they insist, belongs to those shining civilisations such as China and Russia, apparently – despite the fact that Britain remains the fifth largest economy, (by some measures) the second military power, and is home to some of the best universities, companies, popular and high culture in the world. And Britain should be grateful for any scraps we are fortunate enough to steal from a “top table” dominated by other, better countries.
But if the world really is now such a scary place that the only recourse for “fading glory” Britain is to shelter inside a remorselessly tightening political union, how come other countries, many of them much smaller than us, are not also busy dissolving themselves into regional political blocs?
The threat of terrorism affects Australia too, as we saw with the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis. Australia would also be threatened by any global conflagration involving Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And Australia is just as vulnerable to a world economic downturn as Britain – if not more so, given her remote geographic location.
So why isn’t Australia hastening to form a political union with New Zealand and other APAC countries? Why is there no Pacific Union headquarters being constructed in Malaysia, or elections being held to elect MPPs to the new Pacific Parliament? Why is there no Pacific Court of Justice being set up to adjudicate and enforce adherence to region-wide regulations and human rights laws?
Why, for that matter, is Canada not racing to form a political Union with the United States and Mexico, following the EU’s lead and turning NAFTA from a free trade group into an explicitly political union?
The answer, of course, is that political union does nothing – nothing whatsoever – to meet or tackle the most serious challenges facing our world. Australia and New Zealand are perfectly capable of intergovernmental co-operation without the need to create a new and unaccountable supranational body sitting above them and assuming their sovereignty. Canada and the United States are not only able to trade freely with each other, they also co-operate closely on military and intelligence affairs – again, without a Parliament of the Americas to pass laws binding on their respective citizens.
So the question goes back to EU apologists and British pessimists like Janan Ganesh: exactly what is it about Britain which means that we cannot follow the example of Canada and the United States, Australia and New Zealand? What deficiency afflicts Britain which means that we cannot co-operate closely with European allies on important issues without also dissolving ourselves into a political union with them?
The EU apologists won’t tell you, because they can’t. Because there is simply no good reason why Britain could not maintain exceptionally close links with the countries of Europe – remaining in the European Economic Area, retaining free movement of people, working together on common security challenges and those areas where our foreign policy interests align – while being a sovereign, self-governing country outside the European Union.
And those who persist in saying otherwise are either fearful and ignorant themselves, or they are cynically lying to promote a supranational or federalist agenda which they cannot openly embrace in public.
Why should Britain no longer be a place where history continues to be made? Why can Britain not be the first country to realise that a century-old dream of European political union being brought about by a 1950s model of centralised, supranational governance is hopelessly ill suited to the Europe of 2016? Why should Britain not be the first country to grasp this reality and strike out away from euro-parochialism, charting a better path toward global engagement which other countries may then follow?
Why, in short, do those who insist that we must remain in the European Union have such desperately stunted vision and ambition for the global future which Britain could build?
This post was originally published by the author 31 May 2016