Tragic legacy of Britain’s indecision over identity

Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet starts with a non-Shakespearean interpolation by the director, presenting “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”. Brexit is the tragedy of a Britain that could not make up its mind about Europe, under leaders — whether prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May, or Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party — who are profoundly ambivalent. It is a tragedy that destroys political parties and shakes the constitutional order.

There are powerful reasons why Britain could never be at the heart of the European project. There is the geography of being an island. There is the history of a country that founded its modern identity on a break with the Roman Catholic church. There is political economy. For France, Germany and Italy, the original main purpose of the European Economic Community was to manage the decline of a large agricultural sector with low-productivity peasant workers who were militant. That did not matter to the UK, where only 4 per cent of the population worked in agriculture in 1958 (for France it was 22 per cent).

Above all, Britain is bewildered and alienated by the Franco-German psychodrama that is at the real heart of modern Europe. Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle, the titans of postwar Germany and France, saw themselves as the shapers of countries that had been betrayed by elites who had delivered them to the horrors of war, conquest and dictatorship. In order to overcome the deep historical wound, de Gaulle developed a mystic notion that it could only be healed by engagement with the other country.

Britain stood on the sideline, like a third party in a troubled marriage. Germans sometimes looked to the UK as a defender of market liberalism, a counterweight to the étatisme of the Club Med; France saw the UK as the only counterweight against an increasingly powerful Germany. These German and French reflections on how much they needed the UK gave Britain a false sense of being needed. And no one pointed out that the German and French cases could not both be true at the same time.

The dynamic continues after the referendum. Britain may think it should get a good deal, because Germany wants an ally and has a trade surplus to protect; or because so many French people work in London; or because Europeans will feel more vulnerable without the UK. All these reasons are specious, and Europeans are likely to see Brexit as an opportunity to get their act together in radical marriage therapy.

The new tragedy is that Britons, on their own, will find it hard to think what sort of future they want. The debate is at times cast in terms of soft Brexit, which looks unrealistic, and a costly hard Brexit. A more realistic way of posing the choice — one not specified on June 23 — is between opening and closing, between globalisation and deglobalisation. It is occurring at a moment when the international security environment is rapidly deteriorating.

Continue reading the FT Article

To book Harold James for your next conference email [email protected]

Harold James