You Won, Get Over It
- January 20, 2019
There are some historical laws that can’t be avoided, and one of them is this: that if a country aspires towards something that is objectively impossible, sooner or later that impossibility, like gravity, will impose itself in ways that are impossible to resist or ignore.
You might be able to get away with this for a while, running on thin air like a cartoon character running off a cliff, but sooner or later reality will impose itself.
Ever since Theresa May came to power she has been trying to reconcile a contradictory aspiration: that the UK can leave the European Union without doing some harm to itself.
As shockingly inept, devious and manipulative as she has been, she can’t be entirely blamed for doing this. The same contradictory promise was repeated again and again during the referendum campaign and mixed into the poisoned chalice that May greedily drank from in order to become prime minister.
Throughout her reign of chaos she has insisted again and again that the UK can leave the European Union and have it all.
Not once has she or any member of her cabinet dared to admit that the country cannot leave the European Union without inflicting some degree of harm on itself. To have gone through these last two and half years without explaining this has been a shameful act of cowardice and a dereliction of duty of which the principal opposition is also guilty.
Now this week, that fantasy was finally shot down in parliament. It is now clear even to those who wanted this outcome, that leaving the European Union is going to hurt. Some might may argue that it’s still worth it and crave no deal like some quasi-religious apotheosis.
Others debate how long and how much it’s going to hurt, and some still don’t believe it will. But the triumphal glow of 2016 has long since faded in a sour, confused, and rudderless country swirling in a political maelstrom entirely of its own making.
This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. If you seek things that unobtainable sooner or later you will find that that you can’t get them.
As Fintan O’Toole – one of the sharpest observers of our collective nervous breakdown – has observed, leaving the EU was ‘ sold in the referendum as a fantasy of national liberation. It simply could not survive contact with reality. It died the moment it became real. You cannot free yourself from imaginary oppression.’
Why did we do this to ourselves? In a brutal piece in the New York Times last week, Pankaj Mishra excoriated the ‘malign incompetence of the British ruling class’ in India, Palestine, Ireland and other countries.
Mishra saw the referendum as another example of the ‘egotistic and destructive behaviour’ of the British ‘chummocracy’, which has now brought catastrophe to their own country. He’s right, but Brexit isn’t simply a failure of the British ruling classes.
For too long now, Britian, and particularly England, has been accustomed to looking down on other countries from a great height, as if the map of the world still consisted of the imperial ‘pink bits.’
After centuries of telling others what to do, sometimes at the point of a gunboat, we dislike having to conform to rules made by foreigners and seeing our greatness hidden in the European bushel – not to mention sharing our national territory with foreigners who have had the temerity to come and live here.
Riding shotgun with the United States was one thing. That was ‘punching above our weight’ and playing ‘Greece to Rome.’
But for a country whose rulers still believe we have some special destiny to be the ‘light of the world’, as Tony Blair once put it, membership of a trading bloc representing a continent that we – according to Brexit history- singlehandedly ‘saved’ was an unbearable national humiliation.
Some of this sense of exceptionalism has percolated downwards, embracing even sectors of the population that never benefited from our greatness.
All this has made us complacent and blind to our own failings, arrogant and lazy in our thinking about the wider world and our place in it, still hankering after what we believed we lost.
In these circumstances it was entirely natural to see membership of a multinational organisation as a form of tyranny; to portray ourselves as victims; to regard foreigners as usurpers and intruders, to see demagogues and political grifters as liberators; to believe that we can still behave in the twenty-first century as we once did in the nineteenth.
This is what the ‘chummocracy’ told us, and too many of us believed them.
And now, as we contemplate the political chaos that is engulfing us, let’s by all means blame the recklessness, dishonesty and incompetence of our rulers and the fake anti-elitist ‘bad boys’ who brought us to national self-destruction.
But let’s also remember that millions of people voted for this outcome.
They did this because they, like our rulers, have spent too much time looking down at the rest of the world from a great height. And now, like Roadrunner, we are going to hit the ground hard.
And if we are ever to move out of this debacle to a better place, we really ought to remember another useful historical rule, which the Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen observed in 2017:
‘There are two kinds of European nations. There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized they are small nations.’