The renowned Belfast-born Irish poet Derek Mahon was once explaining to his French translator Philippe Jaccottet that in Northern Ireland “there are republicans and loyalists, mostly aligned with Catholics and Protestants”.
“And naturally,” he replied, “the Catholics are the royalists and the Protestants are the republicans?” Hailing from a Swiss-French background, Jaccottet had understood “loyalists” as “royalists” — correctly — and made a logical inference, based on his understanding of Catholicism and its traditional association with the crown.
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It’s an example of how our tribal alliances sometimes defy logic, at least to outsiders, and for odd historical reasons. Similarly, imagine explaining to a stranger that in Britain there are two tribes, one nationalist and one globalist, and they are aligned with a European civilisation-state on the one hand and with more liberal multiracial federations on the other?
This is not to make the fatuous point that “Remainers are the real racists”, which is not true, only to point out that political-tribal loyalties are often irrational, and can change for equally irrational reasons. We’ve only just come to the end of what was supposed to be David Cameron’s second term, but the world of politics has changed immeasurably since his departure, and it continues to change still. In five or ten years’ time, when Brexit has been and gone, will the two parties of Left and Right have evolved into the parties of rejoin and stay out? Considering the events of 2020 so far, and the way geopolitics is changing, it might not be so simple.
Britain only left the EU on 31 January, and has already moved noticeably closer to Australia and Canada in foreign policy matters, the three countries issuing joint statements on Hong Kong.
This was entirely as some Leave campaigners imagined, fulfilling the dream of “CANZUK”, an association of free trade and free movement between the four English-speaking Commonwealth countries. The idea was viewed with suspicion by some on the Left as being about kith and kin, or part of some deluded imperial nostalgia, yet one of Global Britain’s first acts in this new alliance was to offer British citizenship to the people of Hong Kong, potentially increasing immigration by hundreds of thousands.
Elsewhere, Britain has been busily securing a trade agreement with Turkey, a deal worth £20billion that will make it easier for Turks entering Britain.
France, in contrast, is sending gun boats to the eastern Mediterranean to support Greece against a Turkish regime that appears increasingly aggressive and chauvinistic, a perception not helped by Erdogan’s decision to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque (which France protested, but Britain remained silent over). France and Turkey are at odds over Libya, but to say that this is just about power, money or resources would be wrong, since the post-Brexit world appears to see the two western European powers embarking on their own historic world missions.
France has traditionally seen its role as protecting Christians in the east, and the current French president is aware of his historical position as the secular leader of Christendom, the heir of Charlemagne. Macron was once a hero to Britain’s centrists, but he is no Blairite; indeed it has been observed that while Boris Johnson poses as a populist he is a technocrat at heart, while the outwardly technocrat Macro is in reality a Gaullist.
France is not alone, and a recent meeting of MEPs discussing Turkish aggression was described as like “seeing the reappearance of Pope Pius V calling on the Holy Alliance against Turkey and mobilizing the fleets of Christendom to face the Ottoman invasion.”
The EU has prided itself on being post-historic, universalist and liberal, but in an increasingly hostile world during a troubled decade, and facing two revanchist powers to its east, it may be forced into becoming more of a “civilization-state”.
Ths is not entirely impossible; most of continental Europe is nothing like as progressive as British Remainers imagine, and Britain has always been one of the most liberal members, both socially and economically. From the start of the European project Britain was heavily involved in framing ideas of “human rights” into the European legal system, even if this became a widely disliked phrase in the British conservative press.
So while France’s world role appears to be defending the frontiers of Christendom, Britain’s post-Brexit leaders see their mission as reviving the 19th-century gospel of free trade. That was always a core part of the Vote Leave ideal, and it is certainly not a populist or nationalistic idea — although it is to some extent a nostalgic one.
Indeed, while the “Anglosphere” is a term with strong centre-Right Atlanticist undertones, by any real measurement the English-speaking nations are the most liberal on earth.
In continental Europe, only the small Scandinavian countries are comparable and Germany — and even more so France — are further to the Right on core progressive issues like race relations, gender equality and gay rights. (They may be more socially democratic, but that is another matter). Compare Macron’s firm opposition to the BLM iconoclasm with the British Government’s response.
If Joe Biden wins in November, the continual liberal direction of the US will accelerate, bringing the Anglosphere with it, since we have almost no immunity to American cultural trends. It is true that almost all western countries are becoming more liberal — even in Poland, where conservatives just sneaked the recent election, time may be against them — but the English-speaking world is moving at a more rapid rate. In the US, the youngest generation are way, way to the Left of their elders, while their peers in France are among the biggest supporters of the radical Right.
In Britain, despite the anguish that followed the referendum and dire warnings that foreign-born residents would flee, immigration has remained at record highs, with no signs of decline. Meanwhile attitudes to immigration and race have continued to become far more liberal since 2016. It’s strange to think that while this was happening the BBC broadcast an Agatha Christie adaptation un-subtly comparing Brexit Britain to the 1930s, a reflection of how utterly deluded a large section of the commentariat and cultural elite have become since 2016, engaged in collective political hypochondria in which every flag is a swastika just as every lump is cancer.
While Brexit and Boris Johnson have taken the wind out of national populism in Britain, it remains a much stronger force on the continent; it’s not improbable that a member of the Le Pen family will become France’s first female head of state in the coming years, while in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands populism has far from gone away.
One-third of ethnic minority Britons supported Brexit, and while people voted in that referendum for a number of reasons, some were certainly attracted to a global Britain in which Indians, Nigerians and other Commonwealth citizens might have as much of a place here as continental Europeans. The Brexit coalition played up this historical link in order to deflect accusations of racism (but then they could do so, knowing that people with strongly racist views were unlikely to vote for their opponents). The edgiest the official Vote Leave campaign ever got were the notorious adverts warning about Turks coming here, ironically, as it turns out, since the new trade deal will almost certainly mean more Turkish immigration than would have been allowed if we were in the EU. It seems unlikely that any deal with India or other substantial world economies won’t contain similar clauses.
Yet Leave voters, like Remainers, are more favourable to EU compared with non-EU immigration, and Ukip’s rise in the polls began before the post-2004 influx of eastern Europeans, during when most migration was from outside the continent. The increase in Polish immigration just made the subject more respectable to discuss.
The typical English conservative sympathetic to national populism has more in common with the values of the European Union than with the Anglosphere — both socially and, increasingly, economically. Similarly, British progressives are far more interested in the United States and its ongoing political drama than they are with what happens 22 miles across the Channel; many could name numerous black American victims of police brutality, but wouldn’t be able to pick out the Dutch prime minister in a line-up of other random tall people riding a bicycle. The US is not just more progressive than Europe, but its progressivism is more aggressive and far more proselytising. Many voters are, indeed, in the wrong camp.
From the vantage point of 2020, this thought experiment in which Leave and Remain switch sides might all seem improbable, since Brexit and Remain identities are extremely pronounced — far more so than Labour or Tory self-identification before the referendum. Indeed, Remainerism is probably the most passionate tribal identity that has emerged in England since the days when people fought over Holy Communion and transubstantiation.
Yet group identity can transform swiftly, as can tribal policy positions. Republican voters went from being pro-free trade to anti in rapid time, following the leadership of Donald Trump, and reflecting the fact that political views often follow social cues and party identity, not any particularly logical reasoning.
Back in 1997 it would have seemed ridiculous that the Conservatives would become the party of the working class, especially in the north, so it’s not inconceivable that there might be a “great realignment” on Europe, with internationalist Remainers embracing Global Britain and nationalists finding common cause with allies on the continent. Stranger things have happened, and in the 2020s, stranger things will.