Brexit begins

Five years after the referendum, is Europe in crisis?

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June 19, 2021

“Although after this the little island was no longer called Albion, Neptune still loved it. When he grew old and had no more strength to rule, he gave his sceptre to the islands called Britannia, for we know — Britannia rules the waves.”

So reads the introduction to the famous Edwardian children’s book Our Island Story, a work that exemplified a certain idea of Britain. It was a country that was unique, blessed by God with a destiny, the narrative drawing on mythical ideas that went back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famously implausible 12th century history of the island. Britain — or, more specifically, England — was different.

Just as the 17th century Puritans saw England as the new Israel – indeed some took it further to suggest we were the Israelites — so the Victorians had come to think of the country as unique, a new Athens in glorious isolation. Britain was part of Europe, but not of it, and instead destined to rule the oceans and its great dominions overseas.

British exceptionalism was a seductively ego-affirming idea, but then if you belong to a smallish country that ends up ruling a quarter of the world, you’d probably start to conclude you were special, too. Today, the empire is no more but the British are still exceptional — although perhaps not in quite the same way.

Five years ago this week the country’s thought-leaders were given the shock of their lives when the electorate voted against all advice and apparent common sense to leave a trading bloc on which their economy was dependent. The decision seemed to lack any reason, an act of wilful self-harm, “shitting the bed” as one comedian called it.

Unable to explain this idiocy, journalists and academics came to the conclusion that it could be explained by British, or more particularly, English exceptionalism — a deluded belief that the country was somehow special.

It was a common theme that the English – the most Eurosceptic of the home nations – considered themselves somehow exceptional, unique, which became the subject of numerous articles, academic papers and treatise.

One scholar traced this British exceptionalism back to the Napoleonic Wars, when the country’s elite constructed an idea of an island story. Another even even linked Brexit to Our Island Story, suggesting that “Support for this seemingly innocuous children’s bedtime story should therefore be understood as an important ideational element in a predominantly English Eurosceptic disengagement from the EU and a re-engagement with the Anglosphere amongst Conservatives”.

A columnist warned how this dangerous ideology, with its “tawdry jingoism, the faux-patriotism, the cynical use of the flag to exploit the people’s belief in ‘British exceptionalism’”, could even be to blame for the country’s disastrous handling of Covid.

Yet in Europe at least the British are exceptional in a completely different way, not in feeling themselves special or above the rest. England – not Britain – is unique in being so uncomfortable with itself, so filled with self-disdain.

In no other country are symbols of nationhood so likely to provoke such disgust or mockery, to be considered either distasteful, vulgar or actually hateful. In no other country would a front-bench politician slyly mock a voter for flying the flag. To a certain section of society every defeat for England is cheered, every victory lamented. This was the problem at the heart of the debate five years ago, the real British exceptionalism.

In this we are strangely unique, since neither the German nor French Left feel discomfort with national symbolism in the same way as the British. French intellectuals are down on their country — they’re down on everything — and Germans are ashamed of their past. Artists everywhere tend to be more self-critical than the population at large. But among European countries only in England is there such revulsion and cringe at the symbolism of the nation, and the people who celebrate it.

This autoAnglophobia was epitomised by the actress Emma Thompson, who during the run-up to the referendum described her homeland as “a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, I mean really, a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island”.

Thompson, who more recently flew from Los Angeles to London to attend a climate change rally, could not have better personified her caste; raised from old theatre stock in Hampstead, attending one of Camden’s elite state schools and then Cambridge, she described herself as “European”, but for a certain type of Briton that means less an identification with the inheritance of Rome and Greece than membership of a community of belief. It means being internationalist, open-minded, progressive, university-educated… just not British.

The English are exceptional in their “oikophobia”, as Roger Scruton defined the “need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ours”.  Scruton argued that it is “a stage through which the adolescent mind normally passes” but which is common among intellectuals and artists of all sorts. The English are the worst at it.

None of this is new; the British intelligentsia has hated the country for at least two centuries, to the extent of supporting opponents far more sinister than the EU.

Yet while such disdain was once confined to small literary circles, today its association with education and high status has allowed it to mimetically spread through the institutions. Today even august bodies like the National Trust are dominated by people who find patriotism just a bit distasteful, and would be horrified to promote it. In what other countries would the publishing industry have a whole genre of books devoted to denigrating the country’s history, showing that actually we’re the worst at everything; that every victory wasn’t really ours; that our heroes were monsters.

It is also a strangely parochial belief, this idea that Britain is somehow uniquely bad, as if everywhere doesn’t have similar problems, often worse. But then British internationalism is one of the most parochial belief systems in the world; we laud the NHS as the finest moral legacy of mankind, while in the rest of Europe it’s a laughing stock. Our commentariat bemoan that our country is going down the dark path of nationalism because our PM once made an off-colour joke, while across the Channel politicians compete to appear the most hostile to Islam. Indeed, Britain is unusually liberal for European standards, and of most social issues has become noticeably more liberal since 2016.

For all that it was about Europe, and the world, the referendum debate was really about two competing visions of what it meant to be British; even the Remainer identity, with its EU flags and affected xenophilia, was a particularly British tribal allegiance, dominated by Thames Valley Liberal Democrats who are nice people and like Radio 3 and the Proms.

For a certain type of progressive, British patriotism or nationalism is nothing to celebrate, and always contains something dark within, the neanderthal and skinhead just waiting to emerge. A recent article by a former Labour MP warned that “although we British have long been prone to outbreaks of nationalism, until recently obsessive flag waving was by and large confined to small far-right parties, Northern Irish Unionists and a bunch of Hooray Henrys and Henriettas at the Last Night of the Proms. But the Brexit referendum and its aftermath has ushered in a new era. Something fundamental has changed. With the coming of Brexit the nationalist genie is out of the bottle and will not easily be put back.”

Next year France may well elect Marine Le Pen as president; in Rome the Brothers of Italy party is surging ahead, while everyone’s favourite liberal paradise, Denmark, has an immigration and asylum system that would have British Tories, let alone liberals, in fits.

When ministers suggest government buildings might fly the British flag, rather than the Pride colours or trans flag or whatever the liturgy dictates this week, there are howls of outrage from people who seem uninterested that this is normal everywhere else in Europe. It’s seen as some unprovoked “culture war”, as if the Left hasn’t been engaged in a forever culture war for decades. Wanting to fly the flag is not exceptional; thinking the British are above flag-waving is the exceptionalism.

So what is different about England? Much of it has to do with the country’s main class fault-line, between a socially liberal haute bourgeoisie and a conservative petty bourgeoisie (apologies for my French, fellow patriotic Britishers).

Explaining why he found Radio 4 so irritating, the novelist Tim Lott once explained that the liberal middle class “is the voice of the upper echelons of the BBC” and they are in conflict with Middle Englanders, “essentially people with nice homes and decent incomes and a commitment to abiding by the law and even a sense of patriotism. The LMC see them as retrograde and primitive – those damn Daily Mail readers.”

Auto-Anglophobia is defined by a disgust of a certain idea of England. When Thompson made her comments it was leapt upon immediately by the Daily Mail, which asked “Why DO so many leftie and luvvies loathe this country”, which is a legitimate question, although it might also be said that it’s not exactly the country they hate but YOU, the Middle Englanders.

No recent book better summarises this fault than the Harry Potter series, where each of the villains represent different archetypes of the Liberal Middle Class’s enemies, from the small-minded suburban NIMBY Uncle Vernon to the future Bullingdon boy Malfoy.

The AutoAnglophobic intellectual isn’t against nationalism per se; they fawn over the Celtic variety, that earthy, authentic love of country, and when did Celtic nationalism ever kill anyone? Some proclaim how they long to be Scottish, just as once they might have claimed Irish or, if they were clutching at straws, Cornish ancestry. Some even dream of a separate Scottish nation, a British version of Vermont, progressive and egalitarian.

Similarly, “flag-shagger” as an insult almost invariably comes from people with flags in their Twitter bio – Palestine flags, EU flags, gay flags, trans flags, any flags just as long as they’re high status rather than low — the Union Jack and, worse still, the prole’s apron that is the St George’s Cross. You might see the latter in a middle-class areas during the later stages of a football tournament, but otherwise Rod Liddle was right to say that in north London you’re more likely to see the Palestinian colours being flown.

The conservative response to this disdain is often disingenuously defensive of the nation and its people, when indeed there is lots to dislike about England. The bone-headed officiousness of many in authority, which has come out to the fore in lockdown. The yobbishness, which is far more noticeable than in other European countries. The fact that you have signs in theme parks telling men to keep their tops on. We aren’t the world’s biggest drunks, but we’re probably the most unpleasant. Although much improved, England football fans can be horrible in the flesh; thuggish, racist and intimidating.

Visiting Holland always brings out my inner Remainer, because the people just seem like a better version of the English; the Germans are more cultured and take serious things like opera seriously; Italy is dysfunctional but Italians are intrinsically more civilised than us, and the Scandinavians run things in such a fairer way. And the French; well, I’m sure they have their good qualities, too. (Joke! I love the French.)

Likewise, much of the urban liberal critique of the British establishment is entirely justified. Our class system is not unique, but no one else really has such a divide between the private and state school sectors, for instance, nor such domination by one school in producing a lot of quite mediocre national leaders. The absence of revolution or war has been a blessing, but it has allowed us to avoid reform where it is needed.

And England is exceptional in some ways. The biggest event in our history took place ten thousand years ago when Doggerland was flooded. It is hard to invade an island, and so the country remained unaffected by the rule of Napoleon, or Hitler, leaving different legal and measuring systems, and a different psychology.

That silver sea has made us a happy breed of men, but it has also made us a complacent breed – the perfect conditions for oikophobia. In countries which have been trampled over by armies down the years an artist who disdained the ground where his ancestors had been starved or raped would be tiresome; in an island which had not endured foreign occupation or tyranny for centuries it’s indulged.

It’s an ancient tradition, going back at least to the late 18th century. The French Revolution was cheered by many in Britain, but many of those continued cheering even after it had descended into bloodshed, and war with Britain. Many of Britain’s intelligentsia praised Napoleon as “the Great Man of the People of France, the Liberator of Europe”, in the words of one radical MP. Charles Fox praised the French dictator, Britain’s arch-enemy, as “the most stupendous monument of human wisdom”. The great polemicist William Godwin – husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley – wrote that Bonaparte was “infinitely more dear to the people of France” than ever, even after it became clear he was a tyrant. William Wordsworth, once enthusiastic about revolution, had after France invaded Switzerland in 1798 lamented of his home country “Oh grief that Earth’s best hopes rest all with thee!”

Among the most enthusiastically self-hating were the Unitarians, who felt that Britain was uniquely immoral. One Unitarian minister, Ebenezer Aldred, said that Britain was the real Beast of Revelation, “guilty of imperialism, slave trading and sodomy”, in Robert Tomb’s words.

The intelligentsia’s disdain for the country that had nurtured them became more pronounced in the 20th century as Britain’s prestige declined, much of it influenced by a class disgust of the newspaper-reading “clerks”. It began at Cambridge University, where around the time of the First World War Lytton Strachey’s brilliantly timed Eminent Victorians marked the start of a cultural shift, after which the intelligentsia would always hate Britain.

The Bloomsbury set were the most notorious, among them Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, who combined following an egalitarian creed with snobbery for the ordinary British. A Room With a View, his novel about English tourists in Italy, is filled with contempt for the Brit abroad, who sophisticated English travellers have for centuries looked down on.

In fact back during the days of Grand Tour, the Whig Earl of Chesterfield told his son “You are not sent abroad to converse with your own countrymen… among them, in general, you will get little knowledge, no language, and I am sure, no manners… Their pleasure of the table end in beastly drunkenness, low riot, broken windows, and very often (as they well deserve) broken bones”.

The mindset became starker in the 1930s; in the famous 1933 Oxford Union debate, the country’s future leaders voted that “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country” by 275 votes against 153.

Orwell accused the country’s intelligentsia in the 1930s of “chipping away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British”. Unsurprisingly, when he wrote Nineteen-Eighty-Four, he saw that if there was hope against the new ideology, it would lie with the proles.

Intellectuals like Virginia Woolf didn’t understand why the workers continued to love their country, despite everything. Even during the darkest days of the War they refused to give up hope: on 17 June, 1940, Home Intelligence found a mood of “gloomy apprehension” to be most common in “the middle classes and women”. Working-class men, despite what the experts believed, thought we would win, and that even if we didn’t — we should fight anyway.

Since then, disdain for the country has spread from a small circle at Cambridge to the entire upper echelons of society; it has become a mark of status. It was noticeable after Brexit that many of those claiming to speak for “the 3 million” EU citizens here (who turned out to be 5 million) argued their case by insulting Britain, saying that a lazy country needed them.

This might seem ungrateful, but it was really a sign of integration, doing what the Brits do. (Just as high-status Asian-Americans talk about white supremacy because that’s what high-status Americans do.)

In fact, this has long been a mark of fitting in. Before The Satanic Verses affair, Salman Rushdie had ingratiated himself with the British cultural elite by comparing the country to Nazi Germany for Channel 4; more recently, foreign-born British journalists and cultural figures attack Britain for being racist; what looks like ingratitude is just newcomers imitating a society’s high-status beliefs. Two hundred years ago they might have joined the Church of England; now they join the Church of Hating England.

Bohemians are good for society; it needs them. But when bohemian mores spread too widely it can start to turn into universal cynicism and distrust, and eventually populism.

The disdain that many people feel for Britain certainly didn’t help Remain’s cause. In the weeks leading up to the vote, a bunch of bankers would come up with important but rather boring forecasts of just how skint we would be if we left; then some idiot would tweet that they’d lose their nanny if we left, unaware of how much that was the point, to punish an urban elite who enjoyed the full privileges of globalisation without the social contract that comes with being part of a national community. Perhaps the abiding image of the campaign was Bob Geldof, do-gooder par excellence — and a genuinely decent man by all accounts, who has done actual good — sticking two fingers up at British fishermen during a rather bad tempered, but comical, day of protests.

After the referendum, another social media trend was for people to post pictures of themselves on skiing holidays, looking sad because they were saying goodbye to Europe. Some posed with themselves eating continental food, because now they sadly never to eat a croissant again. This was done without any self-awareness, and the abiding message was “look how much I despise you all”.

The problem for Remain, and for progressives generally, is that everything is now so out in the open. Back in 2004 Thomas Frank wrote in What’s The Matter with Kansas? his polemic on working-class conservatism, that Right-wing media had created a fantasy where “all-powerful liberals who run the country… are contemptuous of the tastes and beliefs of the people who inhabit it.”

Yet since then, social media has proved the conservative fantasy to be obviously true, and it’s possible that nations, like families, need the little white lies to keep things going; if we all knew what the people around us really thought about us, things would fall apart very soon. And in Britain it became obvious that large numbers of the cultural elite really do hate the country.

It is that disdain for Englishness that partly explains Brexit. People will often put up with being ruled by people who cheat them, or lie to them, or who mismanage the country — as recent polls illustrate. But they won’t put up with being ruled by those who openly despise them.