How would Great Britain react to Brexit and the European Union if it were still attached to its alma mater?
John Donne’s famous words have come to haunt us. They address the whole of humanity and not just the poet’s own mortality, calling attention to our shared responsibility for what takes place in our own backyard:
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.”
As far as Europe is concerned, if Great Britain were to be metaphorically “washed away”, deliberately distanced from its historical and cultural roots, it would have the effect of isolating its people and abandoning the rest of Europe to its fate. Great Britain cannot expect to influence what is going on beyond its borders or to voice its concerns from a position of isolation. Standing on the sidelines shouting encouragement (or abuse) is no way to play the game if you want to win.
Europe is a quagmire of competing political and economic interests. It is juggling multiple allegiances and grievances heavily influenced by “special relationships” both internally and externally (notably with the USA and Russia). It is observing with fascination the unsettling rise of right-wing popular politics in countries such as Poland, Germany, Hungary, Greece, and France – whose long-term impact has yet to be felt. It is facing the unprecedented and unforeseen influx of thousands upon thousands of human beings – political and economic migrants and refugees fleeing war and deprivation. These are not issues to which Great Britain can be impervious or remain aloof.
Within Europe and beyond, the country once prided itself on a foreign policy that put others first. It is not clear when the erosion in values began or if a single starting point can even be identified, but compassion has gone out of the window and moral bankruptcy looms. “The Guardian view on human rights and foreign policy: do the right thing, not the easy one” (5 April 2016) underlined the current vacuity:
“Is there more to David Cameron’s foreign policy than trying to sell more stuff to foreigners? Some good judges doubt it. This week’s Commons foreign affairs select committee report on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights work stops short of drawing such a brutal conclusion. But it adds a few sharp entries to the charge sheet nevertheless, notably in relation to the aftermath of the Arab spring and in connection with sexuality issues. ‘Human rights is not one of our top priorities,’ the FCO permanent secretary Sir Simon McDonald confirmed in evidence last year, adding that ‘right now the prosperity agenda is further up the list’. That perception is widely shared, especially by those who watch the UK’s often cynical relationships with countries including China, Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”
We should be appalled by the implications of any stance that denies or demotes the pre-eminence of human rights in matters political, social, and cultural. To argue otherwise is to stand on the slippery slope of discrimination and despotism. Unfortunately, it is here that the current conservative government has done an about-face as The Guardian’s opinion states:
“[Foreign Secretary] Philip Hammond has dismantled the very specific human rights objectives – including freedom of expression, torture prevention, death penalty abolition and women’s rights – that he inherited from Lord Hague [former leader of the Conservative Party and one time Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs]. In their place, the FCO’s new focus is more general – democratic values and the rule of law, strengthening the rules-based international order and ‘human rights for a stable world’.”
In other words, this is a coach and horses policy to suit the interests of the day. For good or ill, Great Britain used to hold a preeminent place in history as a result of its imperial ambitions, political and economic alliances, and the dominance of its extraordinary language. That record is now at risk. And if moral responsibility is to mean anything, it must include defending the human rights of all people, not abandoning them to their fate for political gain.
Writing in Between the Monster and the Saint (2008), Richard Holloway observes:
“We are all, for a time, bound on the wheel of existence, whirling in space, before being thrown off into the darkness; so why can’t we acknowledge our common finitude, our brief time in the sun, and live in a way that honours the existence not only of our fellow humans, but of the other creatures who share our common journey to the grave? Compassion won’t rob the world of its tragic harshness, nor will it remove the sadness we discover at the heart of a universe marked by change and decay. But it can help soften the cry of grief as we all pass under the immitigable tree into the mystery beyond.”
Britain will probably always be an island, but it must lose its insularity.