Will post-Brexit Britain be at the centre of Europe or on the lunatic fringe?
“The European project is built on the idea that economic ties and social improvement bring people together and help them overcome the traumas of history. In recent years, much has been said about how nationalism, populism and anti-establishment sentiment are a response to globalisation and inequality. Less has been said about a more specifically European ingredient: the shadow cast by 20th-century traumas born of war and totalitarianism, and the difficulty – which still persists – of dealing with that legacy.”
So writes Natalie Nougayrède in “As Germany and Spain prove, history – with all its wounds – is not over” (The Guardian, 7 October 2017). She has a point, and Great Britain should take notice.
There is a sense in which Britain has relied on its 19th and 20th century history in order to bolster its position today. As a former world power – for some that is the unpalatable reality – Britain must now contend with the USA, Russia, China, India, Germany, and Japan on the world’s political and economic stage. Other nations are also jostling for recognition. Long past are the dubious achievements of colonialism and the dark struggles against fascism and communism. Britain can no longer take for granted the prestige it once had or its place at the high table of global politics.
Britain also has its legacy of fascism and racism, one that has resurfaced in recent years. The British National Party, the English Defence League, the UK Independence Party, the English Democrats, and Britain First are white supremacist groups that espouse “ethnic nationalism”. It’s an ideology that flies in the face of Britain’s proud history of giving a home (and nationality) to people escaping persecution in Europe as well as to those from former British colonies and protectorates. All these individuals and families joined hands with native English, Irish, Scots, and Welsh to contribute to the success and resilience of Britain as a nation.
Natalie Nougayrède’s article quotes the historian Isaiah Berlin, who “once wrote that nationalism feeds on a sense of wounded pride and humiliation.” If this assertion is true, and there is considerable evidence that it is, what is the cause of Britain’s wounded pride and humiliation? Loss of power? Loss of prestige? Resentment that countries vanquished 72 years ago at the end of the Second World War – Germany and Japan – are flourishing and seemingly dictating terms to the victors? That countries like Russia and China, longtime arch-enemies of democracy, have grown too big for their boots?
Liberal democracy, which became mainstream in the last quarter of the 20th century, is facing a crisis. The upsurge of right-wing, xenophobic, and authoritarian populism that is undermining Europe and now the USA, the left-wing populism (also authoritarian) that has taken root in much of Latin America, together with rampant religious fundamentalisms (Islamic, Hindu, Christian, Neo-Zionist) suggest that very little of lasting value has been learnt from tackling the fanaticisms of previous decades. Like certain species of flora and fauna, democratic norms such as respect for other people, decency, tolerance, and plurality of opinion have become endangered.
Britain cannot afford to isolate itself from Europe. It cannot afford to be less tolerant, less decent, or less aware of the perils of history. So far, Brexit has been largely cast in self-serving economic terms. In fact, the debate is intrinsically political. Britain can only seek to influence Europe and, by extension, world events, as part and parcel of Europe. It cannot stand on the fringe. Economic consequences follow, but the price of old glory is compromise, not bone-headed intransigence.