Just when I am thinking that I haven’t posted much lately, and what is there to say, along comes a foreign newspaper that sums up the current situation in a few words, and does it far better than many of our own.
How do you make a country smaller ? By trying to make it great again. As the curtain finally comes down on the long-running psychodrama of Brexit, reality sinks in. It is the creation of Lesser Britain, a country already reduced and in danger of shrinking even further.
In 1971, the British government published its White Paper, setting out the reasons why it wanted to join the European project. It imagined the country’s fate if it declined to do so: “In a single generation we should have renounced an imperial past and rejected a European future. Our friends everywhere would be dismayed. They would rightly be as uncertain as ourselves about our future role and place in the world… Our power to influence the [European] Communities would steadily diminish, while the Communities’ power to affect our future would as steadily increase.”
Fifty years later, Britain has done what it did not do then. It has “rejected a European future”. And even though fantasies of a new golden age of global mercantile power feature heavily in the rhetoric of Boris Johnson and his allies, no one really believes that its “imperial past” is about to return. Its friends everywhere are dismayed and it is uncertain not just about its place in the world, but about itself: what it is, what it wants. The counter-factual of 1971 is the reality of 2021.
During the COVID-19 crisis, there has been, from Johnson and his government, a constant drum-beat of superlatives. Every initiative it launched would not be merely – or indeed even – competent. It would be “world-beating”. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, explaining how Britain had raced ahead to authorise the (German-developed) COVID-19 vaccine before the EU or the U.S., boasted that: “Well I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators. Much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them, aren’t we?”
As a slightly more intelligent Englishman than Williamson, William Shakespeare would have said: “Methinks he doth protest too much.” This need for hyperbole has barely disguised the profound insecurity of a country that fears if it does not constantly proclaim its greatness, it may finally have to confront the thing it has so long avoided: its own ordinariness.
There is nothing wrong with being an ordinary country. In fact, there is an awful lot right with it. Countries are much more likely to be at peace with themselves and their neighbours if they do not, to paraphrase W.B Yeats, “feed their hearts on fantasies” of greatness. We might go so far as to suggest that the best measure of whether a country has come to terms with its history is whether or not it insists on being a “much better country” than every other.
There is in England (and the current crisis is English, not British), a discomfort with the idea of being one among many. Some of this is indeed a throwback to an imperial mindset. Empires are dualistic– you are either the top dog or you are being suppressed. England, in particular, has struggled to transcend this binary mentality. If it is not dominant, it fears that it must be submissive. This was always a problem in a European Union that is constructed precisely to avoid the appearance of being in either state.
One way for the British to deal with this dilemma was to imagine itself as the dominant power within the EU. “If we couldn’t dominate that lot,” said the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1966, referring to the original six signatories of the Treaty of Rome, “there wasn’t much to be said for us”. The other way was to magnify Britain’s role in the world by exaggerating its position as the one indispensable ally of the United States. There has been, in the words of the English historian Linda Colley, “a persistent inclination to pursue empire vicariously by clambering like a mouse on the American eagle’s head”.
A ridiculous swagger
The quest for size has led to making Britain smaller. Is this the beginning of a development that will end with an English nation-state?
Ein Essay von Fintan O’Toole