The Brexit: Reactions from Over the Sea

When something like this happens, as a Brit living in America everyone wants to know what you think about it. What is going to happen now? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? What about this, that or the other?

It’s rather flattering to be treated as a source of primary information regarding whatever I’m being asked about concerning my country, but the truth of the matter is that my first-hand experience of Britain on a long-term basis is now over a decade old and there have been many changes in the interim.

Nonetheless, for the record, here are my thoughts on the Brexit we’ve just voted for ourselves: I don’t know.

I really don’t. I’ve been sceptical of the federalising nature of the European Union for decades now, mistrusting its stated aim of creating a single European state that I feel little to no emotional attachment to (and yes, that has been the stated aim right from the beginning). I don’t like the concentration of EU power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, I dislike its general wastage of time and money (the British government isn’t really any better, but at least it operates on a smaller scale), I mistrust the necessity of giving up control of our borders, and I do not like the distant, basically faceless nature of European government.

However, I’ve been living in the US for long enough now to understand exactly how small a fish the United Kingdom is in the global pond. London is still one of the great financial centres of the world, but in American financial news it’s frequently less important (and therefore less mentioned) than the French or German markets. And the collective “European markets” are only one beside the USA, China and Japan.

The UK together by itself is a much more viable proposition as a state than something like Scotland trying to go it totally alone, but we’re still pretty small and should not get arrogant as if we still owned a quarter of the world’s land surface.

Also, Donald Trump thinks the Brexit is a good idea, which should give us pause.

Watching from a distance, I’ve become disturbed by the increasingly fascistic and anti-immigrant tone of UKIP and sections of the Leave campaign. Immigration is going to happen whether we’re in or out. We can’t and shouldn’t try to completely close our borders; the diversity of perspectives and understandings brought in by our immigrant communities ought to be a source of strength, not weakness.

Neither should we withdraw from the world into the snail-shell of our Island Britain, drawbridge raised and spears bristling against “contamination” or whatever. Britain really does have a vital role to play in the world, whether as a part of the EU or separately: we have real national gifts and perspective that the world needs. Too many of the Leave camp seem to want to do just that, and I am not with them.

Also, Donald Trump thinks it’s a good idea.

Would we be better off Remaining? I don’t know. We can’t hope to influence the European Union from outside, but we seldom seem to have very much influence on it even from within. Is it better to be a single small fish in a large global pond, or a single small fish in a slightly smaller European pond that wants to assimilate the shoal into being a single large fish? Either way it seems like we’re being eaten.

The EU is widely considered a nightmare of overreaching red tape and stifling regulation, but Britain’s recent record on actually beneficial legislation to protect the weak and the poor from predation of various kinds is not good. Typically we’ve opposed it until made to change our ways by Europe, and that’s not a good pattern. Take note, American Republicans. Sometimes government is there as a sheepdog to stop massive corporate interests from turning predator. The EU has been a force for human rights and peace in Europe. I recognise and honour that.

Also, Donald Trump thinks the Brexit is a good idea.

That’s been one of my main problems with the whole campaign, actually, but particularly the Leave folks. The fearmongering on both sides has been dreadful even from this side of the Atlantic, but the fascistic tone of much of the Leave arguments and many of the people who support an exit put me off, including just about all of UKIP.

One of the things this vote has done is expose how deeply divided our nation is. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain; Wales and England voted to Leave. Older people wanted to Leave, young people overwhelmingly voted to Remain. London voted to Remain, the rest of England voted to Leave.

Is the name “United Kingdom” a bad joke? We’ve seldom before seemed so divided. You probably have to go back to the time of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms before “England” was even a thing in order to reach a comparative level of disunity. What is “Britain” now? What is “Europe”? What are “Scotland”, “Wales”, “Northern Ireland” and “England”?

I suspect that part of the success of the Leave campaign is a reflection of this especial confusion of our national identity as British.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have strong identities as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have done for a long time, and they hold them tenaciously. Not so the majority English. When I was young the English were always taught that it was wrong to say “I’m English” because we wanted to include our brothers and sisters of the several Celtic nations (that is, the Welsh, Scots and Irish). We were always taught to speak and think of ourselves as “British”, engendering a monumental confusion over what is “Britishness” as opposed to “Englishness”. This was brought to the fore by the recent Scottish independence referendum, but it’s been a real question for quite a while. And I’ve been out of the country for most of that time, so I’m not directly familiar with what sort of answers, if any, my country is coming up with.

Add in another level of “Europeanness” and an EU that really fundamentally doesn’t like the idea of separate national identities and it’s perhaps less surprising that the Leave camp won (or who it was that voted to Remain). Those with the strongest subnational identities (Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which have strong separatist movements and can view Britain as “English rule”) voted to Remain, while the confused English and the much more connected-to-England Wales (Yes, there’s a Welsh nationalist movement as well, but Wales has always been more integrated with England than Scotland is) voted to Leave. London, the determinedly cosmopolitan and internationalist financial centre, voted to Remain, the rest of England voted to Leave.

We don’t know what happens now. No-one does. In a real sense I have little invested in it any more; I live in America now. But I’m still at least emotionally committed to the country of my birth. I’m still a citizen of the United Kingdom rather than the United States, and I still don’t feel I can swear the US oath of citizenship in good conscience while it contains that clause about “renouncing all other allegiances” or however it’s worded. But the situation doesn’t affect me directly any more, so anything I say has to be viewed through that lens.

I’ve not been there for the arguments and wrangling. I’ve not lived in the UK for a decade. I’m viewing things from a distance, and that can sometimes play weird tricks on your perspective.

It will be very interesting to see how it all plays out, though I hope not in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse.

Britain is one of the top three or four economies in Europe. Her exit is going to leave a hole, not to mention potentially acting as the First Domino. But is this a fallacious “slippery slope” type argument? Only time will tell. And while I’m at least reasonably confident that Britain isn’t going to try to retreat from any and all engagement with the outside world, that may not be the case with all of the other potential exitees.

We don’t know what will happen as we try to extricate ourselves from the Union. At least we don’t have to get kicked out of the Eurozone and renegotiate our currency, but no-one can tell where the unravelling of that Gordian Knot will lead, whether for better or for worse.

So basically I’m still unsure over the whole thing. If I’d been registered to vote in it I would have done so (particularly if I’d been living there) but I don’t actually know which way I’d have voted. If I’d never left the UK, I might well have voted with the eventual majority, but I don’t know. It took moving to the USA for me to self-identify as a European, and I still mean that in a continental rather than political sense. But I’m a lot older and less naïve now than I was when I was in my early twenties in Britain, and watching the Scottish independence referendum gave me a certain sympathy for the rest of Europe who have been forced to deal with British Eurosceptics for at least a generation.

Who can say? As CS Lewis says, none of us are ever told what would have happened.

I hope that now we can all come together as a nation and do what’s right, making the best of the situation no matter how we (collectively if not actually personally) voted. We’ve historically been quite good at coming together and doing what’s right when our backs are to the wall. It remains to be seen whether that is still true.

I hope that my country doesn’t descend into the sort of ignorant anti-immigrant near-fascist mess that sections of the American electorate seem bent on becoming. I hope that we actually discover (or reforge) our real identity both as British and as English, Scots, Irish and Welsh. And as belonging to the European continent if not the Union. And as citizens of the world with something to contribute to the nations.

My optimism gives me hope. My cynicism isn’t so sure. And with the turn American politics seems to be taking, I see the same forces of ignorance, anti-immigrant nationalism and snaillike isolationism at work here.

What manner of world are we creating?

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9 thoughts on “The Brexit: Reactions from Over the Sea

  1. Sadly, the “fear mongering” of Remain turned out to be a bitter reality, the very next day after the referendum, as shares and currency rates plummeted, British credit rate was lowered, and investors ran for the door.

    People in Northern Ireland do not have a clear self-identification as Northern Irish. Some do, but most see themselves as either British or Irish, apparently. And Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are not “integrated” with England. They are conquered, occupied and colonized. These are the last vestiges of English colonialism, and they are set to free themselves and sail on as independent countries. Scotland is roughly the size of Ireland in both area and population – if Ireland can, why can’t Scotland?

    • I might dispute the characterisation of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as “conquered, occupied and colonized”, but I expect you’d disagree with me on that. I’m English, and I’m not going to apologise for something I can’t help. I am very aware that the English are hated like no other nation by some Scots, Welsh and Irish, and why. But I didn’t do any of that personally.

      Thanks for taking the trouble to comment

      • What’s there to dispute? It’s a matter of facts, England conquered Wales and Ireland. Even jailed and executed their kings. Scotland is a slightly different story, but nevertheless all three were dominated by England one way or the other. Not by you personally. But your government is responsible for the actions of its predecessors.

        Regardless, I certainly understand why they now resent being dragged out of the EU despite voting to remain.

      • I don’t doubt that many Scots and Irish resent being dragged out of the Union they want to remain in. The same as many English people do. I’ve got no problem with that.
        I know at least some of the history between England and the other constituent parts of the UK. I know why some Scots, Irish and Welsh don’t like us very much.
        But “conquered, occupied and colonised” makes it sound like there’s an active and current English army of occupation terrorising the natives while English settlers forcibly wrest lands from the gallant Irish, Scots and Welsh. I think the situation has changed a bit since that were true, even in Northern Ireland, if you insist on calling the British Army an occupying force. I’ll grant you that there’s more grounds for that than for the Scottish or Welsh situations, but even there it’s the British Army, not the English one. It’s supposed to be the army of the whole nation, not just the English bits.
        And there are two sides as to whether the British Army counts as an occupying force at all. Just ask any Ulster Unionist.
        I know some Scots and Welsh and Irish genuinely seem to feel that the current generation of bastard English are responsible at one remove for every act of injustice perpetrated against their country, and I’ll own that England has done some pretty awful things to Wales, Scotland and Ireland in the past, but I still don’t think “conquered, occupied and colonised” is fair to the real current situation.
        It sounds great if you’re Welsh, Scots or Irish, no doubt, but how is an English person to react to it? How are we supposed to react to it? What do you want from us? We can’t go back in time and undo every last act of injustice (and I’ll admit they were acts of injustice) that past Englands have done against you. Where is the way forward if “conquered, occupied and colonised” is a fair characterisation? If the English government (and there isn’t one just for England) is “responsible for the acts of its predecessors”, what are they supposed to do, in your opinion, to somehow change history and make it all right?

      • Look, I’m not English, Scottish, Irish nor Welsh. I am no side to the conflict, if there even is one.

        However, the history is still there, even if the situation today is different. And at some point in the past, the English have indeed conquered occupied and colonized their neighbours. The relationship has changed quite a bit since, but it seems to me that somewhere underneath, a genuine feeling of uneasiness about the relationship always remained. Both with the English, who can’t help but feel unease about their past, and with the Scots, Welsh and Irish, who are not entirely happy with being, in fact, a colony, even if they are now a part of a union.

        I am not suggesting changing the history. But I do think that restoring Scottish and Irish independence would at the very least free both sides from the burden of mutual responsibility.

        But, again, it is not my quarrel. It is a “family quarrel” among the people of the British islands. Unfortunately, as we all know too well, such quarrels all often are about gut feelings, real and imaginary insults of distant past and are nowhere near rational. It wouldn’t make me happy to see the UK leaving the EU, nor would it make me happy see the UK split. But if it makes the people involved happier – then by all means they should go for it. I only wish they’d bear in mind that there might be no way back, and at least try to be rational about it. In all cases.

      • I can go along with that. I’m not sure that independence would necessarily stop those that hate England from hating England. I hope we can find some way to make a real reconciliation possible; one thing the Brexit vote has certainly shown is that the United Kingdom isn’t very united. The history is what it is. I’m fully prepared to acknowledge the unhappier parts of England’s history with its UK neighbours. Maybe that’s a start.

  2. To concentrate on one paragraph of your essay: “I’ve been sceptical of the federalising nature of the European Union”. Federalism means “being bound by treaties” – what’s wrong with that? “mistrusting its stated aim of creating a single European state that I feel little to no emotional attachment to (and yes, that has been the stated aim right from the beginning).” Prove this claim with a proper citation or withdraw it. This is a link to the text of the Treaty of Rome: http://www.hri.org/docs/Rome57/Preamble.html and yes, it does include the phrase “ever closer union” but there is nothing stronger than that that could be interpreted as a plan to absorb countries into some kind of superstate, destroying nationhood. “I don’t like the concentration of EU power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats,” Members of the European Parliament are elected and their will enacted by an unelected civil service. How is this less democratic than the exact same system nationally? “I mistrust the necessity of giving up control of our borders” – our borders with Ireland and Spain are far less manageable with Brexit. “I do not like the distant, basically faceless nature of European government.” If you want pictures of EU officials they are readily available. What more do you want them to do to make themselves less faceless? Few voters know much about them because few care enough to find out, not because the officials are being secretive – they’re not.

    • I agree that the Latin root word from which we get the word “federal” does mean “bound by treaties”. If that were all “federalising” actually meant, no, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. Maybe my use of “federalising” is an American one, but in the US context in which I live now, “federalising” tends to refer to the power of the single US government over the governments of the individual States. That’s more or less the sense I mean it here.
      As for the claim that the EU intends to be a single state, I would have put forward the passage from the Treaty of Rome that you claim says the opposite. Evidently we have different ideas about what “ever closer union” actually means in practice. I’d contend that it does, and always has, meant political union, that is, becoming a single state with a single currency, common foreign policy, single federal government etc. What you’re saying sounds a lot like “yes, they say ‘ever closer union’ but they don’t actually mean it” to me. I like you anyway, though.
      The European Parliament exists. Its position vis-à-vis the European Commission has improved from what it used to be, but there’s still an awful lot of power concentrated in the Commission’s hands, and no-one elects them. Maybe I’m running on out-of-date information on this; it’s a possibility. Perhaps the old situation in which the Commission had all of the power and the Parliament was effectively toothless has been remedied more than I think it has. I’ll grant you a maybe on that.
      And the perception of “distant” and “faceless” is partly our fault, I suppose, because the UK’s media tends to treat it that way. Or did, when I was last there. But MEPs are hardly household names, and most Brits probably couldn’t tell you the name of a single one, much less anything any of them actually do. You can find out, of course, but you do have to go looking for it. And with constituencies the size of MEP electoral districts, they are a lot more distant and sort of faceless compared to our own MPs. They represent about four times the population.

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