Brexit is not who or what we are. We must continue to fight to stop it and, as AC GRAYLING explains, the case for doing so is now stronger than ever.
Brexit is a revelation of failures: a failure of education, a failure of political leadership and statesmanship, a failure of national imagination. It fails the people of the United Kingdom, and it fails the people of Europe, of which we are part: thus failing our own continent and the kin from whom we descend, with whom we have fought terrible and useless wars for no better reason than that monarchs and ruling classes squabbled with one another over territory and influence, and dragooned us – the people – into conflict with each other by means of the siren songs of patriotism and nationalism. The project of a European comity of nations – the European Union – is about progressive ideals and economic flourishing, yes; but it is equally if not even more about peace, about rejecting the fatal lie of the jealously-bordered ‘nation state’ – a horrible idea, in the light of history: all borders are drawn in the blood of past wars – so that in harmony with each other the various peoples and cultures of Europe can foster their commonalities, sharing and cooperating to mutual advantage.
Brexit enacts what the worst elements of the anti-progressive, nationalistic forces in Europe desire: the desire of the far right, xenophobic and self-enclosed, playing out a mindset whose emblems are locked doors, shut windows, drawn curtains, high walls, chained gates, making a prison for the people within which they build in order to keep others out. Brexit is of a piece with this. The underlying sentiment is sickening. It has the stench of national gangrene, the foetid atmosphere that broiled up the wars which the EU exists to make impossible.
Open your laptop and summon up YouTube footage of Europe in 1945. Look at the ruins, the devastation, the tragic lines of refugees, the bitter and horrendous proof of what nationalism, xenophobia and racism can be at its worst: the camps of the Holocaust. That is the destination at the far end of the road which begins with the kind of sentiments that prompt Brexit. You think that I exaggerate, that to say this is just hyperbole? Alas. Look at that footage: imagine yourself there.
It is a failure of education that historical consciousness is so weak and faint, that memory is so short and local, that only those British citizens over 80 years old have an actual memory of living in a Europe of war – apart from the people of Northern Ireland and their own tragic siege, which Brexit threatens to revive. Everyone in Britain under 50 has lived in a time of peace that the grand imagination of European (including British) statesmen and women of high calibre achieved. The profoundly mistaken policy of austerity enacted in the UK after the 2008 financial crash leads some of us to forget that in relative terms the UK’s membership of the EU has been a major economic success: on the day before the 2016 referendum the UK was the world’s fifth largest economy; in the 1970s when the UK joined the then EEC we had an imploding economy with rampant inflation, strikes, a three-day working week, power cuts, huge piles of uncollected rubbish in the streets, unburied dead stacked in mortuaries, the Chancellor of the Exchequer flying from Heathrow to beg loans from the IMF, political strife, and confusion. Again, click on YouTube and look at a few minutes footage of 1970s Britain. Do you wish to go back there?
You cannot explain how Brexit could even be contemplated by anyone alert to recent history. But we seem to be suffering national amnesia. This is one great failure therefore: the temporal parochialism that our education system appears to create. Our children learn about the Tudors: fine. What about the recent history of the world as it shapes today?
But the other great failure is the lack of statesmanship in our political order. Imagination and vision of the comprehensive kind displayed by Churchill in his post-war advocacy of a united Europe has been replaced by the low cunning and self-interest of the Moggs and Johnsons, the Goves and Raabs and Redwoods, whose own ambition looms so large before their eyes that they see little else. They do not see others across the great landscape of Europe, they do not see the past and future, they do not see the deep meanings of peace and progressive ideals: they see only themselves. But they have done it with enough cunning to mislead a sufficient number of others – about a quarter of the voting-age population – with the conjuring tricks of empty rhetoric (‘sovereignty,’ ‘take back control’) and lies (‘hundreds of millions for the NHS,’ ‘tens of millions of Turks will flood the country’) to achieve their coup.
They have exposed the failure of our political and constitutional order: that has to change. We cannot ever again allow such people to drag an entire country, people and economy into the mire for their personal ambitions. Reform is essential. This has been a theme of what I’ve written in these pages before: the case for it is made.
But let’s not give them too much credit for the tricks these politicians have played in manipulating our broken constitution. Too many among us, the people, allowed ourselves to be tricked. We get the politicians we deserve, and far too many of them are too careerist, too pusillanimous, too self-interested, to rise above the chimaera of ‘party loyalty,’ ‘party unity,’ and their own ambitions, to serve the country. The utter folly of Brexit is an objectively provable fact: it is an egregious act of self-harm: our politicians know it, even those who welcome this fact precisely because it gives them, personally and individually, a set of opportunities they might not otherwise have. Therefore those of our politicians who are in parliament ought in all rationality to stop the madness immediately, given that it is already causing great harm. Will they? Will there come a moment when not even they can stomach the consequences, so that they act at last in the real interests of our country and not just those of their party or themselves?
Implicit in the foregoing failures is the failure of national imagination. Whatever you think about the crimes and follies of the British Empire, the fact remains that the world speaks English because the history of the last three hundred years has been increasingly shaped by the influence of what our forebears in these islands did across the world. Now, note something crucial about how this happened: British endeavour did this always as part of something larger than just these islands and the people in them. Between having an empire and joining our partners in Europe – that is, in those parlous solitary years between 1945 and 1975 – we lost our footing badly, and were plunging into failure. The history of the people in our islands is one of leveraging our potential in combination with others – always in combination with others. For example: it is a myth that we ‘stood alone’ in 1940: we had the Empire and Commonwealth with us – Canada, Australia, South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya, India, much more – and although most do not see it this way, our leaders then knew their history: they knew that the Athenians could abandon their city to the Persians but would get it back when they had defeated them. if Hitler had invaded and conquered the British Isles, Churchill would have fought on from Nova Scotia, and got the British Isles back.
But this failure of imagination extends to the huge opportunity we have always had, and to some extent have consistently failed to take, as one of the three big economies of the EU. The EU is one of the three chief power centres in the world, the other two being the US and China. The UK could be a leader in one of these three leading centres, and therefore a leader in the world. How different it would be – will be? – when nowhere as an isolated post-Brexit small island of 65 million people, with a diminishing economy – and remember that failure happens at compound interest: we decline in wealth, influence and standing more and more as each year passes if we are merely a Brexit wreck. But as a big member of a big bloc, we continue to have the prestige and influence that has made us a force in the world. With our partners in Europe we can continue to be a force in the world, and with them a force for good: Europe is about soft power, about human rights, about peaceful cooperation, about democracy and the rule of law – it repudiates the raw capitalism and armed might of the US and the parallel ambition nourished by China to be a military hegemon, but instead it is a civilising power, showing that many languages, cultures and traditions can flourish by pooling the things they share in common, working together and peacefully building something sound and good. That is an example for the world at large, completely different from the nineteenth-century ambitions of military swagger that the US and China are still wedded to. The EU is premised on a vision of how the future might be that is infinitely preferable to those backward-looking and dangerous attitudes. The UK could and should be a leader in promoting that vision as a major EU country, thereby making the world quite literally a better place.
Instead, at the moment, we have succumbed to that narrow, divisive, inward-looking, nationalistic, closed-minded attitude that the worst of our political class wish to foist upon us. We must resist: for ourselves, and for our young people who have been born as European citizens with all the rights, privileges and opportunities of being so – rights, privileges and opportunities that Brexit threatens to remove at a stroke. We must resist for the sake of Europe too, and for the high values of peace and progress that our European civilisation in its best respects stands for.
The EU has its problems and flaws: yes. No one knows that better than those who work in the European cause itself. It is inevitable that such a great work as building a peaceful and flourishing comity of nations will have snags and difficulties, because we learn as we go along in creating a new kind of order aimed at these amazing goals. But the nobility of the vision itself should be an encouragement to participate and contribute, not to run away and turn one’s back. That is a wretched thing to do, making ourselves a dog-in-the-manger in our corner of the world with all the greatness and sadness of its tumultuous history, but now seeking to change the way that humanity lives with itself. It is above all a failure of imagination not to see how important this is, and to be determined to be a partner in it.
That is why we must fight to stop Brexit: we are far better than Brexit; Brexit is not who and what we are.