To the European readers of this blog. you will have been puzzled over the last three and a half years about what is going on in the political turmoil of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and how a simple question about membership of a trading bloc can have caused so much rancour. The answer is that it is not really about the European Union.
We talk about ‘the two sides’, however there are not two sides but several sides. There are some who do believe wholeheartedly in the grand European Project, but these are a minority of eccentrics, mostly found in the Liberal Democrats (and that party’s membership is far from united on that point: several campaigned for ‘Leave’). For their opposite, look at some of the wild men of UKIP, but they caused that party to fall from a leading political force into obscurity. The majority are in the middle, pushing their own subtle interpretations upon ‘Go’ or ‘Go back’, with their own degrees of vacillation, force or aggressive timidity.
Even so, the sundering argument is not about the European Union at all.
I trod the streets, I knocked on the doors, I heard what was said and what was not, and I have heard all that has been said afterwards. Much of what I heard was not about the actuality of the European Union but ad hominem arguments that could have stood for either side in the nominal subject of the debate. On the Leave-leaning side most of what was said was about the follies and iniquities of the European Union, but also the follies and iniquities of the know-all urban élites pushing their project in order to extinguish the particular genius of this nation. From the Remain-leaning side there was economic argument, largely the surmises of ‘Project Fear’, but mostly attacks on the leaders of the Leave campaigns – against Nigel Farage; against Boris Johnson; against the sort of people who join UKIP.
This is the key to it: the split in the nation is not about Europe, but about what we think the other side are like. To desperate Remainers, the other side are incomprehensible unless they can be portrayed as idiots or deceivers, and that is why those accusations have poured continually from the Remainiacs. To Leavers, the Remoaners can only be traitors and those with no allegiance but to themselves.
The split there is deeper than Europe: it is a split between the liberal and the conservative reactions, and even within them: for older conservative-minded characters, reclaiming the nation is a top priority before it is too late and the upcoming generation snuff it out, while younger conservative-minded characters may cling conservatively to the familiar of Europe, and to naïve political ideologies picked up in idealism and not yet grown out of. For natural liberals in contrast, the European Project is a power to be harnessed to enforce the liberal vision of the world, and breaking from it is to break their dreams, which is a very deep wound. The priority though is the dream and the liberal ideal, not the European Union.
The incomprehension between the two or three sides is the same as the liberal-conservative incomprehension analysed by Jordan Peterson, and occasionally referred to and described on this blog.
Listen to the way the debate is expressed: in discussing Europe, all sides discuss only Britain and our context, because Britons are fundamentally unable to place ourselves in the continental context. The argument is not a Leave-Remain argument: the European Union is only a ball to play with, a McGuffin. The argument is a Conservative-Liberal one.
The very nature of the nation is in play and the values on which it is to be built. This explains the ferocity and incomprehension, and it will continue with this or other nominal subjects for many years yet.
- The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray
- 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B Peterson
- Woke: A Guide to Social Justice by Titania McGrath
- Political Correctness Gone Mad?, by Jordan B. Peterson, Stephen Fry, Michael Eric Dyson and Michelle Goldberg
- The Dream of Rome by Boris Johnson
- Revisiting the European Union as Empire Hartmut Behr, Dr. Yannis A. Stivachtis, Ioannis A. Stivachtis (eds)
- Making a Success of Brexit and Reforming the EU by Roger Bootle
- Brexit: Its Necessity and Challenge by Tony Kosuge
- Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe by Denis MacShane
- Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union by Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley
- Brexit: How Britain Left Europe by Denis MacShane
- Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution by Vernon Bogdanor