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Every country has a myth of specialness; how their state was founded by gods, ruled by divinely inspired kings, its inhabitants a chosen people. In this light, Britain is hardly exceptional in believing it has a unique role in the world. But perhaps few would have expressed that prejudice quite so bluntly as Baroness Margaret Thatcher did at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in October 1999: "Nothing good has come from the continent... the only good things have come from the English Speaking Peoples."
I must make an immediate apology for my former Prime Minister, while expressing gratitude for her candour. She puts into vivid relief much of the bigotry, insularity and xenophobia of the ‘Eurosceptics’ who dominated British politics in the 1990s. As Dr Schwanitz points out in his elegant essay on the Whig Version of History (HYPERLINK TO FORUM ARTICLE), these attitudes of mistrust toward Europe have a long and distinguished pedigree. They are part of the recurrent myth of ‘Britain standing alone’.
The image of Britain as a sceptred isle, fortified by white cliffs against incursions from abroad begins is a core component of British nationalism from after the severance from Rome and the attempted Spanish and French invasion with the Armada. It recurs in British fears about ‘popish plots’ to blow up the Houses of Parliament or install Catholic monarchs. The myth takes on a secular dimension with the fear of that ‘Old Boney’ – Napoleon Bonaparte – would sweep over the channel as he did over much of Europe, until stopped at Trafalgar and Waterloo. But this image of isolated resistance to continental despotism takes on its full and final meaning in the Battle of Britain, when another European dictator is stopped at the white cliffs of Dover. Though I was born in 1960, and think myself free from the prejudices of the war generation, all the films and comic books and toys of my childhood were dominated by World War II imagery: the Blitz, Spitfires, Colditz, and compulsory Christmas day viewing of The Great Escape.
In the post war years, this peculiarly British fear of the ‘continent’ became subsumed under the polarities of the Cold War and anti communism: our insularity shielded by Nato’s nuclear umbrella. But once the Berlin wall came down and the Iron curtain was lifted, this nationalism needed to find a new enemy. The tone was set once again by Margaret Thatcher in her famous Bruges speech of 1987. For her, the ‘foreign germ’ of socialism and tyranny was now being seeded by the European union, a new ‘superstate’. Instead of Philip of Spain or Bonaparte or Hitler or Soviet spies, our new enemy was Jacques Delors and the faceless bureaucrats of Brussels.
As a writer of dramatic narratives, I tend to look at stories not only in terms of content (i.e. what they are about) but also in terms of audience (i.e. who are they for). When it comes to the myth of Britain alone it seems to me that this is actually for more for internal rather than external consumption.
Part of my country’s problem since the war is that the rise of Europe has been accompanied by a steep decline in the meaning of ‘Britishness’ for the average Briton. When I was a child I was shown maps of the globe with a quarter of it coloured pink as British colonies or former dominions. Within a generation – from say 1920 to 1960 - Britain declined from being ‘the greatest empire the world had ever known’ to the role of a mid ranking European state. This decline in self-image and self-esteem must have been traumatic for many Brits who lived through the first half of the 20thcentury. But it was not just abroad that our identity was threatened. It was also being challenged at home.
For three hundred years since the Act of Union, colonisation and conquest overseas disguised ofEnglish colonisation and conquest of Scots, Irish and Welsh. Even during the heyday of the British Empire in the 19th century, imperial distractions did not delay civil strife within the union. In the myth of Britain alone other parts of these island - Ireland and to a lesser extent Scotland and Wales – have often figured as potential turncoats or traitors. Part of the vitriol and violence that has characterised British involvement in Ireland has been this fear that the ‘enemy within’ could harbour Popish plotters, Bonapartiste troops, or Nazi U-boats.
Thus, a large part of the fear of the continent, of the ‘other’, is in fact an aberrant expression of our anxiety about the unity of the United Kingdom.
These days the idea of Britishness itself is deeply problematic, with one prominent political commentator, Andrew Marr, writing recently about ‘The Day Britain died’. With the advent of devolution to Scottish and Welsh assemblies, a Mayor of London about to be elected and other regional assemblies proposed, the real debate at the beginning of the 21st Century is whether Britishness was anything more than a disguise for a much narrower and less noble phenomenon: the ‘little Englander’.
This potential for internal fracture is, I believe, (with perhaps the exception of Belgium), quite unmatched in the rest of Europe. And even the Belgians have one single football team to support. There is no Flemish or Walloon team competing in Euro 2000 finals, nor, despite their historic unity and identity, is there a Lombard, or Catalan or Bavarian team. But in most important national sporting events Britain regularly fields FOUR teams: Scotland, Wales, England and the North of Ireland.
If recent polls are to be relied upon, a vast majority of the UK population – over two thirds – are reluctant to join Economic and Monetary Union, with a small majority even in favour of withdrawing from the European Union entirely. It is beyond doubt that there a strong streak of antipathy to an ‘ever deeper union’ with Europe. But, at the risk of asserting an unproven hypothesis, I would suggest that this is an English rather than a British dilemma.
Federalism means two opposing things on either side of the British channel. On the other side of La Manche, Federalism means devolution, decentralised administration with strong local government. In Britain, perversely, federalism means completely the opposite: it connotes a strong central European state within which national sovereignty is subsumed.
Whether these two meanings of federalism are mutually exclusive (after all ‘pooled’ sovereignty could accompany more regional autonomy) it is the English, rather than the British, who have most to fear from federalism in both its senses. Not only would the English lose control of its immediate neighbours, the English nation would become an even less significant player on the world scene. At present, Britain can scarcely justify its role on the United Nations’ Security Council. But come full national devolution, England has no more right to be there than Spain.
Nationalists – Scottish, Welsh and Irish – have been broadly in favour of European integration, partly because it means they can bypass Westminster and English domination, but also because the EU provides an ideal structure for small states to flourish in a wider frameworks of regional aid and economic stability. I have no polls to back this up, but my instinct tells me that the current of Euroscepticism is much stronger in England than in the other nations of the UK.
This anxiety about a beleaguered identity is also, interestingly enough, reflected on the football field. Scottish, Welsh and Irish football supporters are renowned for enthusiastic but peaceable support for their national teams. Not so English football fans who are, infamously, market leaders when it comes to bigotry, racial violence and hooliganism
So, in this analysis, the biggest bar to European integration is not the Brit but the little Englander, who seems to have everything to lose by it. His xenophobia is intensified by a sense of lost esteem, a kind of global downward mobility. And now, despite tentative plans for regional governance, the little Englander feels betrayed both within and without. The Scots and the Welsh have national assembles - but he doesn’t. Meanwhile, the EU keeps eroding his national privileges. Not only is his favourite ‘roast beef’ banned, his homely chocolate questioned by Europe, but he has to count his currency in decimals, and measure his life in alien metres and kilos instead of good old fashioned feet and pounds.
English nationalism – and its pre-emptive attack on all that is foreign on this island or outside it – is an acute symptom of an identity crisis. Fortunately, there have recently been signs that, rather than take umbrage at the more positive manifestations of Scottish and Welsh and Irish national identity, the English are beginning take a lead from it.
Much of this, I would argue, comes from the central role of London in the England’s identity, With a population of 7 million, and one of the great world cities, London itself possesses a multiethnic, multicultural identity quite at variance with the narrow white definitions of the little Englander. Personally, perhaps because of a mixed Armenian/Welsh/English background, I find itself easier to think of myself as a Londoner rather than a Brit or ‘English’. But I am not alone. Most my friends have mixed regional or national identities and apparently 50% of all people in London have a grandparent who was not born in Britain. In the 19th century London was famous for having more Scots living in it than Edinburgh, more Irish than in Dublin, more Jews than in Jerusalem. And though these facts might no longer true, London still represents an unusually harmonious mixture of races, creeds and ethnic backgrounds.
The forthcoming elections for a directly elected, Parisian or American-style Mayor of London may be vitiated by various political shenanigans. But not one of the candidates has veered from the belief in London as a great multicultural, multiethnic, tolerant city. The fact that the cuckoo of London is laying its egg of cosmopolitanism deep in the English heartland is of quite profound significance.
I firmly believe that Britain’s prevarication over Europe will be solved when the English resolve the troubled issue of their own identity. The only other big obstacle remaining in our way is the fact that, through an accident of history, that the English language is rapidly becoming the lingua franca of the Information Age.
In her demented outburst Margaret Thatcher pitted the ‘English speaking peoples’ against the ‘continent’ as if the former represented some great historical alliance. But even our so called ‘special relationship’ with the US is, these days, not really that much more special than the relationship between Washington and other captials, Berlin, Tokyo or Beijing. Yes, there are ties of language and custom between Britain and the US, but most US citizens DON’T have Anglo-Saxon roots, and the peculiar military alliance of Britain and the US is a legacy of the Second World War. As for the ‘English speaking peoples’ this would now include, as a second language, much of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, India, Africa and South East Asia.
I have French friends who see the dominance of the English language as some kind cultural colonisation, as if the mere fact that English words are spoken means that English customs, cuisine and manners are taking over the world. This is frankly preposterous. American-led global commerce maybe taking over the world. American-made movies and computer software maybe. Though it is the medium of the Internet and lingo of airports, the English language is no more the property of the English people these days than Medieval Latin was the property of a province of Italy. The language is owned by those who speak and use it, rather than those who originally devised it. And after all, what is the English language but a uniquely European creation – a synthesis of Norman French and Saxon German?
Now it’s time for me to lay my cards on the table. I hope to have demonstrated both my understanding of, and lack of sympathy for, the paranoid chauvinism of the little Englander. I am also a realist, and I firmly believe that Britain has no choice: it cannot retreat from Europe - only engage with it. We could no more withdraw from the continent than physically drag ourselves into the middle of the Atlantic.
Just because I am pro-European does not mean I am freed from reservations or objections to the institutions of the European Union, as currently formulated. Some may attribute this caution to some unreconstructed Britishness, but I have found these reservations shared by many others in France, Germany, Holland and particularly among the Danish, Polish or Czech. And it is here where I diverge from Dr Schwanitz’s diagnosis. It is not the political aspects of the European Union that worry me, but some of the economic and social assumptions.
In terms of their cultural identity, Britons are these day much less stereotyped in their perception of other Europeans, and much more happy to identify themselves as part of a continental culture. Despite the occasional headline in The Sun or The Mirror, most people now eschew the crude demonology of Krauts, Frogs, Wops and Dagos that so obsessed us even twenty years ago. When I was a child it was commonplace to make complaints about the ‘continent’, to complain about ‘foreign’ lavatories, dodgy food and undrinkable water. Nowadays, as the Blair generation holiday in Southern France and Tuscany, drive German cars, drink Italian coffee, Belgian beer, the average Briton probably believes that the quality of life is actually higher in mainland Europe than it is at home. Our appreciation of European qualities of life, of café culture, good food, good wine and a relaxed attitude to conviviality and entertainment is everywhere to be seen in the renovated city centres of Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol or Leeds.
When it comes to politics too, at least politics its wider strategic dimensions, I believe most Brits are very much in favour of European co-operation instead of the dangerous balance of power politics that have haunted much of our history.
Europe is a special not just because of its unique civilisation, but also because of its unique barbarity. When war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, some commentators complained that it seemed to attract more attention than war and atrocity in Africa or Asia. They argued that we were more concerned with Sarajevo or Kosovo than Rwanda or East Timor because the victims were white and watched MTV and wore jeans. If they were black, or wore dhotis, we tended to ignorer their sufferings as the natural antics of uncivilised savage people.
I happen to believe that the opposite is true. War and atrocity in Europe concerns me not because the continent is more civilised than Africa or South East Asia, but because it has consistently been much more barbaric. In this century alone has been the scene of hundreds of millions of casualties, and many times more people have been killed by famine, war and pogrom in the Europe and Russia in the last century than in Africa or China.
For me, fifty years of peace in Europe has been the great prize of European Union. In this, I’m sure even most my Eurosceptic compatriots would agree. If asked the right question; if asked whether they thought European Union was worth pursuing to prevent another European war, the British would, I’m sure, vote overwhelmingly in favour of it.
My personal opinion is that the continuing British reluctance to go further in EU integration is not a case of cultural snobbery or political paranoia. For the Blair generation, the objection is quite specific. Britain still has a deep mistrust of economic and monetary union for economic and monetary reasons.
Let me briefly explore the nuances of this distrust by looking at the Euro – the single European currency – which Britain still retains an ‘option’ to join. Now there are those, on both sides of the political spectrum, who believe to the single currency because it means a central bank, centralised interest rates, and therefore harmonisation of tax laws and social spending. Depending whether they come from the left or the right, these people object to losing national sovereignty to a) a quasi socialist ‘superstate’ or b) a club of capitalist bankers.
With the deregulated global flow of capital and finance these days, I personally believe that national sovereignty in economic matters is probably pretty illusory. One of the reasons the British electorate so comprehensively dismissed the ‘Eurosceptic’ Tory government in the 1997 landslide vote for Labour is that they discovered that this much vaunted sovereignty was a myth. Its mythic quality became clear in the debacle of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Monetary system in 1992. John Major’s government had no sovereignty when it came to speculation on the pound sterling.
However, though I realise European currencies must unify as their economies converge, I still fail to see why a single European currency had to be imposed in one fell swoop. Yes, both companies and individuals need to have stability in their currency dealings – but a common currency could have been introduced without abolishing the pound, the franc, the lira or the mark. A successful and evolving common currency would have attracted individuals, companies and institutions, gradually abolishing native currencies by preferential choice. Such a currency would have been created from below, rather than imposed from above. I have asked members of the European Central Bank why they did not take this route and (I suspect after mentally dismissing me as another little Englander) their main explanation seemed to be that maintaining national currencies alongside the Euro would have been ‘expensive’. One of my more indiscreet interlocutors then went on to argue that ‘we’ve got to beat the dollar’ and ‘get the Americans by the balls!’.
If one overlooks for a moment this false competition with the dollar (and the perverse desire of many Anti-Americans to emulate the US) the only argument against a ‘non-exclusive’ common currency is one of cost. On the same basis we would abjure representative democracy and the rule of law, because they are also phenomenally expensive. And I can see nothing more costly for the whole of Europe than having a common currency failing for the simple reason it was imposed on the people rather than adopted by them.
One of the most troubling aspects of my debate with other pro-Europeans is that when I question the single common currency, or ponder the probity of the commission, or wonder about the harmonisation of social policy, I am construed as another narrow minded Brit, forever blind to great noble aims of the EU.
This worries me deeply. At what point did that great and wonderful collection of peoples and history that constitutes ‘Europe’ become equated with a bureaucracy in Brussels, or the dentistry of Edith Cresson? It seems important to me that, especially given the diversity of the EU, that the institutions should be subservient to the people, rather than vice versa. Sometimes I am not sure that this view is shared by the people I have met who actually run the institutions of Europe.
Some might dismiss my reservations as purely national in character. I expect Margaret Thatcher would say that I’m demonstrating a peculiarly ‘Anglo Saxon’ distrust of big government that sets me apart from the dirigiste traditions of France or the corporatist traditions of Germany. But I think this would be a naively nationalist analysis. On most counts – whether through social welfare or health or tax policy – most of Britain’s indicators place it firmly in the European camp of social democracy. We are not a laissez faire nation. Above all, I think we share a great tradition that marks Europe out from most other continent in the world – SCEPTICISM.
Perhaps the most striking difference between virtually every European country and the United States is the degree to which its inhabitants have been secularised. Whether it’s Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Finland, Luxembourg – the majority of Europeans do not attend church or count themselves as part of any established faith – and this majority often exceeds believers by more than two to one.
In the United States, this role is reversed. 70% of the US population regularly attend church, and the numbers who count themselves ‘believers’ double that of most Europeans. Despite all the anomalies of race, language and background our component countries, this core belief in the values of doubt and disbelief (from Descartes to Kafka) is probably the most defining characteristic of a modern European.
After all, the average Briton doesn’t really worry that the EU will install a quisling regime in Westminster or annexe East Anglia. The average Briton worries that ‘Brussels Bureaucrats’ want to put Value Added Tax on children’s clothes or ban his bananas for being too bent. Europe is only despised as and when it seems to be the exponent of petty rules and impositions, a promoter of restrictive practices in employment, or an employer of cronies and placemen within its own organisation. The European commission has become a shorthand for all the things Britain used to despise about its own bureaucratic and inefficient form of government – and though the attacks may be virulent and lacking any kind of reverence, they are also pretty evenly distributed against other targets too. But when Europe creates employment with regional funds, or supports the highest standards of healthcare, or promotes mobility of labour as well as capital, or stands up for the rights of individuals in its human rights legislation - then with each of these individual encounters the term European becomes a compliment rather than a criticism.
For various reasons, due to the theatrical nature of our political debates and highly commercial pressures of our newspapers, these kinds of criticisms are aired with more venom and vigour in the UK. But questioning and doubt are not uniquely British qualities. Where our ingrained European scepticism comes from is another matter. Perhaps it derives from the experience of so many pointless fanatical conflicts, culminating in the ideological division of Europe in the Cold War. Perhaps it is one of the shining triumphs of our shared existentialist history that we can live without expectation of reward in another world. We realise we have only one world, and that we’d better find a way of getting on with each other right now. And if we accept that disbelief and doubt are essential parts of our European identity, then British ‘detachment’ towards Europe can be accepted as a positive and supportive quality, as our peculiar form of engagement with our neighbours.
Peter Jukes March 2000