From Great Britain to Little England

British isolation from Europe came at great cost in World War II. Must Britain learn that painful, costly lesson all over again?

LONDON • It was Queen Elizabeth's official 90th birthday celebration earlier this month, and tables for 10,000 guests were set along the Mall in central London. Steadily the rain fell, dripping out of the tubas of the bands and softening the sandwiches, but Her Majesty's subjects munched on with stoic British spirit, standing up to cheer as she passed.

In her fuchsia coat and matching hat, she waved and grinned as if nothing had changed and never would. But this week, a very great change could come.

On Thursday, Britons will vote in a referendum on whether their country should stay in the European Union or leave it. If a majority opts for "Brexit", a long earthquake begins. It will topple the old facade of Britishness. It will disrupt, perhaps mortally, the foundations of European unity.

The sense of a fateful moment suddenly peaked last Thursday, when a young Labour Member of Parliament named Jo Cox was shot to death in her West Yorkshire district by a man who is said to have shouted, "Put Britain first!" and to have been involved in the white-supremacist National Alliance in the United States.

All campaigning was suspended for a day of appalled mourning, amid fears that widespread anxiety about European immigration was being inflamed into violent racialism. Ms Cox was a rising star, admired in and outside Parliament for her selfless energy on behalf of refugees and the poor. Her friends hope her death may cool referendum passions, reminding sullen voters that "not all politicians are in it for themselves".

Royal ceremonies offer a brief, reassuring illusion of continuity, but at the back of many minds on the Mall was this thought: Could we be saying goodbye not just to this beloved old lady, but to a certain idea of nationhood? An outward-looking, world-involved Great Britain may soon shrink into a Little England.


The crowd along the Mall in London cheering the Queen on her official 90th birthday on June 12. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

As the queen's guests finished their tea in sight of the familiar grey mass of Buckingham Palace, opinion polls showed the Brexit vote surging. The early lead for the Remain campaign has melted away. In just a few days, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could be tearing up its European treaties and backing into Atlantic isolation.

The slogan "Take back control!" has been showing up everywhere. It's about sovereignty: the idea that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, not the Westminster Parliament, make the laws of England. Above all, it means taking control of the country's frontiers. This would break decisively with a sacred principle of the European Union: the free movement of people, which, for more than 20 years under the Schengen Agreement, has allowed Europeans to travel among member states without passport checks, and live and work in those countries with no visa requirements.

With fateful timing, the latest official figures for net migration to Britain, published at the end of May, showed the second-highest annual number on record, 333,000 in 2015; EU nations accounted for more than half of that figure. This was far higher than government targets, and played directly into the Leave campaign's refrain about "uncontrolled immigration".

Is it a baseless panic? Many European countries tolerate far higher levels of immigration. Scotland, with a new community of some 55,000 Poles, encourages it. In England, support for Brexit and for the xenophobic UK Independence Party (Ukip) is often in inverse proportion to the scale of the problem: The fewer immigrants there are in a town, the louder the outcry against foreigners.

In contrast, polling in inner London, where about four out of 10 inhabitants are now foreign-born, shows a clear preference for staying in Europe. By chance, Ms Cox's killing fell on the same day that Ukip unveiled a poster titled "Breaking Point?" It shows a mass of black and brown refugees pouring towards a frontier. With grief still raw, there has been widespread revulsion at the poster, now reported to the police on grounds of "incitement to racial hatred".

THE GHOST OF IMPERIAL EXCEPTION

The English, normally sceptical about politics, have grown gullible. Both sides pelt the voters with forecasts of doom should the other side win. None are reliable, and the Leave figures have been especially deceitful. Remainers predict an economic armageddon of lost growth, a devalued pound and withered City of London. The Leavers' Conservative leaders, assuming the mantle of a government in waiting, promise that "their" Britain could cover all the lost European subsidies and grants to farmers, poor regions, universities and schools. Evidence that they could find these additional billions is scant.

But there are deeper motives here than anxiety about the exchange rate or banks in London decamping to Frankfurt, Germany. Behind Brexit stalks the ghost of imperial exception, the feeling that Great Britain can never be just another nation to be outvoted by France or Slovakia. There's still a providential feeling about Shakespeare's "sceptred isle" as "this fortress built by Nature". Or as an old Royal Marines veteran said to me: "God dug the bloody Channel for us, so why do we keep trying to fill it in?"


British MP Jo Cox, who was for remaining in the EU, was killed by a man who is said to have shouted, "Put Britain first!" PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

But in a Britain after Brexit, there will be internal border issues to worry about. London politicians look nervously north towards Scotland. Home to less than 10 per cent of Britain's population, Scotland has enjoyed a high degree of self-government since 1999. The pro-independence Scottish National Party dominates the country's politics, consolidating its grip after losing a close-fought independence referendum in 2014.

Most Scots insist they want to stay in the EU. So what happens if a British majority says Leave and Scotland is dragged out of Europe against its will?

Many nationalists will demand an immediate new independence referendum. But Ms Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's shrewd and popular First Minister, will want to wait until polls show a settled majority of Scottish voters in favour of leaving the British state. It's Ms Sturgeon's gamble that an economic downturn following Brexit, combined with the loss of EU guarantees for workers' rights and European subsidies for Scotland's farmers and infrastructure projects, will deliver that support soon enough.

If Ms Sturgeon's strategy works out, Brexit could hasten the breakup of Britain. The constitutional fallout extends to Northern Ireland. A Leave vote would turn the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic into a guarded frontier with Europe, since Ireland would remain a member in the union. This would undermine a major provision of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the peace deal that ended three decades of the Troubles.

Her Britannic Majesty would then be left with a simmering Ulster, the potential for resurgent nationalism in Wales, and a dominant population of 54 million English people. There is a logic to that, for Brexit is overwhelmingly an English, not a British, idea.

English nationalism, though inchoate, is spreading. For older generations, it was cloaked in British patriotism. But now, having watched the Scots and the Welsh win their own parliaments, England - with no less than 84 per cent of Britain's population - feels aggrieved and unrepresented. And so the English have gone in search of their own identity politics, finding common cause with the general impatience with old political elites that is flaming up all over Europe.

For now, their angry sense of powerlessness is aimed at the EU. But the truth is that it's from bloated, privileged London, not Brussels, that the English need to take back control. The Brexit campaign orators, themselves members of that metropolitan elite, have carefully diverted English fury into empty foreigner-baiting. In France this month, English soccer hooligans' chant was "We're all voting Out!" as they beat up fans from other nations.

A rump Britain that quits the EU would not be the same country back in its old familiar place. It would be a new, strange country in an unfamiliar place.

For foreigners, it would be less easygoing, more suspicious and more bureaucratic for work and travel. For its own citizens, it would become a less regulated, more unequal society. For the young, as European colour drained away, it could come to seem a dim and stifling place that anyone with imagination would want to escape.

A Leave victory in the referendum is expected to topple Prime Minister David Cameron, and replace him with a radically right-wing Conservative team, which the impetuous former mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson, is eager to lead. The new government would immediately have to face the problems of disengaging from Europe, and possibly from Scotland. Negotiating new treaties with European trading partners would take many years. And Germany is warning that Britain will no longer have access to the EU's single market.

That would knock the bottom out of the Leave campaign's central promise: that Britain could have its cake and eat it, too - retaining full access to 500 million European customers while clamping controls on immigration from the union. Cynics predict that Britain will spend five years trying to get out, and the next five trying to get back in.

 

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Then come the constitutional nightmares. Most lawmakers in Britain's Parliament are pro-Europe. Can they be forced to vote for legislation to leave the union? What happens if the government loses an election and a pro-European administration - say, a Labour-led coalition - takes power?

And who is supreme here, anyway? The British people, who will have expressed their will in a binding referendum? Or Parliament, which by convention is sovereign and cannot be overruled? In a kingdom with no written Constitution, nobody knows the answer.

It is certain that Brexit would do gross damage to both Europe and the United States. For the US, it would mean the failure of many years of diplomacy. Britain would become at once less useful as an ally and less predictable. Washington would turn increasingly from London to Berlin.

For Europe, Britain's departure would be like a first brick pulled from a flimsy wall. The union is fragile. Its mismanagement of the euro zone debt crisis after the 2008 crash was followed by its mismanagement of the refugee crisis. No wonder a recent Pew Research Centre poll showed plummeting approval ratings for the union in key European countries.

British withdrawal isn't likely to be followed instantly by that of other member states. But nationalist governments like those in Poland and Hungary, and others besides, will be encouraged to defy European rules from trade regulations to human rights, until the whole structure disintegrates. Disputes once soothed by multinational bargaining in Strasbourg or Brussels could grow toxic.

And Europe, though often vexed by London's halfheartedness, will miss the sheer negotiating skill of British diplomacy: its genius for avoiding confrontations and inventing compromises. As more countries strike mutinous attitudes, those skills have never been more needed.

"For 70 years, my Foreign Service has been Britain's rear guard," a British ambassador told me. "We have prevented its orderly retreat from world greatness turning into a rout."

But Brexit now seems to propose a final retreat across the English Channel to the white cliffs of Dover.

Isolation brings out the worst in Britain. And it never works. In the 1930s, a complacent Britain refused to help Spain fight fascism, appeased Hitler and Mussolini, and for too long turned away refugees fleeing persecution. As Czechoslovakia cried out for help, prime minister Neville Chamberlain dismissed "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing". Will a British leader soon speak again about faraway Europe in the same tones?

When Britain did admit that it belonged to Europe, after all, it was at the 11th hour. In 1940, isolation ended in a fight for survival, and complacency gave way to five years of grim determination. During those war years, the continent was devastated and its nation states discredited.

Thanks to that harsh experience, the British after the war recognised their share of responsibility by supporting the vision of a united Europe. Must Britain learn that painful, costly lesson all over again?

NEW YORK TIMES


  • Neal Ascherson, a journalist, is the author of Stone Voices: The Search For Scotland.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2016, with the headline 'From Great Britain to Little England'. Print Edition | Subscribe