In “The Colossus of Maroussi,” Henry Miller’s book about Greece, he described Lawrence Durrell as “English despite himself, [and] in a quandary.” Like Durrell, I have lived most of my life outside England and I too am in a quandary: I am pro-European in many respects, yet, having been born and educated in London I retain a strong sense of what it means to be English. Not British – English. This emotional bilocation gives me a particular slant on the whole Brexit question and, having also lived through a possible “Grexit,” I see the strengths and weaknesses of both “Leave” and “Remain.”
Since the Norman conquest of 1066 England has maintained the idea of an island-nation which, from the time of the first Elizabeth (1558-1603), created a commercial and geographical empire based on naval supremacy. Fighting two world wars with military success obscured four major factors affecting this sense of superiority, all of which have a direct significance for “Brexit.”
Firstly, the continuing “Irish problem” of the border between the north and south of the island, which is one of the biggest obstacles to “Brexit” since it will become an EU border zone. Secondly, the devolution of power from Westminster to the Scots and their continuing demand for independence, exacerbated by the fact that Scotland has voted overwhelmingly to “Remain” in the EU. Thirdly, the imperial implosion since the 1950s in which Africans, Caribbeans and Asians claiming British citizenship wish to move to Britain. Fourth, the economic consequences of post-world-war Europe with Britain in decline and Germany in the ascendant.
Despite these lessons, Britain has made the mistake of believing that it remains a world power in both economic and moral terms, when in fact the very existence of the United Kingdom is in question and there is no longer any cohesive British Commonwealth to sustain its international prestige.
However, no-one likes being pushed around or humiliated or told how to behave. The same spirit which enabled Britain to resist the spread of fascism is today dictating the narrow “Leave” majority in the Brexit vote: no-one is going to tell us how to legislate our laws, measure our miles, spend our pounds or guard our borders. While Britain was successful, its insular mentality could respect and accommodate the differences in cultures that sustains the tapestry of the European mind. Today, all that has changed.
At the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill warned that the only way to learn the lessons of history (“frightful nationalistic quarrels originated by the Teutonic nations”) was to prevent any “new form of tyranny or terror” by building “a kind of United States of Europe.” As a first step, Churchill called for the formation of a Council of Europe. Churchill warned that Europe must have a “moral design” to ensure that small nations must be not only protected but fully integrated into this “United States of Europe.”
In the 1970s and 80s I acted as a consultant to the Council of Europe on cultural development programs. I was fervently pro-Europe because I believed in the multiplicity of cultures as a seed-bed for a panorama of political and social action. Today I see the philosophy that created the Council as a predominantly cultural institution, diminished to vanishing-point by the prevalence of political and economic issues.
I am sure Churchill, along with other visionaries who helped to found today’s EU, like Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann and Konrad Adenauer, would be desolated by the megalithic EU which has moved so far way from that “moral design,” and is so resistant to the needs of the smaller nations dominated politically and economically by Germany.
Looking at the leading “Brexiteers” one wonders how anyone could believe the flamboyant Boris Johnson or the dull-as-ditchwater Jacob Rees-Mogg. One is a playboy and the other has no idea how to play. Neither is competent to replace the appallingly unpleasant and inept Theresa May, yet that in itself tells us much about British politics and the poverty of political leadership throughout most of democratic Europe.
With such a narrow margin between the votes for “Leave” and “Remain” (51-49), and with the knowledge that lies were told by both sides in the campaign, it would be criminally negligent not to hold a second referendum, setting out, as the first one did not, the costs and benefits to every citizen of the UK of a Brexit.
It is partly due to homogenization and the dominance of Brussels that led to the vote on “Brexit” and very nearly resulted in a “Grexit” in 2015. If (as reported in this paper) “79 per cent of Greeks believe their voice is not being heard” in the EU parliament or the corridors of power, I would bet that the same percentage of citizens of the UK would feel the same. It is this indifference of Brussels and Berlin to the interests, voices and fate of the peripheral nations that is creating disaffection.
Britain is only the peripheral symptom of a malaise at the center of both the European continent and the European mind. The rise of Viktor Orban and the suppression of freedom of speech in Hungary, the open defiance of the EU by the fascisto-communist government of Poland and the Italian political crisis and its wide-ranging economic consequences, are condemnations of the European system. Greece’s voice wasn’t heard and Britain’s is being shouted down with contempt.
In a world where the idea of national sovereignty is outdated, there is no need for strong leadership to protect a nation’s interests. Conversely, where populist/nationalist feeling is in the ascendant, powerful and power-crazy charismatic figures can manipulate public opinion. Lawrence Durrell lived under the Metaxas regime in the 1930s, Peronist Argentina in the 1940s and Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1950s.
He wrote to Gostan Zarian, an eminent Armenian writer (whose own country suffered the memory of a massacre which Turkey still denies) that he feared the centralization of power. “It would be an evil day,” he wrote, “if France or Italy were to fall under the influence of such a power-group.” He feared that Greece, too, would become unacceptably homogenized in a West that had lost its way spiritually and morally.
When Britain voted by such a narrow margin in 2016, the then PM, David Cameron, should have had the courage to tell the EU “Either clear up your mess and stop bullying the smaller countries, or we will carry out our threat and bring down the EU with us.” Instead, he resigned, leaving the hapless Theresa May with responsibility for a Brexit which she had actually campaigned against. Her attempts at negotiation, with politicians far more astute than she, would be risible if it were not for the appalling consequences. Between them, Cameron and May have let down not only their own people but the entire European vision.
Richard Pine was voted “Critic of the Year” in the 2018 Irish Journalism Awards. He lives and works in Corfu, and is the author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”