Brexit: una risibile spavalderia autolesionista (da Die Zeit)

“Da quando la Gran Bretagna è entrata a far parte del preogetto Europe, nel 1973, i suoi governi non hanno perso occasione per distogliere da sé l’insoddisfazione popolare, puntandola su Bruxelles.  Il gioco, sempre molto apprezzato dai tabloid scandalistici con la bava alla bocca, è stato sempre lo stesso: aderire alle scelte politiche, salvo poi atteggiarsi a difensori degli interessi britannici contro i “burocrati non eletti di Bruxelles”.” Un articolo di Die Zeit in cui si possono trarre analogie con le strategie di sovranisti e neofascisti di casa nostra, che vedono l’Europa come ostacolo alla loro presa di potere.

Fintan O’Toole1. Januar 2021, 11:48 Uhr
Traduzione dall’articolo originale di Die Zeit

How do you make a country smaller ? By trying to make it great again. As the curtain finally comes down on the long-running psychodrama of Brexit, reality sinks in. It is the creation of Lesser Britain, a country already reduced and in danger of shrinking even further.

In 1971, the British government published its White Paper, setting out the reasons why it wanted to join the European project. It imagined the country’s fate if it declined to do so: “In a single generation we should have renounced an imperial past and rejected a European future. Our friends everywhere would be dismayed. They would rightly be as uncertain as ourselves about our future role and place in the world… Our power to influence the [European] Communities would steadily diminish, while the Communities’ power to affect our future would as steadily increase.”

Fifty years later, Britain has done what it did not do then. It has “rejected a European future”. And even though fantasies of a new golden age of global mercantile power feature heavily in the rhetoric of Boris Johnson and his allies, no one really believes that its “imperial past” is about to return. Its friends everywhere are dismayed and it is uncertain not just about its place in the world, but about itself: what it is, what it wants. The counter-factual of 1971 is the reality of 2021.

During the COVID-19 crisis, there has been, from Johnson and his government, a constant drum-beat of superlatives. Every initiative it launched would not be merely – or indeed even – competent. It would be “world-beating”. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, explaining how Britain had raced ahead to authorise the (German-developed) COVID-19 vaccine before the EU or the U.S., boasted that: “Well I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators. Much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them, aren’t we?”

As a slightly more intelligent Englishman than Williamson, William Shakespeare would have said: “Methinks he doth protest too much.” This need for hyperbole has barely disguised the profound insecurity of a country that fears if it does not constantly proclaim its greatness, it may finally have to confront the thing it has so long avoided: its own ordinariness.

There is nothing wrong with being an ordinary country. In fact, there is an awful lot right with it. Countries are much more likely to be at peace with themselves and their neighbours if they do not, to paraphrase W.B Yeats, “feed their hearts on fantasies” of greatness. We might go so far as to suggest that the best measure of whether a country has come to terms with its history is whether or not it insists on being a “much better country” than every other.

There is in England (and the current crisis is English, not British), a discomfort with the idea of being one among many. Some of this is indeed a throwback to an imperial mindset. Empires are dualistic– you are either the top dog or you are being suppressed. England, in particular, has struggled to transcend this binary mentality. If it is not dominant, it fears that it must be submissive. This was always a problem in a European Union that is constructed precisely to avoid the appearance of being in either state.

One way for the British to deal with this dilemma was to imagine itself as the dominant power within the EU. “If we couldn’t dominate that lot,” said the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1966, referring to the original six signatories of the Treaty of Rome, “there wasn’t much to be said for us”. The other way was to magnify Britain’s role in the world by exaggerating its position as the one indispensable ally of the United States. There has been, in the words of the English historian Linda Colley, “a persistent inclination to pursue empire vicariously by clambering like a mouse on the American eagle’s head”.

The first great irony of Brexit is that, in pursuit of renewed greatness, it sacrifices both of these possibilities. Britain could not, of course, dominate the EU, but it was, with France and Germany, one of the three most powerful member states. That position, in turn, gave some kind of reality to the idea of the UK as the bridge between the US and the EU.

Joe Biden, speaking to the former British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in 2018 explained why he was so disappointed by Brexit: “If we had any voice in Europe, it was you” (the British). Conversely, outside the EU, Britain doesn’t just lose its power to influence what happens on the European continent. It loses much of its ability to perch on the American eagle’s head.

The third force that gave Britain an outsized standing in the world was its soft power. Its language has become the global lingua franca. Its universities are among the most prestigious in the world. Its popular culture – from music to comedy – has arguably been second only to America’s in its reach and influence. The weirdest thing about Brexit, indeed, is that it is partially fuelled by a refusal to accept Britain’s own popularity.

The popular Daily Express columnist Jean Rook marked the moment of entry to the Common Market on New Year’s Day 1973 by declaring that “of all that we have to offer Europe, what finer than contact with our short-tongued, stiff-necked, straight-backed, brave, bloody-minded and absolutely beautiful selves? To know the British (it takes about 15 years to get on nodding terms) will be Europe’s privilege.” Ridiculous as it was, Europeans actually liked this swagger. Getting to know the British may not have been a privilege, but it was (football hooligans and the dangers of being whacked by Margaret Thatcher’s handbag aside) mostly a pleasure.

Brexit undoubtedly diminishes this soft power too. Indeed, one of the things that has been so upsetting for young people in Britain (overwhelmingly anti-Brexit) is the resentful, disrespectful, xenophobic and inward-looking image of their country that its political leaders have projected since 2016. It is not the way they see themselves, but they know that this image will hang around for a long time like a bad smell.

The only answer Johnson has for them is that the loss of soft power will be compensated for by the rebuilding of hard power through huge investment in the armed forces. Even if that happens, the recent history of Britain’s military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan does not suggest that more aircraft carriers will make up for the loss of trust and admiration.

In these abstract ways, the pursuit of greatness has made Britain smaller. But there is a serious risk that this reduction may become literal as well as conceptual. After all, the United Kingdom has just completed the first set of trade negotiations in the history of mankind in which a country has made its free trade zone smaller than the area enclosed by its own borders. One part of the UK, Northern Ireland, is now effectively outside of its own territory for the purposes of trade. “Global Britain” – the planet-spanning new mercantile empire of frictionless trade that the Brexiteers promised – is not even the size of Great Britain.

Does this point to an even greater retraction of England into itself? In May, Scotland will hold its parliamentary elections and the governing Scottish National Party (SNP) will seek a mandate to demand a second referendum on independence. It will probably get it. This does not mean that independence is inevitable. Boris Johnson will almost certainly refuse to allow a referendum. But this stand-off will only increase the sense of mutual alienation.

It is important to remember that the English nationalism that has driven Brexit is not just anti-European. It is anti-Scottish. A year before the Brexit referendum of 2016, the Conservative Party discovered in its polling and focus groups that an extremely effective message for English voters was: If the Tories did not get a majority in the election, the SNP’s (then) leader Alex Salmond might hold the balance of power at Westminster.

According to Jeremy Sinclair, chairman of Saatchi, the advertising agency long closely associated with Conservative Party election campaigns, this powerfully negative response reflected the fact that “we” (meaning the English) “hate being ruled or bossed by foreigners. French, Germans, Scots, anyone—and it looked as though we were going to be run by Alex Salmond… it is a most powerful thing when people are threatened by government by outsiders.” French, Germans – Scots! In the very uncertain state of English identity (with all the angst that came to the surface a year later), the main partners in the United Kingdom could be lumped in with all the other foreigners and outsiders interfering with English freedom.

Historically, the usefulness for any embattled regime of the outside enemy is to unite “us” against “them”. In theory, this is what Brexit should be doing. But it is not just true that it is has failed to unite the British “us”. It has done precisely the opposite. It has both brought to the surface and solidified deep divisions – those between England and Scotland, but also those within England itself between young and old, the big cities and the provinces, those who embrace cultural openness and those who are repelled by it, those with access to third-level education and those without it.

Just as the Brexiteers tried to make Britain great but succeeded only in making it small, they played the identity card but managed only to create a permanent identity crisis. The widely respected political scientists Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford show in their recent book “Brexitland” how “the changes which drove Brexit will continue to generate volatility and political change for years to come… The referendum made voters acutely aware of new identity divisions and helped to forge new partisan identities rooted in these divisions… These divides will continue to exert a disruptive influence for many years to come.”

The UK will have to face these disruptions, of course, in the context of economic turmoil. Already, the pandemic has hit Britain harder than comparable countries. Compared with the average of the other G7 leading economies, the cost to the UK government is set to be over 80 per cent more, while the UK is also on course to suffer a decline in output 90 per cent deeper than the others.

Just as Britain had the bad luck to join the EEC in 1973 at a time of economic crisis, it has the bad luck to be leaving it amid economic devastation. It may be, in the early part of 2021, that the economic bounce-back as the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out will mask the specific effects of Brexit itself. But those effects will be long-lasting and they will make the task of overcoming the country’s internal divisions all the more difficult.

And, in the final irony, there is now no scapegoat. Ever since Britain joined in 1973, its governments have been adept at redirecting popular unhappiness away from themselves and towards Brussels. The great game of signing up to policies at European Council meetings and then posing as defenders of British interests against the “unelected Brussels bureaucrats” who implement those policies was always popular with the rabid tabloid press.

The one thing you should never do with a scapegoat is to kill it and eat it. The EU scapegoat has now been ritually sacrificed to the gods of national identity in the hope that they will in turn bestow the greatness that holds Britain together. When the gods do not respond to the sacrifice, the people often turn their wrath on the high priests.