On Brexit and the end of the UK

British voters have rejected the European Union, and voted to leave the organization irrevocably, as EU leaders have made clear will be the case. David Cameron, having recklessly gambled his premiership and his country on a risky and unnecessary referendum, has resigned in disgrace. He may well be remembered as not just one of the worst British prime ministers of the century, but very probably one of the last.

The Scottish National Party now has the perfect justification for a second referendum on independence, which they will almost certainly win. The Good Friday peace accord in Northern Ireland is threatened with collapse. Markets and the value of the pound sterling are in free fall. Euroscepticism has been vindicated, encouraged and inspired across the rest of the EU. The centrifugal historical forces that have been at work in the British Isles over the last half century are reaching their inevitable culmination; the end of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

An interesting side effect of the European Union and its promise of a federated continent of nations was the impact it had on the older multinational conglomerates of Britain and Spain. Both countries constitute multiple nations ruled by single monarchs, along the lines of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Separatist forces in Scotland and Catalonia, always present, have been emboldened by the rise of an alternative narrative for their existence: as European countries. Not subjects of ancient crowns.

Now, for Scotland at least, which decisively voted to remain a member of the EU, the time may have come to free itself from an arrangement that no longer suits its needs, wants, or aspirations. In their upcoming referendum on independence, they will decisively detonate the idea of a united Great Britain, consigning it to the historical dustheap, and dissolving the state back into its constituent elements of Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland.

What often gets forgotten in discussions of Britain is how very, very new it is as an idea. It isn’t even more than a century older than the idea of America. The Act of Union that united, for the first time ever in recorded history, the peoples of ‘Great Britain,’ was passed by the Westminster parliament in 1707. That’s only seventy years before the birth of American nationalism in 1776.

Scotland and England had dwelt before then in a highly uneasy personal Union since 1603, sharing a monarch after James VI of Scotland’s accession to the throne of England, but very little else. James and the kings who followed him, despite their best efforts, for the most part failed completely in their efforts to unite their Scottish and English subjects within one state. Both countries retained their separate parliaments, churches, and legal and educational systems. Even after the union of the parliaments in 1707, the kirk and the educational system remained distinctly Scottish. Canada owes its university system, to take one example, to Scotland, not to England.

Only when the Scottish state was completely bankrupted by a failed scheme to colonize the isthmus of Panama in the 1690s in the Darien scheme were the conditions for a political union between Scotland and England even remotely possible. And even then, it was more of a hostile takeover than it was a genuine coming together. England agreed to forgive Scottish debt, largely held by English banks, if Scotland surrendered its sovereignty.

Ironically, what the Act of Union ended up meaning for Scotland wasn’t all that different from what the European Union means today to Greece, Portugal and other ‘peripheral’ Eurozone economies. It meant shotgun marriage, into which the weaker partner was browbeaten and threatened by her domineering new partner.

The people of the British Isles had never, ever been a unified political entity before 1707. The Romans, the Saxons and even the Normans had all failed to subjugate the entire archipelago and bring it under one political system. So the Stuart dynasty’s total failure to create a ‘British people’ was really only to be expected. Throughout the personal union, and for much of the political one, the English continued to call themselves English, and the Scots Scottish.

The Irish, until the very recent past, were little more than subject peoples in the context of the British state; violently conquered and widely regarded as subhuman papists well into the nineteenth century. Ireland’s narrative of national struggle actually bears a closer resemblance to those former British colonies in India, Africa and the Middle East than it does to that of Scotland. It is one of the ironies of British imperialism that it was never more cruel than when it struck closest to home.

British identity first came to mean anything at all to those English, Scots and Welsh who set out for the colonies; for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and what would become the United States. When confronted with the French, the Spanish, or the so-called ‘savages’ of India and North America, the differences between Welshman, Scotsman and Englishman began to seem trivial by comparison. And as the Empire grew and strengthened, with many Scots in particular at the vanguard of its expansion, people began to take pride in their Britishness, and not in their peculiar old nationalisms.

All took pride in their destiny as ‘Britons,’ and aspired to rule the world forever as such. The late nineteenth century was the high point of ‘Britishness.’ It is in this period, and only in this period, that it was possible for a Scot living in Montreal named James McGill to found a university in his name, and on his tombstone, to refer to the city of his birth as Glasgow, North Britain. It was a sentiment that would have been laughable, if not unthinkable, in earlier times, and which has become so yet again today.

After the Empire began its long decline in the aftermath of two devastating world wars, British policymakers tried, at first, to salvage some remnant of the world order they had once headed by devising the Commonwealth of Nations, which is still attempting to continue by free association the processes begun by imperialism. To this end they attempted, in 1962, to free up immigration from the ex-Dominions in order to give practical heft to the fine words they were speaking.

In order for this to make any sense, these policymakers were forced to resort to some expedients that they found rather distasteful. Most importantly, as the Labour opposition incisively pointed out at the time, if the citizens of Canada, Australia, and apartheid South Africa were truly still members of some kind of glorious British world-order, then so were the citizens of Jamaica, Nigeria, India and Pakistan. What, then, was to stop them too from immigrating to Britain to claim the prosperity that the elite were telling them was their birthright as inheritors of the imperial legacy?

Nothing at all, was the obvious answer. And so the definition of Britishness was at last expanded to include the subject peoples of the former colonies, opening the doors to the mass immigration that is at the root of Britain’s current national anxieties. Though Enoch Powell’s famous analysis of the problems this would eventually pose was and is deeply distasteful, coming as it does from a place of deep racism and bigotry, it also wasn’t inaccurate, as the history of British race relations in the twentieth century has amply demonstrated.

Then in the 60s and 70s, a succession of British Governments (both Labour and Tory) began resolutely turning away from their imperial heritage and any attempt to make the Commonwealth a viable entity. It was Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath, with his famous 1971 white paper, who would eventually bring Britain into the EU, and decisively reorient Britain as a European nation.

This came as a deep psychological shock in the colonies. In the words of the famous Kiwi historian JGA Pocock, ‘Mother Britain ran off and joined the EEC.’ The former dominions felt quite betrayed by this at the time, and a great deal of Canada, Australia and New Zealand’s postcolonial search for identity in the second half of the twentieth century has indeed been largely a response to ‘Mother Britain’s’ total failure to reciprocate their deep interest and sense of connection with her.

Britain continually betrayed and belittled the feelings of English Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and repeatedly demonstrated how little they really meant to her. The mother country’s lack of interest forced the commonwealth dominions to try and find some kind of identity that wasn’t rooted in Britishness and Britannic pride.In that context, it was possible for someone like Pocock to anticipate precisely the problem that is consuming Britain right now: In his famous lecture, he incisively noted, during a discussion of fellow historian AJP Taylor’s attitude to Scotland, that

If it has been psychologically possible for [the English, Scots, Irish and Welsh] to annihilate the whole idea of the Commonwealth, white as well as non-white, it is not altogether beyond the bounds of possibility that “United Kingdom” and even “Britain” may someday become similarly inconvenient and be annihilated, or annihilate themselves, in their turn….It is not inconceivable that future historians may find themselves writing of a “Unionist” or even a “British” period in the history of the peoples inhabiting the Atlantic Archipelago, and locating it between a date in the thirteenth, the seventeenth, or the nineteenth century and a date in the twentieth or the twenty first.

He gave this lecture in 1975, but it was barely noticed outside of academic historical circles.

Now that Brexit has arrived, and Britain’s political and economic ties with the European continent are up for review, the UK Independence Party, and the British nationalists it represents, have touted the Commonwealth as an alternative security alliance and market for a post-Brexit Britain. They are remarkably blind to the fact that very few people in the rest of the world, including the commonwealth countries, remember British rule with any fondness. The history of the British state’s interventions in world affairs is one of arrogant meddling in other people’s affairs, blithe rhetoric about their own racial superiority, and outright violent subjugation and rule. Brexiteers are living in a fantasy world, where the grateful Commonwealth will answer the call to come to Britain’s aid with a loud ‘Ready, aye, ready, we stand by you.’

Outside a few paleo-conservatives, miles from the current of mainstream opinion on these issues, imperial sentiment in the former dominions has completely and utterly died. Even the Conservative governments of the recently deposed Stephen Harper in Canada, Malcolm Turnbull in Australia, and John Key in New Zealand, who probably do feel more nostalgia for the empire than most of the people they ostensibly lead, would find opposition totally insurmountable if they went too far in their efforts to restore their countries’ respective status as British colonies.

Stephen Harper, in particular, embarrassed himself with his ham-fisted efforts to restore the old imperial iconography here in Canada. Few people quite understand why he did it, let alone support the restoration of the monarchy and other British symbolisms to the Canadian state. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals almost immediately began the process of dismantling the old symbols upon their election last year.

If Britain really does decide to leave the EU and turn away from the European project, the question inevitable presents itself: to what precisely will she be turning? The old dominions are done with her, and have built postcolonial identities of their own. America has lost interest in any ‘special relationship.’ China, Russia and India are eager to humiliate her, and settle old scores.

Britain will likely discover that the era when it could go it alone, as a great power in its own right, is over. Maintaining the mere cohesion of the state itself will absorb most of a post-Brexit Britain’s energy. A robust presence on the world stage will be sadly beyond it.

The British state could only really have been preserved, like a museum piece, in the context of a united Europe. Together, Europe’s nations are the world’s largest economy and one of its most powerful diplomatic and military forces. Apart, and the ignominious exit of the UK from the Union may lead to still other countries departing, they are merely a squabbling collection of nineteenth century relics. The harsh winds of 21st century diplomacy and security realities will blow all the colder outside the warm, cosy confines of the EU; as Britain is about to discover.

 

 

On World War Three, the Uses of History, and the Greatest Generation

Calvin and his Duplicate

Calvin and his Duplicate

Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, is fond of moving from the particular to the general, or vice versa, to see if something is true. If an ethical or moral maxim holds true as a good thing for one person, it stands to reason that it might hold true for society at large as well. Likewise, if something can be said with truth about society, it probably can be said about an individual person as well. This isn’t uncontentious, and as a method it may not always stand up to close scrutiny, but it’s a tendency in classical Greek thought, and Kant’s famous categorical imperative has always struck be as being a kindred maxim.

For my own part, I find that the most dangerous times in my life are usually those when there isn’t really anything pressing that I have to do. Often in these periods there are plenty of things I should do, plenty of things I probably could do, and any number of things that I should probably get around to doing at some point. But never anything that I immediately need to do. Or more accurately still, nothing that can’t be easily put off as a task for future Nick to worry about. I often enjoy these days thoroughly, relaxing and frittering my time away on unimportant pleasures.

The reason these times are so dangerous is that all of those things I avoid during them have an alarming way of turning into things that I absolutely, no bones about it have to do. And when future Nick turns into present Nick, and that life-changing essay needs to be handed in tomorrow, and I’ve done no reading, or that critical presentation needs to be delivered and I’m going to have to just wing it, or more often than any other, there’s no more money left and no reasonable prospect of more appearing anytime soon, so no more cigarettes for a while, present Nick tends to loathe past Nick with the fire of a thousand suns. If my temporal selves ever met in the real world, present and future Nick would quickly agree that past Nick needed to be immediately lynched, and all three of us would immediately vanish in a puff of smoke like Calvin’s perfect version of himself when he had an evil thought.

If this is true of me, and long, painful experience has shown me that it is, then there’s a chance it’s true of society at large as well.

Climate change is the most obvious example here. We could rearrange our entire society to save our planet from ecological destruction. We could cease burning carbon based fuels, put serious effort into researching alternative sources of energy, and actually work at putting them into practice. We could spare a moment’s thought for the populations of Sub-Saharan Africa or the Indian subcontinent, or the denizens of New Orleans or Miami or Venice when we fill up at the Esso. But that sounds like a lot of work, and fracking means we’re never going to hit peak oil anyway, and I have to get home because there’s something really good up on Netflix.

But exactly the same logic applies to Syria, Iraq, and the broader unfolding crisis in the Middle East. A crisis which the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian recently  announced in its editorial  was a conflict on the scale of the Second World War; one that justifiably could be referred to, from the moment they deigned to enlighten us about it, as World War Three.

The headline was risible to me, as someone who’s been following events in the Middle East as avidly and as closely as a westerner who doesn’t read Arabic and isn’t being paid is capable of doing since the Egyptian Revolution of January 2011. I can only imagine how much more risible it must have been to a citizen of Syria since 2011, or of Iraq since 2003. How pleasant that the white liberal media has finally woken up to the scale of the events it has been trivializing, cheer-leading, downplaying, condemning or ignoring since they began, I can imagine them thinking. I can’t wait till it’s Lyons, Sheffield, Atlanta or Montreal that’s a smoldering pile of rubble, littered with the spent cases of depleted uranium shells. The editorial itself is perfectly sophisticated, and makes in essence the same point that I’m making here. It is, however, still a bit risible that people don’t seem to have understood what they meant.

It’s not even a very good historical analogy. Yes, the Second World War is the last time Europe was pounded into the primordial dust by the malevolence of its own sons and daughters on a scale like we’re witnessing in the Middle East of today. But the last time anywhere in North America ever had that experience was the end of the US Civil War and Sherman’s march to the sea. And the last time what you might call ‘Western Civilization’ (a useful shorthand for Europe and her contemporary colonial outgrowths around the world) experienced a war as savage, unending, and as religiously malevolent as the poisonous death-struggle now enveloping the Middle East was the agglomeration of savage, deadly conflicts in the seventeenth century that historians traditionally lump together as the Thirty Years War, when Protestant and Catholic butchered each other for possession of the heritage of Christ.

So when I read simplistic opinions about conflict in the Middle East, either opposing or defending western intervention in it, I find them at times a little difficult to take seriously. Because both proponents and opponents of Western intervention seem to miss the most important point of what is happening there, which is that it is happening, and will continue to happen,  in spite of anything we do about it. We have missed our chance to intervene in any meaningful way. From now on, and since at least two years ago, events in the Middle East control us here in the West, and not the other way around. If you’re curious, the only moment where Europe and the Anglosphere could have meaningfully intervened, and many people would disagree with me even in thinking it was possible then, was a brief moment in 2011.

This is the third world war. Right here, right now. We in the west are completely peripheral to it, and no decision we make or any intervention, military or humanitarian, that we undertake will make the slightest difference to its continuing, or even, if I’m completely honest, to its eventual outcome. We will be merely an additional complication for both sides to recognize and deal with. The bombs we drop, or God forbid any troops we deploy, will be pawns in a game that not even the governments they serve are actually playing. Their usefulness will be relative, and impossible to predict. What is bad for ISIS may be good for Iran and its puppet Assad regime. What is bad for Iran and Assad may be good for the sheikhs of Dubai and Saudi Arabia. It will make absolutely no difference to the outcome of the conflict itself. We aren’t directly involved in this war yet, but we can’t rule out that it won’t come home to us someday soon, as a different war did to America on December 7th, 1941. We have that day fresh enough in our minds to remind us of how thoroughly events can rule the powerful, rather than the other way around, but we have to go a little further back for a better analogy to what might be happening right now to the United States and the world order it’s presiding over.

Before Christianity or Islam existed, in the Middle East of the second century BC, then chafing at the clumsy, brutal attentions of the rising Roman superpower, there was a prophecy floating around attributed to the ancient Greek Sibyl. It informed the Romans that

Not foreign invaders, Italy, but your own sons will rape you, a brutal interminable gang-rape, punishing you, famous country, for all your many depravities, leaving you prostrated, stretched out among the burning ashes. Self-slaughterer! No longer the mother of upstanding men, but rather the nurse of savage, ravening beasts!”

This was mostly wishful thinking. Rome’s mastery of the Mediterranean was unquestioned, and would remain so for centuries to come. It wasn’t even a prophecy that required supernatural explanations. A reasonably keen observer of the Roman political situation in 140 BC could well have spotted the tensions that would eventually culminate in the bloody civil war that would bring down the curtain on the Roman Republic, and usher in the age of the Augustan Emperors. The Sibyl was probably just a very convenient pen name for a keen geopolitical analyst who knew his/her prognostications would be much more widely read if they came from the mythical Sibyl. But this was known from Egypt to Asia Minor as the preordained destiny of the Roman people. The Romans knew it too, and while they alternately scoffed, grew fearful, excoriated each other for their depravity, and tried to put their own house in order, they were haunted even in the moment of their world-spanning triumph by the suspicion of their impending doom. Every European empire that has followed them, from that of Spain to that of Britain to that of the United States, has been plagued by similar Cassandras and rumours of Cassandras.

But it came true. The history of Rome from Marius and Sulla to Romulus Augustulus is the history of Roman butchering Roman, and of the gradual ruination of the Italian peninsula. By the age of Justinian, Rome was a provincial backwater with a famous name and a lot of crumbling ruins. The Barbarians never invaded. That’s one of history’s great myths. For the most part they were invited in when there weren’t enough Romans left in the world to fill an army. The Goths, the Vandals and even the Huns served as foederati in the armies of the various rulers of the late Empire so they could go on killing each other and their fellow Romans, until eventually they were all that remained, and only the idea of Rome had survived. It is one of history’s little ironies that many of the near-eastern peoples they fought, and occasionally that they conquered and dispersed, like the Jews, the Armenians and the Persians, have endured where they did not.

Now, in the Twenty First Century AD, or CE, as we’ve arrogantly begun to call it, the superpower bluntly trying to shape the Middle East to its liking is the United States of America, and its capital is even more removed and distant from the fighting and chaos it tries desperately to control. Unlike Rome, America is unwilling or unable to summon the cold brutality needed to truly put an end to the strife that so worries it. When the Jews revolted against Roman rule three times in two hundred years, Rome eventually razed Jerusalem to the ground, renamed it Aelia Capitolina, butchered the Jews and their leaders and statesmen, and obliterated the very idea of an independent Jewish state. It won them peace and quiet, for a time.

America, for very good reasons, is unwilling to truly unleash the full fury of its military arsenal on the Middle East. They certainly could bring peace to the region if they did, but only if they were willing to leave it a radioactive wasteland devoid of all life, human or animal, and to live with a faint green glow in the eastern sky for the next few thousand years to remind them of what they did. They are willing, instead, only to deploy short-term solutions; supporting this state against another, bombing this group of Islamists, supporting that one, and cracking down on another through a proxy. I’m glad they’re only going that far, I suppose, because all of humanity might be wiped out by the nuclear option, But the measures they’re taking will only, perhaps, buy time. And in the end they will likely only spawn more hatred and engender still deeper chaos.

The barbarian invasions of Europe may be one of history’s greatest myths; Rome’s decline was entirely its own fault, and wasn’t imposed by any kind of external force. The insistence that every great empire’s decline will unfold exactly like Rome’s might be another, but far and away the greatest myth of them all is that the study of history will teach us lessons about how to avoid making the same mistakes our ancestors did. Even when this is true, which it rarely is, it doesn’t prevent us from making fifty new mistakes to make up for the old ones we successfully avoid.

Why study it then? I’m honestly not sure, and I ask myself almost every day. The best answer I’ve come up with so far is that, like poetry, you may not see why it’s relevant when you first read it, but five, ten, twenty years down the line, as your life unfolds and good and bad things start happening to you, something might come to you and you’ll remember, in a flash of insight and understanding, that line you read that made no sense at the time, and you’ll be glad you took the trouble to read Auden, or Whitman, or whoever else floats your boat.

As an example of what I mean, something from my knowledge of history that keeps coming to me recently, and giving me a little bit of hope as I look at a world stage that only seems to get bleaker, darker and still more terrifying, is a line from John Adams. In 1773, as tensions between Britain and its thirteen American colonies kept rising higher and higher, and compromise and moderation became less and less possible, or even desirable, he wrote to his wife Abigail that he despaired of his fellow Americans. He called the problems they faced ‘too grand and multifarious for my comprehension,’ and of his generation of Americans, he wrote  that ‘We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in Genius, in Education, in Travel, in Fortune, in every Thing. I feel unutterable anxiety.’ John Adams went on to be the second President of the new United States, and that generation of feckless losers he’s describing went on to be the Founding Fathers of the United States, reverentially cited by their descendants as the ultimate arbiters of political wisdom. Even when they weren’t. Even when the person speaking knows nothing about them at all, and is massively distorting who they were and what they intended. They’re who he thinks of when he things of the perfect generation of Americans; the ones whose example this contemporary one is so spectacularly failing to emulate.

I may not know much about the future, or whether there’s any truth to these claims about History, but I do know that I can relate exactly to how he felt when he wrote that. In this narcissistic, shallow age of selfies and lattes and hashtags and textspeak, it’s really hard to believe that any of us, let alone most of us, like our grandparents in the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ will prove more than we appear, and rise to the really insurmountable challenges we’re facing on pretty much every front of our collective existence. And maybe we won’t. Maybe we’re totally doomed. Worst of all, maybe we totally deserve to be.

I obviously don’t know that, and I have no way of knowing. But if history has any lesson at all here, it’s that my opinions on the subject are irrelevant one way or another, and we very well might be all right in the end. So let’s be prepared, and do the best we can with what we’ve got, because if we pull it off, then we, not our grandparents, will end up being the Greatest Generation.