Chris Trotter on how imperialism has set Britain apart from its European competitors and landed it in the mess it’s in

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Theresa May

By Chris Trotter*

There is something profoundly depressing about witnessing the extraordinary political spasms of the Brexit disaster. After all, this is Britain we are watching: our Britain; the once great nation that made us. Like a heavyweight boxer gone to flab, or a professor unable to recall the thread of his argument, the British state exudes an awful odour of failure and decline.

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her supposed alternative, Jeremy Corbyn, epitomise in equal measure the malady that is Brexit.

May has failed utterly to draw into the debate the broad range of parties and interests whose co-operation continues to be essential to the extremely difficult task of making Britain’s departure from the European Union, if not painless, then bearable. Tribal, mistrustful, high-handed and fatally unimaginative, the Conservative Party leader remains politically upright only because her job is now so hard and so thankless that nobody else wants it.

If anything, Labour’s leader is even less impressive. He had the opportunity to seize the historical high ground and to begin the long-overdue task of explaining to the British people their country’s true place in the twenty-first century. Which is to say he could have given the Labour Party an electoral lock on the future by making it the political vehicle of choice for all those young Britons, who will have to clean up the dreadful mess, which preceding generations have made of behaving like a sensible country.

It should not be forgotten that the Labour leader, Harold Wilson, went into the 1975 referendum campaign with 57 percent of British voters favouring withdrawal from the Common Market. By the time he had finished explaining to them what that would mean for Britain and Europe, fully two-thirds of the electorate were ready to vote in favour of staying put.

That’s what political leadership looks like. Where has it gone?

In the face of her government’s unprecedented 230 vote defeat in the House of Commons, it is tempting to rehearse all the familiar questions about why and how the British people got themselves into the apparently insoluble impasse that is Brexit. Why did David Cameron sanction another referendum? Why was the “Remain” campaign so appallingly mismanaged? How was the narrow 52:48 percent victory for the “Leave” option transformed into a decision that could not, under any circumstances, be reconsidered? Depending on whether one subscribes to The Telegraph, or The Guardian, the answers supplied to these questions will be very different. Among historians, however, a consensus explanation for Britain’s sorry state is gradually emerging.

The driving force behind the formation of what is now the European Union was the determination on the part of the European nations devastated by the Second World War to ensure that such a colossal human tragedy was never repeated. As the only major European combatant to escape the horrors of catastrophic defeat and occupation, however, Britain remained aloof from these unifying political currents.

The British state had emerged from “the audit of war” (a phrase coined by distinguished British historian Correlli Barnett) in what its political and cultural stewards believed to be pretty good shape. Untutored by the brutal lessons of military humiliation and political subjugation, the British ruling class had not felt the stinging lash of history’s judgement since the Norman Conquest of 1066. In the reassuring glow of their victory, the people in charge acknowledged no pressing case for root-and-branch reform of their nation’s core institutions. Labour’s Clement Attlee may have nationalised the coalfields and set up the NHS, but he saw no need to abolish the House of Lords – or equip Britain with anything resembling the modern and economically critical system of secondary and tertiary education that had made her German adversaries – soon to be competitors – so formidable.

Not every Briton was blind to the challenges which lay ahead. A British colonel, stationed in the Ruhr shortly before the German surrender in May 1945, wrote:

“I am almost frightened by the vitality these Germans show after what they’ve undergone. I believe, once they’ve been given the word GO, they’ll have a bridge over the Rhine in three months, and that in a short time their output of steel will be huge.”

The dramatic – almost miraculous – recovery of Britain’s former enemies, while Britain herself was forced to shed her empire and (after the Suez debacle) walk in the USA’s shadow, left a bitter taste in the mouths of those who in 1945 felt confident about Britain retaining her seat at the global top table. As the states of Western Europe – the old enemies of yesteryear – grew ever closer and stronger economically, the idea began to form in the minds of those who felt most keenly the loss of British pre-eminence that, somehow, Britain had been swindled out of her geopolitical inheritance.

Barnett, in his 1986 book, The Audit of War, describes the process of Britain’s slow decline in uncompromising – even brutal – terms:

“As that descent took its course the illusions and the dreams of 1945 would fade one by one – the imperial and Commonwealth role, the world-power role, British industrial genius, and, at the last, New Jerusalem [Labour’s longed-for socialist utopia] itself, a dream turned into a dank reality of a segregated, sub-literate, unskilled, unhealthy and institutionalised proletariat hanging on the nipple of state maternalism.”

What better description could there be of the grim, purblind alliance that came together on 23 June 2016 to take Britain out of Europe? The criminally self-destructive “Leave” victory had been secured by the vengeful remnants of an imperial ruling-class and their nostalgic middle-class enablers, bulked-up by an embittered army of impoverished working-class men and women left to rot amidst the rusted wreckage of a British manufacturing sector long since outstripped by its European competitors.


*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com. He writes a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz. 

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