Greatness and Brexit

What is Brexit about? This is the centre of the UK’s hot takes industry this year, and doubtless will be for many more to come. Commentators of every stripe and standing have thrown their hat into this ring, and have generally settled on a tale of ignored White Working Class voters seeking to overturn the smug metropolitan liberal consensus in favour of a sensation or reality of control over their lives they feel has departed. With variations for standing and view point, that is essentially the broad consensus.

There are a variety of themes within this discussion, of which one is of particular interest to me. This is a discussion of greatness and its relationship to the idea of Britain. Sometimes it strides to the fore, like here, but more often it finds itself as one of the backing singers, unlike discussions of immigration, or deindustrialisation, who are frequently the headline act. Greatness and Britain are concepts that have long been associated with each other — not always in happy manner, but the association persists right the way back to the 18th Century.

What is perhaps most interesting — for me, at least — is that the idea of a Great Power and the idea of Britain as being Great coalesced around the same time period. Britain is one of the original members of the club; indeed, with France, it is perhaps one of only two surviving states that have always been in that club — Spain and the Netherlands are now middle powers, Prussia struggled in and now Germany declaims the role, Russia was a later addition, Austria is no longer the sprawling Central European giant of yore, and Sweden is very busy getting social democracy right.

Hedley Bull defined a Great Power as having three essential characteristics — they were military powers “of the first rank”, there were at least two of them, and they are “recognised by others to have, and conceived by their own leaders and peoples to have, certain special rights and duties.” Britain fulfils his criterion for Great Power status — and indeed displays wider characteristics, such as an abundance of other forms of power, that we might try and qualify Bull’s definition with. The fact has been, since 1945, that Britain has remained a Great Power.

But. In a world of the United States and Soviet Union, then of the USA alone, and now with the rise of China, that position has felt very precarious. Whilst the UK has remained a major power player, in a plural club, with its own leadership and electorate both expecting the UK to pursue a special role in the world, it has nonetheless been consumed by an obsessive worrying over its role in the world. Some argue that the UK should retreat from the Great Power role, and move on to a more moderate position in the world — in my experience, this is an argument that only generally applies to a queasiness about the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy. These same individuals often expect leading behaviour from the UK on issues such as climate change. Everyone, certainly, has stopped using the label “Great Power” to describe what the UK is and should be. Instead we have euphemisms — often including the word “global” — to try and shift away from what is seen as an uncomfortably imperialist term, and one that creates a much clearer set of role expectations than the UK’s own jitters will sustain.

Broadly, therefore, this is a consensus among the elite that the UK is a Great Power. Or, at least, there was. The issue that the referendum last summer generated was that a mutual understanding of Greatness was premised on two diametrically opposed concepts in two parts of the elite. Some believed the UK was great in spite of being in the European Union; others believed the UK was great in part because it was in the EU. By proposing a referendum on the subject, David Cameron ensured that one of these visions would win out — but, in consequence, the other would have to deal with a fundamental shock to the settled (if unspoken) notion of British greatness it shared in. Distressingly for the country, this conceptual divide extended deep into the population.

Every British person is conscious, on some level, of Britain as a Great Power — or at least, of Britain and its exceptional relationship to greatness. The problem was that the referendum crystallised two different views of what made Britain Great, and sent one down to defeat. That is partly why the referendum’s wounds have failed to heal, and indeed felt just as raw, for a swathe of people since last June. Their conception of Britain; coloured by the unconscious sharing of the concept of Britain as in some way great; has been sent down to defeat, and the government is making essentially no meaningful concessions to it as it moves forwards with its programme to leave the European Union.

What will happen to them? Likely what happened to the hard core anti-EU campaigners after 1975; they get shunted to the periphery, but they do not die away. For years, they will likely suffer the same ignominy as their counterparts did, nursing sore memories of a lost great country, manning stalls of EU flags and badly printed tea towels at party conferences, posting angry and sharply worded blog posts into the void, festering away as the country judders in other directions. Everything that has happened since the 23rd June 2016 has helped ensure that their anger remains deep, and hot, and unlikely to fade into resignation with the passage of time. They have seen what a great Britain looks like, and they want it back.

The task for the government on the 24th June, and ever since, was to reunite people in a shared conception of Britain’s greatness that went above and beyond the immediate demands of Brexit. Instead, the May government has chosen to lock down its medium term electoral future by focusing on ensuring that its own Eurosceptic backbenchers are left with precious little to complain about. Whilst this strategy has its own wisdom, and certainly will pay off for the Conservative Party in terms of discipline and poll ratings, the long term horizon looks much less cheery. Even if only half of Remain voters remain angry (and that seems like a reasonable estimate), that is still 8 million or so people, fuming away, feeling a sense of dislocation, a loss of pride, an undermining of faith. It is a considerable base to start from, and over time, it will learn to reach out, to expand its appeal. Some of its members will remain unconvinced of the art of persuasion of the middle ground — like those Leavers who wanted Edward Heath hung for treason, the route of people like A. C. Grayling and his ilk does not promise to end in wish fulfilment.

But in shaking people out of their belief in Britain’s greatness, the government has created the space for a Farage-type figure of Remain to emerge. Provocatively metropolitan might seem ridiculous to us now — but Farage was always ridiculous, and remains ridiculous, but found success all the same. All populist provocateurs are in some sense farcical, but that is not a barrier in and of itself to them succeeding or failing. They will lay the ground work for the next consensus with their provocations and rants, they will grind down the eye rolling, find a willing audience, shake those who faintly believe in what they believe into doing something about it — organising, voting, protesting, shuffling position — and the wounds will still fester.

I don’t say these things because I believe it will end with the UK going back into the EU; nor because I believe that such a counter-Farage type figure, such a movement, will be a great positive thing. A country with an already paranoid relationship with its own greatness facing a significant minority who feel little to no relationship with the new conception of greatness coming out of its direction is not going to be a happy or gentle place. The festering illness in the UK’s political culture will simply shift focus — away from towns, into cities, away from markets, into universities. Rather than helping to resolve the UK’s debate around greatness, it will simply extend it on.

In the end, the UK will at some point be faced with a cold choice — to seek to remain Great, and all the costs and responsibilities that entails, or to finally retire from the Great Power club and do something else. In the absence of a clearly defined ‘something else’, with the dominance of an elite determined to keep Britain in the Great Power club, and with the exclusion of the minority who feel shut out of the new Greatness, the path for the medium future is clear. But when the seething minority push their way back into the centre of power, whether they seek to recast Greatness or decide it is time to retire, that is a more profound question. For what it’s worth, I believe that the angry minority will cling to the concept of Britain being Great, but a Greatness lost that can be found again, just as tightly as their opposite numbers did. The risk therefore is not a disorderly retreat from Greatness for Britain, but an erratic relationship with it. As we have learned from the United States since January 20th, erratic Great Powers present a host of challenges.

To summarise — the referendum was a contest over the relationship between a shared notion of Greatness, and the European Union. In the contest, one view of Greatness would lose out — the choice then was to accommodate, or double down. In doubling down, the government has opened longer term problems for itself that will only fester and deepen as time goes by. A serious effort to bridge the gap must be informed by an understanding of greatness, and a feeling of loss or gain thereof, in order to be successful. A failure to bridge that gap in serious terms will have difficult, potentially dangerous, ramifications down the line.