The only thing that the spectrum of political press in the UK shares is their frequent allusions to Britain living in its last days.
Mass immigration and cultural dilution have destroyed the national fabric and constrained public services. Racist attacks are common, crime is rampant and national values have been eradicated. The capital is crowded, social disorder is rife and most of London has been socially cleansed in favour of the wealthy and Russian oligarchs.
The seemingly irreconcilable marriage between Scotland and England has brought the United Kingdom to the brink of disintegrating and Brexit has created burning divisions across the land. Political elites are lining their pockets and the House of Lords awards lords and ladyships to anyone who can pay. Islamaphobia, anti-religion, ant-atheism, political correctness and political incorrectness have bred general intolerance across the UK, to say nothing of a collapsing Europe and America electing a saviour/fascist.
Or so they say.
Despite the vastly different opinions and language used to describe contemporary issues from the left and the right of the political press, one, in particular, stands out and is widely agreed on. The nation-state as an emblem of Britishness has, at best, come under siege and, at worst, lost all tangible meaning in the lives of ordinary citizens. Is the British Government a public service provider or does it mean something more?
The nation-state was, traditionally, in centuries past, the beginning and end all of the world for citizens. It is now a market-state. Professor Philip Bobbitt rightly identifies that citizens are now consumers, their immediate concerns about any tax, policy, immigration or political change are about how much it will affect their spending power and the consumerism we now take for granted. Britons ‘have never had it so good’, said Harold Macmillan, although it’s doubtful he imagined just how much those words foreshadowed the materialism that now underpins national loyalty.
In the case of the British exit from the European Union, a large part of the vote Leave campaign was centred on ‘taking our country back’, using rhetoric that stopped short of using the word ‘hordes’ to explain how immigration has caused the decline of British identity and cultural values.
The EU, more than anything else, was a market opportunity for Britain from the 1960s to the UK’s ascension in 1973 and onto the present day. In the original referendum in 1975 on continuing as a member of the European Community, 17,378,581 (67.23 percent) voted to stay in the community out of 25,903,194 votes cast. What’s changed in the subsequent decades is the EU’s creeping sense of self, whether it was the customs union, the single market, talking about creating an army, enlargement or promoting a unilateral European foreign policy.
The language of the Leave campaign and the reason they triumphed is that they accurately, albeit accidentally, highlighted how a rise in EU values showed up just how undefined British values were in the 21st century. The monumental challenge of coming up with a set of values in a campaign window is why Leave never said what British identity was, only that European identity was not the solution. A cop-out, if ever there was one, albeit a successful one.
The media reaction, however, to the referendum all but confirms exactly why Remain lost. Reporting, whether in favour or against Brexit, has focussed on the benefits or difficulties of trade in the future for the country. Seldom does media attention ever focus on the absence of British values as the reason for why there was such a profound shake-up of the system, or that the UK electorate may have cut its nose off in a desperate, maligning bid to find an answer.
Britain has never really had the ‘melting pot’ style immigration ethos so central to the United States’ sense of self. Mass immigration to the UK began in the 1950s at the same time as the decline of the British Empire. Europe was centralising and developing in concurrence all while Britain never resolved exactly what it’s role in the world was, let alone what the country meant to its own citizens. The idea came to a head in the 1970s with the stark economic decline and the humiliation of an IMF bail-out in 1975. The problem was triaged and artificially resolved under Margaret Thatcher’s patriotic drive which sits more as an example of the ‘Great Man Theory’ of history than of actually answering the question of what Britain stands for. What is the country about beyond the tropes of freedom and liberty which can be said of all Western democracies? With some irony, Thatcher did more than any other modern premier to shift the UK to the very market ideals it has enshrined as sacrosanct in place of characterised national values.
Devolution to three of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom, further EU integration and mass immigration have done nothing but expose the fault lines in the British character. These factors are not issues in themselves but congeal to present a genuine challenge as to what it means to be British. It is impossible to change, or evolve, without first understanding that which you are representing. No one can point to a single document or an exact list of ideas about what being British is. That Brexit has occurred is best, most logically understood, as a reaction not against the EU, but the frustration we feel about ourselves as a country.
To add to that, there are profound issues with how the political class across the UK is perceived. The devolution settlement is disproportionate; there’s a genuine sense that the devolved nations of the UK get more than others, coupled with massive disparities between rich and poor across the UK as a whole. Politicians, the ones who should, at the very least, be trying to make a statement to restore a sense of national identity are resented for being overpaid and underworking. From Holyrood to Westminster there is immense frustration that no leader says what most people think, serving their party first, their constituents second, and espousing any political narrative that suits individual careers.
It’s become a lazy resort of those disasitifed with the status quo to define national identity by what we’re not. Discussions on government policy, whether domestic or international, have de-evolved into the media presenting every development, on immigration particularly, with the same hyperbole as if it were some kind of nightmare Zimbabwean land grab. There is a Western, not just exclusively British, condescension to immigration which has now branched out to encompass refugees as an international game of pass the parcel.
The only true solution to the problem of identity exists beyond language and place. Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, argued that “society is a contract between the past, the present and those yet unborn.” The present is an agreement, a sacred trust and bridge between the past and the future that creates commonality from the acknowledgement of a shared experience. Not to remember the past is to forget what modern society, and therefore values, actually are.
Historical appreciation begins with accepting the maxim that not knowing our history invites the danger that the suffering of the past will repeat. The romanticisation, however, of Britain’s past is as much the problem as it is the solution to the issue of identity. When deploying history, it must be used more sparingly and with more accuracy than deploying anecdote.
The cliche that Britain saved Europe, not just in the Second World War but many times before, oversimplifies a thousand year story of archipelago engagement and cross-pollination with our continental neighbours. Yet, in the Brexit campaign, it was the Second World War which was alluded to most often by both official camps – Remain as a warning for why the folly of war cannot be allowed to happen again, Leave because Britain saved Europe. Ideas, as much as armies, do not stay static for long and pretending that they do and using a single one for political politics distorts the truth.
The experience of most citizens, whether rich or poor, is now so nationally different that is is creating a backlash against purely historical vignettes. People need tangible solutions to issues and not just historical stories, they need to understand why there is legitimacy to our governments at all. History and cultural values are rightly secondary on Abraham Maslow’s pyramid needs when there are thousands sleeping on the streets, elderly people faced with a choice between electricity and food and a failing system of schools. Yet, to solve these issues, there must be an agreed appreciation for the values of our citizens over the value of ideology.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke provided a seminal forewarning of how catastrophic it is to begin anew with no consideration of the past. Burke famously condemned the French Revolution while attesting, by contrast, his support for the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain and the American Revolution beginning in 1765. The French Revolution, said Burke, had destroyed social order and overthrew the French hierarchy on a false premise of starting anew. The Glorious Revolution in Britain, on the other hand, was a restoration and affirmation to the laws and traditions of the land. The American Revolution was, likewise, an extension of the laws and customs of the British law, changing the political elite without seismically reforging the land.
Burke made the point that societal order develops over time. After 40 years as part of the EU, the UK now finds itself in the peculiar situation of having more in common with the EU than our own government because the former has dared to articulate what it stands for. You cannot create British values overnight, and it is this conundrum which has made division easier than an extensive reflection on what the point of the United Kingdom actually is.
Ultimately, the lasting solution to the present political discontent is to find a self of sense for Britain that is beyond fleeting reactionaryism. The danger with politics today, and Brexit, in particular, is it has given renewed life to personality politicians like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Focussing on objective history, over one particular person, is an ambitious, albeit potentially lasting, means to bypass the cult of personality which is likewise trying to fill the vacuum left by the absence of British values.
There is a fluidity to ideas and they need to be unleashed and not parochially boxed in on any one issue. Extreme liberalism, the market-state and the individualistic nature of modern society in tandem with the elephant next door, Europe, have left contemporary Britain wanting. Burke warned against the tyranny of the majority and extreme liberalism, and the folly of trying to begin anew. Britain and her constituent parts must find meaning that is applicable, tangible and satisfactory.
Try as some might to sow the seeds of dissent in the psephological analysis, it is unlikely the winning parties are going to yield to a second referendum on Europe. Even if the result changed, it would not change the reality of what is troubling the UK. The majority of young people, Londoners, Scots and Northern Irish may have all voted Remain, but the challenge remains to all, particular Leavers, to find a sense of British self without inflating or betraying the past.
Direct democracy is rare amongst the history of Britain. Referenda are a relatively new phenomena. What is ignored is that indulging plebiscites accomplishes precisely what Burke warns against. Of course, they will produce discontinuous and paradoxical results, because they invite, by their nature, reactionary responses with little opportunity for discussion and subsequent votes. Referenda are literally exceptional and invite exception, not a pattern of evolution.
The reality of the European Union is that, like the Union of the Crowns and the Act of Union, it is not a flashpoint but a part of the national story. The relationship between Britain and Europe has existed, in a highly politically and culturally connected way, for thousands of years. There is no getting away from it, and no point pretending that a European dimension doesn’t exist to the British national story.
The only solution is to be brave, and to find meaning in the past for the future will not present it to us. Britons must find values about who they are, what they stand for and what they can offer the world. They should not be shy about saying what they are, otherwise, the frustration against the forces of history, of globalisation and human movement will lead to a permanent revolution that can never be solved. This begins with accepting, in all honestly, the full story of our history with Europe.