As we tune in to the Brexit show, somehow, it is hard not to feel that there could be a little more maturity in evidence than at times there seems to be. At one level it is excellent and indeed very dignified – as we saw in Prime Minister May’s address to the British Parliament. It was again in evidence this morning in her address to the global audience at Davos.
But when it comes to the soundbites reaching us through the media’s reported comments from politicians across the continent of Europe – not to mention the media’s own comments – the dreaded infection of populism now seems to be at pandemic level.
Immaturity begets immaturity, it seems. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the response of that rather funny man, Boris Johnson, to some of the reactions to Mrs. May’s House of Commons address. But Boris is not now addressing the Oxford Union. He is the successor of Lord Palmerston and should be playing that part rather than playing to the gallery.
Brexit is very serious business – for both Britain and Europe. The people of the United Kingdom, admittedly by a not very large majority, have indicated their will. Even though across the territories of that kingdom there are clear differences of opinion on the matter, the fact is that by the terms of the venerable and ancient constitution which political life is organised there, the decision to leave the EU is democratically valid.
This is where the immaturity and lack of respect of their European partners – as matters still stand – shows itself. For all parties what maturity and mutual respect would seem to demand would be an acceptance of the will of a people and then an agreement to get down to work to rearrange matters on questions of trade, movement of people, and anything else that is amiss in the apple cart after this “upset”. Apple carts do get upset from time to time.
But, in the popular press at any rate, that is not what we are getting. European press and some European politicians seem to be mainly preoccupied with saving their faces. To do that they seem to need to tell their public audience that Britons cannot be allowed to seem to do well as a result of their decision. On that cue Boris Johnson jumps up from his seat to talk about the silliness of thinking that Britons should be given “punishment beatings” for upsetting the apple cart.
The reality is that the European Union is not the be-all and the end-all of Western civilization. It is a political solution to real problems which Europe has had since the nation states of the continent evolved and which in the 20th century were partly – but only partly – responsible for two disastrous wars. There are many features of this political experiment which have brought their own problems and there have been turnings in its evolution in which many observers detect the seeds of self-destruction – or at least serious deficiencies.
British influence over the years of UK membership tried to correct what was perceived as faulty. It failed to do so and the end result is Brexit. There was in essence a clash of civilizations, or at least a clash of cultures. The basis of this clash might be seen in the observation of Tolstoy about 150 years ago.
Writing in War and Peace of one of the German generals in the Russian army, he summarized what he saw as the national characteristics of some Europeans:
Pfuel was one of those hopelessly and immutably self-confident men, self-confident to the point of martyrdom as only Germans are, because only Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract notion- science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that all he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people… The German’s self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth- science- which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth.
The European Union is not founded on absolute truth. Its constitution did not come from Mount Sinai.The tone of European reactions to Brexit seems to suggest that they believe it did. Until they adopt a little more of the characteristic pragmatism of the British they will continue to make the British nervous. They will also continue to look silly in their approach to sorting out the real difficulties that the British decision has created. Sorting out difficulties is what politics is all about. Get on with it people, and stop this silly posturing.