Brexit being played to the gallery?

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Boris Johnson – politicians behaving badly?

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.

 

Underlying causes which led to Brexit

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The philosopher John Gray argued on BBC Radio last week that Brexit will have a greater impact on the EU than it will on the UK. And he predicts the British experience is likely to be repeated across much of continental Europe over the next few years. 

There is much that is compelling in his analysis.One of the most salient points he makes is that the underlying causes which led to Brexit are not to be found in England – or in Britain – but in the EU itself. This is a project which, by overreaching itself, will unravel disastrously unless these are honestly addressed and resolved.

I think what he is saying is that it is time for the promoters of the European project to stop dreaming of a superstate and become more pragmatic. Then we can all get back to living real lives and feel free again.

That this feeling of freedom has evaporated and left  a sense of loss of sovereignty in a number of European countries is dangerous. The do-good idealism inherent in the European project has failed to translate into reality in the hearts of Europeans. Failures like that are often not just unfortunate. They can be dangerous. The resentment generated by failed well-intentioned experiments can be the seed-bed of very dangerous reactions. The theory of this project is not enough, no matter how confident its champions may be that it is working in practice.

Is there at work here an example of  what Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace? He was commenting on the German, General Pfuel, fighting for the Czar. He described him as “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.”

At first sight, Pfuel, in his ill-made uniform of a Russian general, which fitted him badly like a fancy costume, seemed familiar to Prince Andrew, though he saw him now for the first time. There was about him something of Weyrother, Mack, and Schmidt, and many other German theorist-generals whom Prince Andrew had seen in 1805, but he was more typical than any of them… 

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. A Russian is self-assured just because he knows nothing does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known. 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.

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Surely this is a sentiment not too far from that of General Pfuel?

Could it be that this self-assurance of Pfuel – or Martin Schulz – is what permeates the European project for “ever-closer union” and that a growing number of those living within the borders of this block are now beginning to feel repelled by it – because they know that it is as ill-fitting for them as the Russian uniform which Pfuel found himself inhabiting? Might it be that the citizens of the best-organized state in the world, paraphrasing Tolstoy,  always knowing what they should do and knowing that all they will do as  Englishmen will undoubtedly be correct – have made the right call on this?