Exchanging views with Brexiteers I could not help but notice a lack of sense of history. It is not a mere knowledge of history, which is certainly lacking, but an understanding that break-ups of geopolitical systems (be they an empire, a nation, or the EU) are very rarely peaceful and without adverse economic and social consequences. Brexit will certainly impact on the rest of the already fragile EU and that’s bad news for everybody. It means recession, or probably depression, internal strife, and external actors taking advantage of the situation. Now look at a map of Europe and its neighbours and ponder!
Another problem with lacking a sense of history is the inability to appreciate that political/legal/social/economic paradigms change. The way we conceive of society changes. Brexiteers seem unable to go beyond the 19th-20th century paradigm of the nation-state. They get fixated with the idea that a democratic polity needs to function according to that model. The EU is not a nation, like the US, and it is very unlikely that it will ever be. This doesn’t mean that it cannot be democratic. As argued here, the idea of sovereignty has undergone radical changes. Popular sovereignty is recent and should not be conflated with a national Parliament.
The rise of the nation
Much as Brexiteers would like to think of the nation being there since time immemorial, the rise of nation-states is quite recent. I’m not suggesting that there was no ethnic/cultural belonging before the modern area, but that modernity implied a paradigmatic shift for a new type of nation. The model of nation set by the peace of Westfalia (1648) cemented the state, but it is only the 19th century, with industrialisation and the radical political shifts of industrial modernity, when states become nations. 19th century nations had a mass society, underwent a process of democratisation, rapid economic growth, rise in literacy, and new social stratification.
The building of the nation involved linking up places through railways, roads, and communication (postal service, telegraph, telephone). It involved the creation of a standardised language, education and training to supply labour for the new industries, and public services. Most importantly, it involved national myths telling the story of the ‘nation’ with which people ought to identify. That required selective and, very often, deliberate distortions of history. That served to unify very different people and mobilise them in case of war.
National myth-making is not necessarily negative or dangerous, but it rests on identifying the ‘other’, the one ‘we’ are not. Again, this need not lead to xenophobia. It is a construction of boundaries, which provide an identity. Lately the vision for Britain as pluralistic, cherishing different ethnicities, languages, faiths, and sexual orientations, has been labelled as reflecting the ‘liberal metropolitan elite drinking lattes’. It identifies the younger and mobile generation and for some they have a weak identity and are ‘out of touch’ with the rest of the country. It is contrasted with the nostalgic and, for some, inward-looking vision of a proud Britain standing alone during the war and drinking tea and scones. The image of Britain as bravely fighting is used by both factions in the current EU Referendum battle. For pro-Europeans (and incidentally war veterans), it testifies to Britain fighting alongside others for a better future; for Brexiteers, it shows Britain as bastion of tolerance and freedom fighting against European tyranny from the Romans to Napoleon and Hitler (never mind the fact that the Prussian Army defeated Napoleon).
A polished version of this is Ian Hislop’s ‘documentary’ The Olden Days. Hislop makes two main claims: that Britain is enamoured with tradition and that it is inherently tolerant and liberal. Hislop claims that at the height of the radical changes of industrialisation, the British cherished the past. Never concerned with appropriate comparisons, Hislop misses the fact that during profound social, economic, and cultural changes, people evoke tradition. At the height of the Renaissance, innovation was inspired by tradition, hence the neoclassical style. Perversely, Hislop contrasts British eccentric love-affair with the past of Victorian England (1837 – 1901) with Nazi Germany (1933-1945). The German Romantic Movement with its wonderful poetry and philosophy is simply swept aside for the crass caricature of Germany as a Nazi nation. In order to paint Britain as liberal, Hislop also turns a blind eye to English tyranny (Henry VIII, Cromwell etc.) and various illiberal bloodbaths (religious wars), and fails to grasp that countries have no inherent characteristics.
The construction of the nation homogenised a very heterogeneous reality. It imposed the view and interests of an elite on everybody else. The traditions we associate with the nation (ideas, customs, laws) are the result of powerful actors and forces, and, often, chance. They are the dominant strand, but never the only one, let alone, the authentic ‘soul’ of the nation. By making claims as to what being British, French, Italian, or other, means, the person, or groups, doing it are seeking to impose a label on very different people. Drinking tea is often thought to be quintessentially British, except the English ridiculed tea drinking as a European custom and were slow to take it up. It was Portuguese Isabella of Braganza who introduced tea to Britain. The Italian language comes from the standardisation of Tuscan dialect and became the national language only when state schools were established and, even more so, when television began broadcasts.
No idea, custom, or law has a specifically national identity because nations have no essence and ideas travel. What we have today wasn’t there before. However, a continuity with the past, a sense of tradition, gives us identity. Scholars have often identified tradition as a social order that came to an end with industrialised modernity. I counter that tradition, as a repertoire of narratives and practices, is fundamental to the construction of individual and group identity. How we understand our tradition changes throughout time and varies from person to person. There are people who identify their Britishness with an affection for the Monarch, tea drinking habits, and tolerance (just to name a few); others with republicanism, social democracy, and an internationalist outlook; I dare say most identify it with the NHS!
The EU and 21st century governance
The British media have been consistent in portraying the EU as foreign and in scapegoating the EU and migrants for every ill. The national press has been found to be biased against the EU and even the BBC has been more negative on the EU than on Putin. The media and the political class have all responsibilities. British politicians have often portrayed themselves as fighting for the national interest against European unelected bureaucrats. Yet, their appeal to national interest often disguises the promotion of particular business interests. For instance, the UK has fought against a European ban of pesticides that kill bees. It has been fighting to keep the carcinogenic pesticide glyphosate in use. It has fought for lower quality chocolate made with vegetable oil and sausages with little meat. It has also campaigned against tougher car emissions tests. Tell me again, in whose interest is the UK battling the rest of the EU so valiantly?
Sociologist Georg Simmel argued that bigger entities allow more diversity. That is the key idea behind Europe. A larger entity that enables different views, interests, and identities to come together, rather than a bureaucratic superstate imposing a homogeneous identity. A more democratic EU means more integration and therefore loss of power for national leaders. National leaders, chiefly among them Angela Merkel, have preferred to bypass EU institutions by pressing for changes through the ‘intergovernmental route’ (=with other national leaders rather than the democratically elected EU Parliament). The way to democratise further the EU whilst avoiding an unwieldy and bureaucratic state is, I believe, by strengthening devolution and resurrect the Europe of the Regions. Incidentally, that is why smaller countries, like Scotland and Catalonia, are pro-European.
National states are a 19th century entity. Having a sense of history means understanding that the new paradigm of globalisation and pluralism requires different types of institutions and governance. Trying to retreat into the past will not address today’s challenges. We will suffer the consequences without being able to have a say. Only by taking up the challenge of globalisation through a democratic European Union can we have a goverance fit for the 21st century.