Alphen, Netherlands. 13 June. Abandon all hope ye who enter here? That was the impression I gained from reading a new, hard-hitting book by Edoardo Campanella and Marta Dassu entitled Anglo Nostalgia – The Politics of Emotion in a Fractured West?(London: Hurst). In fact, the book may well have been entitled, Anglo Nostalgia – A Warning to Italians. Still, this is an important book, and an excellent read, because it has the courage to consider the structural implications of Brexit for Europe head on. This is hardly surprising as one of the authors, Marta Dassu, I have known, liked and admired for many years. Still, rather than me eulogise the work, you can make up your own mind and I would encourage you to do that, let me challenge some of the fundamental assumptions at the books core. The picture it paints of my country, Britain and the Brexit mess, as well as that of the US and President Trump’s America First, is one that I only partially recognise.
The most important message of the book for the British, or more specifically ‘we’ English, is that we should recognise that we are little different from, say, Italy, or any other European nation, and invest what fading power ‘we’ have left in a “hybrid Europe”. Britain’s latent strategic ambition is pretense born of a form of myth-based patriotism/nationalism and archaic identity. Worse, it is dangerous nostalgia that prolongs the fantasy that Britain can somehow act as a bridge between America and Europe.
Therefore, it was perhaps fitting that I read the book on various planes bouncing around Europe in the run up to the D-Day 75 commemorations. The book is certainly eloquent and compelling concerning Brexit, particularly the danger posed by ‘buy one, get one free’ populists offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. The discussion about the role myth plays, and has played in the British national story is powerful. For much of my career as both historian and analyst I have fought a battle between head and heart over what role in the world post-imperial Britain should aspire to, and what hard realities Britain needs to face. It is precisely because I am both historian and analyst that it is a battle I think I have by and large won, without having to abandon my deep-seated and, I hope, moderate British patriotism.
Patriotism or nostalgia?
My problem with this book is that there is no place for even my idea of patriotism, which the book suggests is part of some “epidemic of nostalgia”. Rather, I must accept that Little Britain abandon all and any pretense to strategic ambition for that is the only hope there is of eventually making the EU work in a globalized world in which ‘one size fits all’ European states count for little and, by extension, the European citizen even less. This smacks not only of a denial of identity, but also a form of defeatism and that the only way for Europeans to counter big, inefficient political blobs like China is to create yet another big, inefficient political blob called ‘Europe’.
Central to the book is a particularly scathing view of hard-line Brexiteers, and what it sees as their nostalgic fantasies about the rebuilding of the British Empire, or something such like. First, it seems to confuse Brexiteers at times with all mainstream Brits. Second, in my many debates with Brexiteers I have yet to come across anyone who harbours such illusions of Empire reborn. Rather, the main impulse for most Brexiteers I engage with is either the scale and scope of mass immigration and/or concerns about who really governs us and the degree to which people are accountable to any electorate. There is a particular concern, given the direction of travel of the European Project about who or what will govern ‘us’ thirty years hence if Britain remains in the EU. Brexit is also as much about Britain as ‘Europe’ with many Brexiteers simply frustrated with a political mainstream that seems unwilling and/or unable to address the very big issues of change with anything approaching competence.
A central and strong argument of the book is that no single state, let alone European state, can alone deal with many of these big issues. This is undoubtedly correct. However, the book would have been strengthened if it had tried harder to understand Brexit and posed the question all Europeans need to consider: to what extent must European states constrain/pool sovereign action in the name of the collective, possibly common good, action, given that any such ‘action’, by definition, weakens influence over policy and the accountability of power to the people.
Much of the Brexit insurgency, for that is what it is, is more to do with the ever-weakening relationship between voting and power in Europe’s fading democracy, rather than nostalgic concerns for some long-lost glorious past. Where I disagree with the book is when it suggests that what it sees as specifically English nostalgia for a return to what it calls “pure sovereignty”. In fact, much of the Brexit angst is simply a cri de coeurfor democracy to matter, and even a Remainer like me harbours those concerns, which is hardly nostalgia.
This apparent English desire for a return to “pure sovereignty” suggests a lack of understanding of English political philosophy and culture. First, if there is a nostalgic aspect to Brexit it has little to do with Empire of which most Britons today under the age of fifty have only the faintest memory. This is not least because ‘history’, as I know it, is no longer taught in schools. If Brexit has any roots it is in the political philosophy that emerged in the seventeenth century with Hobbes, and evolved through Hume, Burke and Mill. The English civil war was essentially about the nature of the relationship between power and people in a “Commonwealth”. The English have long been suspicious of distant ‘we know best’Leviathans, be they rigid Stuart kings or suave Eurocrats. England’s civil war in time gave birth to modern liberal democracy because it set limits on monarchy and, as such, its creed was also evident in the ‘no taxation without representation’ nature of the American Revolution over a century later. It is an explanatory historical link the book fails to exploit.
The book also fails to properly understand the impact ‘hybrid Europe’ has had on the hybrid political artifice that is the United Kingdom. The UK was, in effect, born in 1707 of a strategic, imperial narrative that emphasised a certain ‘national’ myth to hold Britain together by creating a story beyond English hegemony. It is the retreat from that narrative/myth implicit in Empire, allied to EU membership, that has loosened the ties between the peoples of the UK and now threatens its future. Indeed, the emergence of Brussels as an alternative pole of power has weakened all of Europe’s composite states.
The UK-US ‘special relationship’ is also painted by the book as one of ‘co-operative nostalgia’, which will fail on the rocks of America First. For me, this was one of the least convincing analyses in the book because it presents the still important relationship between America and Britain as the strategic equivalent of those two old Muppet characters, Waldorf and Stadler, who sit in the stalls of the theatre criticizing the work of others whilst longing for the good old days. As I see myself on a regular basis, the UK-US relationship remains that of two modern, powerful states, admittedly one far more powerful than the other, which operates to effect both in public and far beyond, and which continues to be the core relationship upon which the defence of Europe and NATO is established.
Little, Ordinary Britain
It is the central thesis of the book that is most worthy of challenge. To the authors Britain is simply another ‘ordinary’ European state, like Italy, and for its own good, and that of ‘Europe’, must accept its ordinariness. Whilst I am very comfortable, as a European with the European bit, I am less convinced about Britain being simply another, ‘ordinary’ European state. All European states are distinct but Britain, along with France and Germany, are not as ‘ordinary’ as many other European states. Britain remains larger and far more powerful than most other European states, and I can say that without any delusions of post-imperial grandeur. It is plain fact. States remain the essential building blocks of international relations, including European states. States must also compete and to compete successfully they must constantly tell themselves a story, about themselves and to and for themselves. It was ever thus. This is not nostalgia, it is an essential part of identity which is precisely what the EU lacks and which is the main reason Project Europe has stalled.
The simple reality is that Britain today is an important regional power with the second or third largest economy in Europe (depending on the exchange rate on any given day), with one of Europe’s more capable armed forces. Britain still has weight if not the weight it had 150 years ago, and most Britons of all stripes are entirely comfortable with that. ‘Europe’, hybrid or the full Espresso, will not be built if all Europeans are forced to prostrate themselves before the ‘reality’ of their own weakness by exaggerating that relative weakness. This is simply wrong about the nature of power in the twenty-first century world. For the EU to work it must aggregate the power of its member-states, celebrate them, and encourage them all to be all that they can be, not force them into a single strait-jacket for the sake of the political convenience of Brussels marked ‘historical has-beens’.
It is also a vision built on a false set of assumptions. First, it implies that the likes of China, and much of the rest of Asia, will rise inexorably. This reveals a misunderstanding about China and Asia, and the many internal contradictions therein. Second, it suggests that a relative rebalancing of American power is a mark of American decline. And, that even the vital strategic ambition of the United States, upon which Europe relies for its freedom, is little more than some form of America Firstnostalgia that exaggerates the American sense of self-importance, and thus America’s role in the world.
Little Britain or Little Europe?
For all of the above this is still an important book, and I heartily recommend it to you. Power, narrative and identity DO co-exist and CAN all too easily tip over into nostalgia. That Britain is particularly vulnerable to such nostalgia is a fair point for the book to make. As is the argument that elements of nostalgia are clearly present in the Brexit (and the America First) debate. That Britain and the British (the differentiation in the book between the English and the other four nations that make up the UK – Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and…London, is far too simplistic) might at times come across as arrogant, nostalgic and mired in the past is a legitimate observation for the book to make because that is how many fellow Europeans see us. Europeans who also now see a Britain humbled before its own Brexit hubris, even if I rarely detect much schadenfreudeabout that.
However, what the book calls ‘nostalgia’ is too often confused with a latent and legitimate sense of British strategic ambition that is, with respect, lost to Italians with their very different set of national myths. It is strategic ambition that is, by and large, shared with France and which will be essential if ‘Europe’ is ever to be a global actor rather than a defensive European bunch of pathetic patrieslost pathetically in the pathos and myths of their respective vainglorious pasts. Critically, it is strategic ambition that mercantilist Germany does not share, which perhaps explains more about Little Europe’s little place in a big world than power fantasist Little Britons.
However, the book should be careful for what it wishes. Had it not been for ‘Anglo Saxon’ strategic conceits it would have been unlikely that Italy, or the rest of Western Europe, would have been freed from the Fascism of Mussolini, or the Nazism of Hitler, and protected from the Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It is unlikely if left to Continental Europeans, that the Cold War would have been fought with such authority with an America and supportive Britain at the core of the dozen or so democracies that fought it. Those thousands of Britons who died liberating Italy, or were mown down storming the Normandy beaches, or cut down struggling through the entanglements of its bocage,seventy-five years ago, were no doubt armed in part by what the book calls Anglo Nostalgia. It is just as well they were!