Seen from Moscow, the current British-EU crisis may seem strange, illogical. Much of it is, but with a longer perspective, it is possible to glean meaning in the chaos.
By Ross Hunter, with additional reporting by William Shakespeare
1. THE PRESENT
On 23 June, the UK voted, in a rare Referendum, to leave the EU. Few expected this result; nobody planned for its consequences. Since then, we have changed Prime Minister, seen most of the Cabinet/Politburo sacked, watched the Labour party implode, and about our future, learned â¦ nothing. In short, An unholy mess. How did it get to this? The roots of the crisis go back 70 years, or a thousand.
2. DISTANT HISTORY
Britain has always had an equivocal relationship with Continental Europe. Foreign policy was based on isolation, thanks to the sea, backed by a strong navy, and a desire to get involved only with the negative goal of stopping any Continental power becoming too powerful. Since the 100 Years War ended (Calais 1588), England/UK has fought (away games!) with any ally against any ascendant power, including C.17th Spain, Napoleonic France, expansionist Prussia/Germany. Divide and rule. Diplomacy is the continuation of war by other means.
The British national anthem (A&M Hymn 293), has an unsung but revealing second verse: âO Lord our God Arise / Scatter our enemies, / and make them fall. / Confound their politics,Â / Frustrate their knavish tricksâ¦â
Across the Channel, the partition of the Holy Roman Empire in the late C.9th created an enduring problem. Simplifying ever so slightly, the western Empire was divided to create what became France and Germany with the third son, Lothar, getting the narrow strip between. The âLotharingian axisâ – The Low Countries, The Rhine, Alsace, Switzerland, northern Italy – has been squeezed between the better defined nations on either side. Further, C.19th industrialisation revealed that the vital coal and iron ore deposits underlie this same strip. Control over them was essential for expanding empires, as the war graves from 1870 to 1918 to 1945 along the Rhine Valley bear witness.
3. THE RECENT PAST
After four catastrophic wars in 130 years, the visionaries looking over the ruins in 1945 were determined to end this waste. Euratom, ECSC and âBeNeLuxâ led to the Treaty of Rome in 1957: France and Germany tied together to make war impossible, with their neighbours eagerly joining in. No war since: a success so total we have come to take it for granted. Further, the post-war economic miracle created prosperous and closely linked set of open democracies. A dayâs drive from Calais to Italy meant seven border controls; six currencies. Along Lotharingia, open borders and a single currency make simple sense.
At the EUâs founding, Perfidious Albion was not trusted, and the feeling was mutual. Staying aloof, the UK tried to set up a low-level rival, EFTA. By joining late (1973) and by being only ever a half-hearted member, UK missed the chance to mould the club in its own image.
British politics are a similarly equivocal mess. The Labour Party (social democrat to Marxist) has never reconciled its dialectical contradictions: to fight a capitalist club; to unite with fellow socialist international workers; to enjoy free trade to boost industry; to spread The Word â¦ and have tied themselves in knots. The Conservatives (centre right and further) have always been riven by the idea of Europe: split between Anglo-Saxon âAtlanticistsâ, clinging to the mythical USA âspecial relationshipâ; traditional Empire nostalgists, whose old school atlases still glow with swathes of reassuring pink (and cricket); and modernisers, who have noticed that the British Isles* are (3000 â 22) miles closer to Europe, in distance, trade, culture and political mores, with shared assumptions of society, the stateâs responsibilities, football and even Eurovision. This split is irreconcilable, and has cost the careers of most Conservative leaders.
*Note from a Geography teacher: the islands offshore Europe, including Ireland, are âThe British Isles.â The largest of these, logically, is âGreat Britainâ: the largest patch of land. There is no other meaning, no imperial memory, no pretention to superiorityâ¦ except in the minds of all those who hide behind the fig-flag of national pride.
Apart from during an hour on Sunday mornings, the Conservativesâ idea of a God-figure is of course Winston Churchill. Can he help position his party? Like his biographers, Churchill wrote profusely and contradicted himself frequently. Whatever you seek you can find: âIf Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea;â but also âWe must build a kind of United States of Europe.â If the worldâs oldest and most successful political party rips itself to pieces, it will be over its triple schizophrenia: America â Empire â Europe. The Russian eagle has only two heads, facing Europe and Siberia. This is the essential, existential, problem that made then PM Cameron make his greatest political miscalculation: to try and shut up his Eurosceptic, Euro-septic, right wing, he made an election promise of a referendum. Direct democracy? Power to the People? Not a bit of it. A naked calculation that he could win, and unify his party: overconfidence and complacency his downfall.
4. NEXT: âParting is such sweet sorrow?â
The EU didnât take the threat seriously, and offered insultingly minimal concessions. Behind their braggadocio, the EU is angry but fearful of the disease spreading. Campaigning revealed a nasty, selfish, xenophobic, racist streak in some voters. The white, urban working class, suffering from globalisation and sinking incomes, blamed the EU for it and tipped the vote to Out. Few politicians emerged with much credit (Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon a notable exception), looking a combination of lazy, out of touch, dishonest, complacent or rabid.
Having staked everything on Remain, The PM resigned. Henry IV: âUneasy lies the head that wears the crown.â The Labour party are in open civil war, and could split. This may benefit UKIP, or the Liberal Democrats, but guarantees a decade of oblivion for Labour. The Conservativesâ epic backstabbing led to resignations of Leave campaigners and the abrasive UKIP leader Nigel Farage. The Conservatives acted swiftly to choose a new leader, and thus PM: Home Secretary (Minister of the Interior) Theresa May. Her first act was to exile or sack all the plotters. Mrs May as Lady Macbeth âStand not upon the order of your going, but go!,â or seeing blood on her eye-catching shoes âOut! Out, damn spot.â
At the time of writing, UK has a new and untested government. The poisoned chalice of exit negotiations has been dumped on the leading Brexiteers: Mr Boris Hamlet Johnson âTo Be In or Not to Be Inâ, and Mr Davis and Dr Fox, sharing the role and mindset of Malvoleo: âBe not afraid of Greatnessâ¦â Skulking unheeded in the wings are Mr Farage âSomething is rotten in the state of â¦ everywhere except my pubâ, Mr Brutus âEt Tuâ Gove, stab and be stabbed. Allâs Well that Endâs Well? Not in our Midsummer Nightâs Dreams.