The debate over Britain’s membership of the EU seems to have lost its way somewhat. Reams of paper have been published detailing economic arguments and forecasts; various business notables have spoken both for and against continued membership; both the Prime Minister and his detractors have given considerable attention to the intricacies of the renegotiated deal brought home from Brussels.
All this is, of course, of great relevance to the question of our membership of the EU. But in many ways the importance attached to economic arguments is obstructing a debate over a larger and more fundamental issue; what is Britain’s position in the modern world?
The first thing to point out is that the age of a Britain in splendid isolation is over. Both the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps agree with this. Britain is no longer a major economic power, and our foreign influence is greatly diminished. In 1945 Britain still ruled much of the globe and had one of the greatest armed forces in the world; this is not true anymore. As such, it is inevitable that we will need to align ourselves with other nations in order to retain political and economic influence.
The question, then, is who we should align ourselves with. The ‘leave’ camp posits that we could build closer links with the Commonwealth; this is a naïve idea which I suspect most eurosceptics do not genuinely believe. The phrase ‘the Commonwealth’ might refer to two groupings of countries; the ‘old’ Commonwealth (essentially Canada, Australia and New Zealand), and the ‘new’ Commonwealth (the African, Asian and Caribbean countries formerly part of the Empire.) We could not plausibly create a strategic force with either of these groupings. In the case of the former, the countries in question are too economically irrelevant and too geographically diffuse to constitute an entity which could wield genuine influence; in the case of the latter, the enormous disparity in economic development would ruin Britain if any form of economic union was attempted.
Who else, then? The world has historically been a bipolar one, with history driven by the tension between East and West. At present, the West is unquestionably led by America; the demise of the USSR means that the East is represented by both Russia and China. Most countries around the world are aligned with one or the other of these camps. Consider the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Jordan are firmly pro-American; Syria, Iran, Egypt (since al-Sisi’s revolution) and increasingly Iraq are pro-Russian. The only countries in the region which have the luxury of a non-aligned policy are those few small states who are both wealthy and unconcerned with regional influence; Oman springs to mind.
But the choice between Sino-Russian and American hegemony is an unappetising one, perhaps fundamentally because we are culturally dissimilar from both. The ‘ideology’ of the East has always been one in which the individual is subordinated to the state. This was true in Tsarist Russia, with its’ celebration of ‘nationalism, orthodoxy and autocracy’; it was true in Maoist China, with its millions sacrificed upon the altar of national revolution; even today, Russia and China are fundamentally opposed to liberalism and individual liberty. This can be seen in the poor treatment of homosexuals, minorities and even women in both countries.
A casual observer might presume that Britain has a cultural affinity with the USA. I will concede that we share certain features with them; our language, for instance. However, we should not make the mistake of assuming that we are at all alike. America is a nation built upon the cult of the individual; the exaltation of individual liberty and hatred of the state. It is this ideology which is still driving politics on every side of the political spectrum; from Bernie Sanders’ regular criticism of Wall St. to Donald Trump’s odious diatribes against government institutions. It is this which engenders the celebration of gun ownership, or even the Ammon Bundy movement. Moreover, there are other serious cultural differences. America is a country driven by vapid consumerism and a fetishisation of material goods. It is a country beholden to evangelical Protestantism. For a British politician to talk about Jesus incessantly would be unthinkable; in America it is essentially a prerequisite for election. What I am driving at, is that Britain is not culturally American.
Moreover, it would not be desirable to become so. It rends my heart to see British culture taken over by American artificiality, which is infiltrating in every medium. Britain is home to one of the great cultures of the world, and the act of cultural vandalism that Americanisation constitutes is a crime against our heritage. Whilst we accept that we have a long historical relationship with America, that should not entail that we become part of their cultural sphere.
Where, then, does this leave Britain? It has been established that union with the Commonwealth is unviable, and alliances with either America or Russia are undesirable. Yet it is self-evident that in its’ present state the UK is not ready to go alone (though I do not rule out that at some point in the future we might.)
The only middle path is Europe. We share a great cultural affinity with Europe, engendered principally by the basic geographical reality that we are part of the European continent. Our great artists and writers have all been directly influenced by Europe; Milton was fluent in three European languages and travelled extensively through the continent, as did Chaucer, Marlowe and Wordsworth. European cultural influences are evident throughout our heritage. Moreover, we have been intimately economically linked with Europe throughout history. The continent has always been our major trading partner, and today we are closer linked than ever.
The EU consists of a ‘third position’ between America and Russia. Together, it constitutes an economy of $18tn, with sufficient economic diversity to ensure it remains a sustainable economic project. Different parts of the EU contain different elements of a successful, self-contained economy; Eastern Europe offers labour, Germany and the Netherlands heavy industry, France and Britain a highly developed services industry, Southern Europe raw materials and elements of all the above.
Together, Europe could act as a great power to challenge the hegemony of America and Russia. We would be able to do this not only through our economic might, but through military prowess too. Britain and France are two of the strongest militaries in the world, and our German and Scandinavian partners are not far behind. Together, we would be able to mount a credible non-aligned foreign policy, no longer beholden to American or Russian interests. A common EU security pact would make NATO – a tool for American domination of Europe – redundant. Pan-European forces would be able to act as mediators and peacekeepers in conflicts around the world, gaining the support of foreign states as Europe is once more seen as a thoroughly independent power.
I believe in Europe. I believe in Britain’s destiny as a European nation, not merely subject to the EU but taking a central leading role within it. Whilst I reject the idea of domination from Brussels, such matters are irrelevant to the fundamental debate; that of Britain’s position in the world. In my opinion the historical, cultural and geographic realities all point to a convincing case for Britain to remain part of the political framework of Europe.