Battling my gathering gloom over the American political future, I turn my eyes abroad; a change of scene may provide relief.
I turn to England. Spring comes to that green and pleasant land, the sun returns. Clouds of daffodils supplant winter’s grey. Bloggers wax poetic.
And here too, politics raises its head, for a Question has been asked, and will be answered. The British people’s immense forbearance, the more or less polite grumbling, the going out from home each day to get on with the job, the minor celebrations – the pint and the football match, working in the garden, wielding the sense of humor — all still there, but all making room as well for a Question: to leave the European Union or to stay. And the answer to be given on 23rd June by referendum.
I claim no expertise here; I’m an outsider, but one who spent his working life serving the interests of insurers in the London Market, at Lloyd’s or the companies in the surrounding streets of the City of London. And most of the financial world of that City – a world I respect – supports the UK’s continued membership in the EU. As does the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who is a Tory (Conservative), as I would be were I a British subject. The business and economic arguments all weigh in favor of staying in. Those arguments reach not only the top rungs – the 1 percent, as we’d say here – but the employees, the working or middle class: they’d probably suffer economically to some degree, perhaps substantially, upon separation from the EU. The pocketbook issues are real, sensible, and powerful.
And Britain’s EU membership has always been incomplete: most obviously, it has kept the Pound rather than embrace the Euro. Mr. Cameron recently negotiated some smallish further concessions in the relationship, e.g. allowing the UK greater leeway in limiting benefits to foreign workers. So England is not Germany or France or the rest: even within the EU it retains some distance. Further, the gradual coalescing of Europe seems to be the long-term trend; as our president would say, the arc of history bends toward it.
And yet. The small contrary voice in me won’t go away, and over time has become louder. It’s the voice that I consign to ’emotion’ or ‘the heart’ when I overrule it, but call by the name of ‘judgment’ or even ‘conscience’ when it prevails. It’s the voice that says that money – or practicality, or convenience – is but one item placed on the scale and maybe not the most important one.
There is the matter of sovereignty. The authority of a state to govern itself. The word comes from sovereign, a supreme ruler. England still has one, a real sovereign – not some tinpot dictator, nor a written constitution dividing power, but an honest-to-God Queen, with (some) real powers and duties, and her name on ships and currency and letterboxes, and possessing a swell castle (several) and swell jewels, and a lineage that goes way back (admittedly with odd connections here and there, but so much the better for the twining of history with legend). And I know there’s the Parliament, who run things, and there are the inevitable bureaucrats, who really run things – but Parliament goes back a long way too.
My point is not to advocate monarchy or argue that the Queen’s presence prevents integration into the EU; obviously it doesn’t. My point in a word is exceptionalism. I believe in it. I believe in American exceptionalism, and as a corollary I believe that countries are not all equivalent. Each is entitled to respect, but some stand out. Some are qualitatively different than others. Some are more important or worthy than others. And Britain – let’s be purists and say England – is exceptional. And my judgment says, better to suffer some likely economic setback, which I think would be temporary, than keep England on the path to being a mere component of Europe.
The arc of history bends where it will, but there are also constants, and one is this: for a thousand years and more, England has been separate from and different from Europe. And millions of Englishmen, and Englishwomen too, have died over the centuries to keep it so. Integration into a combined European state is no less a loss for its being accomplished over decades, statute by statute, than over weeks and months by an invading army, battle by battle. Churchill did not vow to negotiate with them on the beaches.
British history must not be consigned solely to history. This small island held half the world in her hands, and bequeathed the blessings of her empire – I say that with no sarcasm – to myriad benighted lands. The world is far better for the fact of Britain’s not being of Europe; just look at the fate of the Empire’s former colonies compared to those once held by France, by Germany, by others. And I have no animus toward France; I consider myself a francophile. The French elevated our daily bread into art and miracles, became wise in how to live life, and crafted a language as beautiful as English is functional. But France without full authority to govern itself is still French; it can accommodate a shared sovereignty. It’s had practice at that. England has not. Vive la difference.
The constant, ever-growing regulations spun out of Brussels would eventually ensnare Britain in an iron web of sameness and Continentalism if allowed to continue, unless the EU were to collapse from its own fissures. Either way, now is the best opportunity to escape, to walk the rockier path of independence. The arguments to reject separation are based upon fear of what will befall; yes there will be hardship. But there are worse fates than hardship. Perhaps it’s heresy to adapt Patrick Henry in this context, but is comfort to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?
Think of all that would be lost as Britain becomes one more European country, sharing government in thrall to a central authority distant from its shores, run by functionaries no Englishman or -woman ever voted for, or prayed to save.
It’s not a large country. It’s a little island, but a unique and exceptional one, important far beyond its bounds, with a character that will not gently abide rule by others.
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.