Winner of the Orwell Youth Prize 2017 (Senior Prize)
That was the question answered by Britain on 23rd of June 2016, which was simple, but only in its binary sense. What is more complex, however, is on what principal a single leave vote rested: was it a vote against a varied international relationship which has existed since 1066? Against a federal bureaucracy? Or a vote resisting the ‘more equal equals’ in authority? All or even none of these may be true representations but, whatever the reason, why then did the -not so special- relationship of ours come to an end?
Neither the media, nor poll indications predicted the ‘leave’ result, but a closer examination of the constitution of the British people (if such generalisation is at all possible) might explain it. Furthermore, reading Orwell’s ‘England your England’ from his collection The Lion and the Unicorn – might explain the inevitability of last summer’s result. Perhaps the British way of life and the traditions it is built upon are in some ways incompatible with European culture and this has only been exacerbated by the workings of the EU. Here, we now fall back on a separate question of greater importance: what gives us this unique identity which is so incompatible with European thought?
In ‘England your England’, Orwell acknowledges the dislike for the English still seen today: “There is a sort of back-handed admission of …. dislike which nearly all foreigners feel for our national way of life”. In many countries, this would be due to colonialism, but Europe was never a stomping ground for red coats and cavalry charges. Britain was in fact just more successful at this than its French, Dutch and Spanish counterparts. This historical competition and superiority of the seas and commonwealth has certainly left an everlasting strain on our continental relationship. Undoubtedly this rivalry had placed a heavy emphasis on the benefits of the union.
The largely conservative values which define our culture and which society holds are also vastly different to any European culture, right or left wing. From our traditionally more right of wing leanings to a more One Nation approach, our subtle differences can also be as trivial as the private nature of our culture. A substantial amount of truth can be taken from Orwell’s comments on the phrase “nosey parker” which bears more insult here than in other more open European cultures. This autonomous approach is seen in many Englanders’ pride of their nation along with our slightly more capitalist, opportunity over relief style politics. Orwell acknowledges this culture in this line: “Boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities”. This more subtle confidence and pride could be source of criticism of British temperament. This confident and reserved approach could for many non-Englanders illustrate a “smug” nature to the British identity, clashing with the “eccentricities” of their cultural personalities.
More of these conservative values can be seen in the more prevalent peace in our land compared to the continent. Britain does not have an experience of trundling its aristocrats off to the guillotine in tumbrils, nor, with some largely unsuccessful exceptions, rising up in revolutionary fervour to overthrow the ruling class. Even when Charles Stuart was beheaded in 1649 this was more of a reaction to him, and not a mandated change away from a ruling class. Its fallout of increased parliamentary powers was more of an evolution than a rebellion – a very conservative reaction.
Similarly, Britain was an early adopter of the concepts of decentralisation of powers. While Europe was in turmoil during the 1830s, Britain passed the Great Reform Act and even earlier than this, most famously The Magna Carta, which was the first treatise of its kind. Although Britain has been through numerous bloody internal struggles, the system itself – unlike the countless French constitutions – has only been truly overhauled once and there is little social precedent for change, no comparison, and arguably no reason. This has led to decades of peaceful rule and an ingrained sense of fairness and justice which –as Orwell argued- is stronger than any societal differences brought about by class, and gives the British identity an ingrained respect of the –usually- well-ruling – establishment. Touching pre-emptively on the E.U, as seen even to this day, with the Brexit Supreme Court ruling, and dating back to 1215, the concept of the law definitely being above the State meant that any attempt of removing sovereignty from Westminster would have resulted eventually in a backlash, such as has been seen during the referendum.
Our long independence from foreign-forced rule also contrasts with a more metropolitan approach of European nations. In many European states, due to sheer ease of movement, migration and war has allowed multitudes of culture to mingle and disperse across the European Continent. In recent years this has led to Europeans being more used to accepting foreign persons and cultures. As seen with the relative lack of segregation in Europe in the 1960s compared with British uneasiness with Caribbean immigration and more recently the accommodation of over 1 million refugees in Europe relative to only a few thousand in Britain, it is evident that European societies are far more flexible to adaptation and influence, compared to the tradition British way of life – thus making any forced cultural links difficult to hold on to.
These principles have a unifying power and are illustrated by Orwell’s explanation of “national loyalty” in ‘England Your England’ which is not just stronger than “Socialism” but, according to Orwell “is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism. The English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habit”. Our societal respect for rule and fairness, matched by our individual habits and national pride, sets traditional Britain apart from more fluid, metropolitan and liberal Europe even before the European Union tries to join both cultures inseparably together.
The E.U.’s functionality has never before come under so much scrutiny. The establishment of the Union was a necessity: war was a constant threat in Europe and ensuring stability and political cooperation was paramount. Labour and resources were at a premium throughout the second half of the twentieth century but, with the advancements in globalisation, containerisation and connectivity, the demand from within Europe for these commodities had weakened. Further, the desperate need for prosperity had diminished, indicated by the plateauing of many European economies and therefore the need for cooperation within Europe is now one of convenience for the UK as opposed to a necessity. This fact has allowed arguments of principle and ideology to gain prominence against practical economic drivers (which were already reducing in size after a long, hard recession) and increased democratic scrutiny or arguments based on migration so intrinsic to the strength of the E.U.
A relevant example of British self-determination of identity can be seen in the debate on personal identification. The reaction on the continent and on our mainland to the introduction of EuropeanEconomicArea ID cards was black and white in comparison, with the idea struck down in Britain as soon as it was proposed in 2005. As Orwell explains in ‘England your England’: “The English are in process of being numbered, but their impulses are in the other direction”. He foreshadowed this conflict of approaches from exactly the same line of thinking as the “nosey parker” analogy, emphasizing the incompatibility of a less intrusive conservatism style of government from a more centralised union. Ironically the only 3 EEA countries that do not to require such cards are Norway, Iceland, and Denmark, three tradition, conservative domains, not in the E.U.
The expectations of government are of key importance when understanding how the E.U exacerbates disparities in already differing cultures. Simple principles of government here in Britain are essential to any Briton, especially in England where patriotism is strongest. The notions that Brussels can potentially infringe on an Englander’s rights without the respect of British law or even commission an army without parliamentary consent is probably the single biggest threat posed constitutionally to a Briton. Therefore on June 16th, the argument of fairness and democracy should have been expected to have been given significant weight by a voter over arguments of peace, cooperation or even economic stability.
Furthermore, the theme of hypocrisy in British identity was also evident during this referendum. The fervent please to vote ‘Remain’ from almost all the business and political elite (from Branson to Blair) made little impact on ordinary people who perceived these ‘more equal equals’ to be motivated by self–serving interest. By contrast, the Leave campaign, fronted by political outsiders such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson – won over the people by using their critics, eccentricities, and determination as relatable opposed to the line of opposing elite which were considered out of touch with the rest of society. Looking at the E.U, it is the pinnacle of what many Britons would believe to be bureaucratic elite without their best interests at heart. Here we see a trait of British identity in a distinct distrust in authority, needed to keep democracy in line.
Overall it is clear to see how these two cultures are split between their interlocking proximity and perspective and a set of established conservative principles and scepticism. These principles such as the role of government, the rule of law and personal freedoms have in England carried more weight that the physical benefits of continued cooperation and unification. The E.U has been a major success in Europe for the last 60 years but, as its influence over Britain becomes more ideological than practical, the differences between our two cultures, our identity and theirs, is exposed, with the E.U only acting as a docking rope to a now unknown ship up-anchored in a foreign port.