As I write we are just over 2 months from Halloween, on which date our Government has promised to take us out of Europe, “do or die”.
Since no withdrawal agreement has been passed by the House of Commons our leaders are relying on the EU giving way on a number of demands that might make the package negotiated by Theresa May more palatable. The way they are conducting the dialog with our partners across the Channel is, however, strange, to say the least.
Britain is known around the world as a “nation of shopkeepers”, a phrase commonly attributed to Napoleon. We have become successful and rich, not only by living up to this phrase at home but also by exporting the same principle around the world. But it wasn’t always like that. Until we discovered shopkeeping we were better known as a nation of plunderers and empire builders. Our Royal Navy was something to be feared in all corners of the globe and we raised generations of “Masters and Commanders” to ensure British will prevailed at all times.
Our society today is the product of these two traditions, which have always sat uneasily with each other. Shopkeeping requires cooperation; it means being nice to people, gradually building their trust and never being seen to take advantage of the weakest. Masters and Commanders, on the other hand, need none of these qualities; they stride the world while lesser mortals quiver at their feet.
This is the result of our education system. Although our current wealth is based on trade, whether in goods or in services, our leaders are drawn from a narrow class mostly educated at private schools of which Eton is at the pinnacle. Eton does not teach its pupils how to become shopkeepers; this can safely be left to the lower orders. Eton alumni have complete contempt for the plebian business of trading, so much so that our current Prime Minister, when asked recently about the possible effect of his policies on companies up and down the country, replied “Fuck business”.
It’s quite noticeable that a huge part of our commercial base is now driven by people whose ancestry lies in the very countries to whom we were successful in exporting our shopkeeping skills. Public schoolboys, ever keen to avoid getting their hands dirty, gravitate to law and politics or inherit ownership of companies that were painstakingly built up by their parents and grandparents, and usually avoid any interaction with the people who work for them.
This is presumably why our Prime Minister and most of his Cabinet (a group of people who in any other country we would refer to as a “junta”) think the best way to persuade the EU to accede to our requests is by a combination of denigration and insults by the captive Press and by direct threats. They are evidently so conditioned by their upbringing that they still live in a world where disputes were settled by Britain sending out a gunboat, hence the phrase “gunboat diplomacy”. And this is the strategy they are pursuing.
The threat of course is to walk away from the EU without a deal. Its proponents believe this is such a powerful threat that the EU will cave in at the last minute and accede to our demands, but it ignores a number of factors. First, the damage that will be done to the UK will far exceed that to the EU. When a suicide bomber blows himself up, people around him are injured or even killed, but the terrorist himself is most assuredly dead. The EU are sensible people and do not want to see the carnage that “No deal” will bring, but neither do they like being threatened. Secondly, although we still live in a world where threats carry some weight, the major flaw in the thinking of our public-school educated masters is to believe that Britain is still big enough to carry it off, especially when dealing with an opponent many times our size. And thirdly there’s the belief that people who are not British are spineless, lack our “Bulldog Spirit” and will always give in when threatened.
The unfortunate truth – for us – is that European countries have matured. After two World Wars on their own landmass they have come to realise that the benefits of cooperation greatly outweigh those of dominance. They have become as adept at shopkeeping as we are, having imported or developed their own skills, and even those with an Imperial past (e.g. France, Germany, Holland, Italy or Spain) now value diplomacy and polite behaviour. And they have developed a level of self-respect that is in no way inferior to ours, making them very hard to push around, as even the USA has discovered.
Our own Government, though, is presiding without any sense of discomfort over a tidal wave of xenophobia pouring from the tabloid press, intended for domestic consumption but ignoring the fact that Europeans can also read English. The lies and insults continue on a daily basis while saner, quieter voices are either ignored or monstered in the press, leaving threats to be seen as an acceptable substitute for careful diplomacy.
To change this strategy would require a complete overhaul of the way we are conditioned to see ourselves and our place in the world. Perhaps after our suicide vest has detonated, what is left of our country may rally round those who advocate a less belligerent path, though I fear this will take some time and we will encounter many hardships on the road to restoring our reputation, if we are ever able to do so. But the education system would be a good place to start.