There have been occasions when decisions made by politicians and those in power leave one feeling powerless and frustrated, sidelined and irrelevant. One such example was Blair's disastrous decision to start the Gulf War, the truth of which we still do not know. We do already know that what we were told and the way the messages were given did lasting damage, but the worst, of course, was the knowledge that those in power thought so little of all the lives that were lost, and the legacy of such loss. Britain's "standing" in the world, at least the non-English speaking world, also suffered. But the thing I most remember about the day war was declared, was the sense of failure that the discussion in Parliament had stopped, and the sense that the decision had long been made and democracy was just for show. Perhaps one reason why this exertion of apparently unreasoned power by politicians, in the face of significant opposition from the people to their course of action, affects me especially deeply is that I spent my teenage years waking to political reality in South Africa during the Apartheid era, when politics seemed to be predefined on a course that no democratic act could change, as those in power would simply not allow such a democratic act. Later, we were aware that it was no co-incidence that the president who eventually took steps to normalise the country's path was the first president who had not also held the position of minister of the armed forces. But that feeling of impotence in the face of political decisions taken for narrow, probably short-term, interests rather than a greater good has never left me.
Another instance of political defeat, possibly as narrowly, was the Independence Referendum of 2014. I wrote about that here.
And then the Brexit vote happened. I won't got into the dreadful memories of the day the vote was declared, but the overwhelming belief at that time was that, the vote being so narrow, all views would be considered as the inevitably long period of disengagement started. I believed that pragmatism would win in the medium term, and that as soon as those who voted for separation from the EU realised the extent to which they had been conned, and as the voices of reason, suppressed by the skewed nature of public narrative in the United Kingdom, found their rightful volume.
Why should it be so clear that a future for Britain, a part of the European continent, should also include it being a part of the collective politico-social, but mostly, economic, framework that is the European Union? To answer that, I need to think back 35 years, when I worked for the Chamber of Industries in Cape Town. Although this was 5 years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, ushering in a new era of normality away from the intellectual vacuum that was apartheid, the business world wanted to contemplate a future where South Africa was again part of the society of nations. The huge multinational conglomerate, Anglo American, employed a "futurologist", Clem Sunter, to speculate on what the future might look like. His scenarios were both positive and a challenge, and in a remarkable move, his company realised that a wider understanding of future scenarios in the broader community, business and social, would help South Africa's transition, and so he embarked on months of roadshows, which a wide variety of South African society, well beyond the business world, attended. The main thrust of Clem Sunter's scenarios was that South Africa could choose between a "low road", and a "high road." I see this was such a powerful narrative that it lives on in South Africa.
But there was another key takeway from Clem Sunters presentations. He was concerned about South Africa's future, and that of Africa as a whole, outside one of the three great power and economic blocs. The US-centric NAFTA, the Asian-centred ASEAN, and the European Union. If you were not part of one of those blocs, he thought, your future was unsure. It seems to me that, in the intervening three decades since these observations, that truth is even more the case now, especially in the era of a volatile world of Trumps and a movement of power to the east. There will never be good time to be outside the EU, but certainly, now is not the time to be contemplating leaving, let alone actually doing that, and doing so in a way that apparently seeks to demonise our very neighbours.
So it was with even more dismay that Westminster - yes - Westminster, not just the Tories and their more extreme right wing supporters - moved not only to an approach of as dire a break with the EU as could be envisaged, but, in order to do that, chose to ignore completely any voices, such as that of Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted to remain, that sought to moderate such an extreme choice. This did not, and does not, make sense, unless some agenda, such as the significance of an EU crackdown on tax avoidance, is to the benefit of the plutocrats that seemed to bankroll the referendum outcome. It also does not make sense that the allegations of electoral irregularities, and the outcomes of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, have simply been ignored by the organs of the establishment.
It's impossible to know at this point in history what the real drivers of those in power are at the moment. However, there is no doubt that the leave campaign tapped into something that was latent in the, largely, English, population. This is surfacing in obvious ways, some extreme, some merely troubling, but what was this underlying cause? Part of the answer, it seems to me, can be found in history. It now seems unlikely that what the EU is all about has ever been understood, not intellectually, in Britain. But perhaps in the British psyche (I am using British specifically here - but I think this history extends well before the union of 1707) there is something that rejects any effort to harmonise and equalise, to allow, in the phrase, a rising tide to lift all boats. This aspect of harmonisation was often the butt of jokes in the British right wing press. Remember the straight banana non-event? The idea of defining what a banana may be in order to sell it as a banana will only be a joke if you intend to circumvent the system, to be a con artist. But if you are concerned that others may be selling something else and calling it a banana obviously protects both suppliers and consumers. What is so amusing about that?
I have some additional thoughts on this, but have not fully thought through how best to present them. They are mostly based on Hillaire Belloc's uniquely placed understanding of what European means, and what British means. Indeed, in Europe and the Faith, the strongly Catholic Belloc, with his one foot in France and the other in "England" (he always refers to Great Britain as England) saw in British history, and therefore its cycles, threads that kept recurring. He even had a chapter in that book called "The Defection of Britain". While Belloc's work must be read in the context of its time, and is, of course, easily subject to criticism, that does not negate truths in his thinking. In fact, it seems he sums up Brexit 100 years before it happened
The wealthy took advantage within the heart of civilization itself of this external revolt against order; for it is always to the advantage of the wealthy to deny general conceptions of right and wrong, to question a popular philosophy and to weaken the drastic and immediate power of the human will, organized throughout the whole community. It is always in the nature of great wealth to be insanely tempted (though it should know from active experience how little wealth can give), to push on to more and more domination over the bodies of men--and it can do so best by attacking fixed social restraints.
Hillaire Belloc - Europe and the Faith, Chapter IX, 1920
The key point, though, is that there is an aspect of Britishness which sees the world as stratified and class-ridden, and that seeks to ensure that an advantage of one group over another is always the desired outcome, rather than an establishment of equitable arrangements which seem to be the core of European institutions. At its most flippant, this can be seen in satire like "The Class System" skit of the 1960s. At its more entrenched, it can be seen in the role of the House of Lords and the Honours system which, if it was in another country, could be seen as institutionalised corruption. From time to time, some window dressing is attempted; remember the "social mobility" pledges that come up every few years, which change nothing, or the infamous "trickle down" economic promises that were as meaningless then as now.
The first of the next steps in the routine that is the British Establishment standard response is already starting, that we should "come together", that we must "heal divisions", and so on, the damage done by one party must now be remedied by the injured parties, according to that approach. We have seen this before. Remember the banking crisis of 2008, the events that were really criminal in nature, but in which the state intervened to spread the damage across the entire nation, and for decades to come? Iceland's response showed that other ways of dealing with this were possible. They decided their banks weren't too big to fail, although their economy, like Britain's, was strongly bound to their banking industry, and locked up the criminals who were implicated in the scandal.
And this is why we in Scotland are increasingly dismayed by what is happening. Westminster, it seems, seeks to continue its pretence that we are in a union, but that pretence is now wearing thin; it is no co-incidence that there is such a strong age divide in trust in the union in Scotland. I am reminded of a discussion with some friends from South Britain after 2014. We were helping them to understand that the results would not repress the desire for independence for Scotland, and our friend's response was "We (meaning England) won't allow you to have another one". I think she may be right. Westminster creates the rules, and while we live by them, they do not even have to encourage us to believe we are better off in the United Kingdom; they can just continue to ignore our choice of the society we prefer.
So to find ourselves in the position we are now in is intolerable. And why I accepted the suggestion of The National this morning, to stand with others who reject this step away from the society of nations. We must continue to hope.