‘A Camel (Sopwith Camel – first World War fighter plane), blue skies, and plenty of Germans is the height of my ambition…’ p. 362, ‘Biggles flies East’ Capt W.E. Johns.
The above quote from one of many ‘Biggles’ books, written in 1935, comes from a very different time with different sensibilities, but is worth dragging up because I feel it captures the spirit that Boris Johnson and his Brexiteers want to portray to their followers – a Britain that is superior, in charge and powerful.
If only Brexit could be as simple as ‘buzz across the Channel, give the foreigners a bloody nose…get home in time for tea’. It’s not.
The ‘Biggles’ quote strikes a chord for at least two reasons. Unlike say Germany and France – it seems to me that many British politicians (the majority on the Brexit side) are locked in history. Their reference points are manifestly not a coherent vision of what Britain will look like in future, but more an attachment to a Downton coated celebration of past victories (notably the two World Wars).
That helps us to understand that Brexit is a crisis of national identity, rather than say a quibble with the regulatory complexities of EU membership. This view may also help to explain the chaotic ‘Game of Thrones’ nature of the Brexit process. A crisis of identity will, like a financial crisis, burn its way through the body politic until leadership and clarity emerge. This is not yet the case. More political careers will be spent and arguably sterling has a few more convulsions left before this all ends.
Back to Biggles. One thread that comes through in the Biggles books is the importance of honour, bravery and sticking to the rules. In the books, Biggles is sound on these points, foreigners less so. This is now changing.
In a recent post entitled ‘Fantastic Corruption’ (July 25th) I cited the importance of the rule of law (and noted Tom Bingham’s book on this), and how in the post globalized age we have entered, this is being degraded in both Washington and London.
The latest crisis in the Brexit saga, the introduction of a bill in Parliament that contravenes the Brexit Withdrawal Act, exacerbates the trend of the degradation of the rule of law, which in the eyes of so many has historically been exemplified by Britain. That politics can trump the law is dangerous and distasteful.
Boris Johnson’s move may well be a negotiating ploy to force the EU to close a deal as the October deadline approaches, and the behavior of financial markets (notably sterling) suggests that this is the case. If ‘breaching international law’ is a tactic, it is a costly one, and will rob Britain of respect, trust and credibility – all of which it will need if it is to make a go of ‘Global Britain’ or whatever comes after Brexit.
I have resisted writing on Brexit for some months partly because it is so unpredictable, partly because it is difficult to find new things to say and partly because events elsewhere are equally mind grabbing. The overall pattern of these events, of which Brexit was the first, points to a post globalized world, where boundaries and ties are being broken, and where laws, institutions and ways of doing things are being challenged.
The implications of this are manifold.
One is that the fracturing of ties (NordStream 2 is next?) and the remaking of nations (i.e. Belarus, Lebanon?) will encompass Scotland and Ireland. Scotland will likely vote for independence within the next six years, and it is now a matter of conceiving how independence can be achieved in as successful and less disruptive way.
Equally, there is now much talk of a united Ireland, especially I find, in the US. The first step here must be an imaginative plan to reshape Northern Ireland’s economy and society. For all the talk about protecting the peace process, very little has been done to transform Northern Ireland.
Yet, one somewhat positive side-effect of the Brexit debate is to shine a light on many of these issues and illuminate the lack of appreciation many in Westminster have for Northern Ireland in particular and Irish history in general. Arguably, a film (‘Titanic’) and tv series (‘Game of Thrones’) have done more for Northern Ireland’s fortunes than its local and London based leaders.
What is coming is a transformation of the political realities of the two islands off the west coast of Europe to an extent not seen since perhaps the thirteenth century. Ireland and Scotland will be European, rule of law countries. Boris Johnson’s England may sadly be the odd man out.
In a better Brexit world of the 21st century, Biggles might fly a Euro-fighter, with an Austrian co-pilot, and alternately fly out of Dutch and German airbases. In the evening he would return home to his Norwegian wife, and drink Italian wine. That would be the height of his ambitions.
Have a great week ahead,