French Revolution has lessons for Brexit Britain – Alastair Stewart

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July, 1789, during the French Revolution. What followed became known as The Terror (Picture: After Jules David/Hulton Archive/Getty)
The storming of the Bastille on 14 July, 1789, during the French Revolution. What followed became known as The Terror (Picture: After Jules David/Hulton Archive/Getty)
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Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France offers a warning about how catastrophic it is to begin history anew with no consideration of the past, with societal order taking time to develop. writes Alastair Stewart.

Everyone should watch the 2015 interview between Owen Jones and Peter Hitchens. The plain-speaking Hitchens infectiously teases Jones’ youthful optimism, and he can’t stop laughing. Hitchens’ cavalier, laissez-faire approach to the decline and fall of Britain is a high-note shrug: “There’s no question of threats,” he smiles wryly, “it’s finished, absolutely finished, I’ve never seen a country more finished!”

Four years later, and the mood is a little less jocular between the left and right in the country. Whatever one’s political disposition, there seems to be a genuine feeling that Britain is on its last legs. For many Brexiteers, the decay is a case in point that our best days are to come, outside of the European Union. For some, it means Scottish independence and a bright tomorrow, for others still, maybe even most people, the uncertainty manifests in absolute terror about what comes next.

Perhaps these conflicting feelings are rooted in a simple truth: most of us are small ‘c’ conservatives. We’re as stubborn and as radical as we like right up to the point we see the ‘real-life’ implications of our flirtations with revolt. The nation-state as an emblem of Britishness was replaced long ago by the market-state. If Brexit had been framed as a question over losing access to Amazon and Netflix or keeping them, I’d have bet money the result would have been different.

US law professor Philip Bobbitt, perhaps prematurely, said that we’d become consumers instead of citizens. Our reaction to any policy or political change is rooted in whether it will diminish or hinder our economic power. Britons “have never had it so good”, said Harold Macmillan, although it’s doubtful he imagined just how much those words foreshadowed the materialism which now predicates national loyalty.

It’s precisely this that makes Brexit confusing. The UK’s 1973 accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) was always about the market opportunities membership brought. In the ‘first’ Brexit referendum in 1975 on continuing membership, 17,378,581 people voted to stay in the community, out of 25,903,194 votes cast (67 per cent).

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What changed in the following decades was the EU’s creeping sense of self (even the 1993 name change to ‘union’ implied congealment over the more casual ‘community’). It exposed the Achilles heel of Britain: no one has ever unquestionably articulated what modern Britain means to itself, and the world.

The Leave campaign triumphed in 2016 because it exposed how elusive British values are compared to the more blatant, even intrusive, Pax Europaea ideal. To ‘be European’ subtly implies a plethora of left-leaning, continental predilections that supersede any national concerns.

No one on the Remain side satisfactorily explained where British national identity fits into Europhilia. ‘Britishness’ is taken by some as a byword for leftover imperial urges. Leave defined what we are through the prism of what we once were, evoking Spitfires, Churchill and the Dunkirk spirit. They took advantage of the void left by Remain’s muteness on Britishness and proudly usurped them by not only making nationalism look fashionable again but neglected.

Bobbit was partly correct – we’re consumers, but the British are also stone-cold reactionaries who define themselves by what they’re not. If you’re made to feel that European bureaucrats are imposing their identity on you, even if you can’t rightly point to what your identity is, the kneejerk resistance will be strong, even self-harming. The UK electorate may well have cut its consumer nose off in a desperate bid to find an answer to who we are.

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European countries began their coagulation at the same time Britain lost its empire in the 1960s and never resolved what its role in the world was. We have no codified constitution to point at. Devolution and the monarchy have made it next to impossible to pledge unquestioned loyalty to institutions and leaders as in decades past. What does the UK stand for beyond the tropes of freedom and liberty which can be said of all Western democracies?

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke provided a seminal forewarning of how catastrophic it is to begin history anew with no consideration of the past. He made the point that societal order develops organically over time. After 40 years as part of the EU, Britons now find themselves in the peculiar situation of having to decide what history feels relevant, and more real, to them.

You cannot create British values overnight, and it’s this puzzle which has made division so easy to fan and impossible to put out since 2016. We are simultaneously a commercial culture, loyal to the pound and our immediate community and a people who don’t like being told what to do. We’re proud but not sure of what, and certainly not sure about what symbols are beyond doubt in our public life any more.

To move forward, any future government must seriously find a way to articulate what the UK stands for. Who are we? Who do we want to be beyond the cliches? What is our strategic goal for the next 40, 50 years? How can we compete in a shrinking world without descending to petty nationalism, lofty nonsense or base consumerism? This is the balancing act of 2019, and it begins with a fundamental question: who are we, really?