“Oh, the Empire it is finished, no foreign lands to seize, So, the greedy eye of England, is turning towards the seas” is a verse from an Irish republican ditty from a few years back.
I was put in mind of it by comments from a Tory MP about using a threat of food shortages as leverage against Ireland in the Brexit negotiations. Whilst Priti Patel didn’t threaten starvation, the comments were crass, insensitive and downright disgusting. Imprinted on the Irish collective memory is the Famine and it was caused by Britain’s callous indifference.
The real rage is that Ireland, backed by the EU, isn’t susceptible to British threats, let alone Cromwellian commands. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is probably not as well known as previous holders of that office but possesses more clout than any in Irish history.
Patel’s attitude simply replicated that of so many other Brexiteers. As Theresa May has become more demented, the Little Englanders have turned more rabid. The insults have been flying from Nigel Farage’s disgraceful comments towards leading politicians in the European Parliament to the unseemly war sentiments by so many others against entire nations from Germany to France.
The unbridled arrogance of those seeking the “New Golden Age of British Empire” has seen them cast derision and scorn at all and sundry. If it’s not “Croppy Lie Down” then it’s “hop off Johnny Foreigner” that’s carelessly bandied about without a thought as to consequences. No wonder racism has been on the rise, when venting your spleen seems second nature to many leading political figures. And whilst May herself has been tempered in her comments her actions as Home Secretary on immigration set the tone.
Yet the great irony is that whatever the final outcome of Brexit, restoration of the glory days of Empire there won’t be and Britain will be diminished and tarnished. The cause of that? Those self-same zealots for whom Britain’s rightful place in the world isn’t duly recognised. It wasn’t the return of sovereignty they sought, but the right to command.
So instead, we’ve been subjected to a Prime Minister jetting to European cities pleading for something, anything, to provide a fig leaf for her nakedness. But the door’s as firmly shut now as it was briefly in her car when meeting Chancellor Merkel. An act of utter futility and total pointlessness, as the EU’s position was stated at the outset and has been adhered to consistently.
The problem has not been their intransigence nor even Theresa May’s failure to properly negotiate as the European Research Group of hard-Brexiteer Conservatives suggests. Frankly, she’s appeared less maladroit and indeed less downright useless than Davis, Raab or Fox.
Meanwhile, European leaders from countries large or small have appeared statesman-like, acted diplomatically and their negotiator Michel Barnier has oozed more class and intellect individually than the British team collectively.
For Britain has come up against not just realpolitik but its real place in the modern world. Britain is no longer the major power it once was. Nothing is going to bring that back and certainly not leaving the EU, where power can be increased and prestige enhanced, as the Irish have shown. The clues though had been there for decades and not just with long overdue decolonialisation, after the war.
From being bailed out by the IMF in the 1970s to more recent times with American involvement in supposedly “sovereign affairs” of Northern Ireland, power has waned. In some ways, it’s been harder for Britain than many other countries, as most Empires collapsed after war or revolution. That hasn’t been the case with Britain where it’s just slowly sunk. But, gone it has. That ought to have afforded advantages not least in less upset and dislocation.
Britain was well-placed in the EU. London especially but Britain more generally were the preferred places for inward investment. Now, the Japanese and Chinese are incredulous at the self-harm inflicted. And the Indians are gobsmacked that it was simply assumed they would welcome back the Raj, rather than enjoy being able to dictate the terms of trade. Eastern Europe looked to London through choice, as well as being a bulwark against Berlin and English, not French, became the lingua franca of the 28 EU countries.
But actions have consequences and that applies as much in politics, as in ordinary life. It’s not just sterling that’s crashed but fondness for Britain and it’s not just investment that’s ebbing but respect. Whatever the Brexit outcome, Europe and indeed the world will look differently upon the UK. That’ll be damaging for the economy and for influence, whether through direct say or soft power.
World leaders have looked on incredulously as British politics has become dysfunctional, with the opposition as inept and divided as the administration. The supposed Mother of Parliaments simply looks like a House of Contempt, and Brexit Britain has replaced Italy as the failing European democracy to scorn.
Admiration and friendships are also being lost. I remember ribbing a young East European about his support for the English football team and reverence for London. It was real and genuine, for him it was the country he admired. But no more, as his own country’s economic well-being is threatened and obvious contempt heaped upon it.
Likewise, I recall a friend’s elderly Irish father demurring at my condemnation of British actions in his native land, expressing gratitude instead for what he had received having left a poverty-stricken country. Irish self-confidence, that has grown and grown despite the Celtic Tigers crash, has retained a genuine warmth towards Britain, even if mixed with some laughter. But now it’s turning to contempt, even if not yet dislike.
There’s some schadenfreude for Scots like me that never bought into the glory days of Britain. It being neither as benign nor great as portrayed and the Indyref showed its capacity for ruthlessness when threatened.
But there’s still been much to celebrate with many friendships and much-shared history. Even if Britain was not so Great, it’s still tragic that it’s now Little Britain that beckons.