It does seem fitting that in this year of the Olympics we see the playing of the new sport of swastika-throwing in earnest. It does appear that participation has been left to the professionals in the last month, the main qualification for entry appearing to be having served as a Mayor of London.
Of course, the goal of this new sport varies with the player involved. Ken Livingstone’s objective was to suggest that there was a more viable precedent than the Balfour Declaration concerning what to do with part of the former territory of the Ottoman Empire. Boris Johnson’s effort concerned a comparison of flags, specifically how similar a circle of gold stars on a blue background could become to a white circle on a red background that contains this black, rotationally symmetric symbol.
Both approaches demonstrate the main problem with swastika-throwing, which is the general ignorance of the British public about European history in general, and specifically the history of the major European countries.
Put simply, we all know, or should know, that the countries of the EU are functioning representative democracies. What most people are unaware of is how all these countries got to this position. If more people knew this, they may appreciate why European countries seem to be perfectly happy to surrender their decisions to a relatively unaccountable supranational body and also how Britain is quite exceptional among the countries of Europe and should keep its distance.
The BBC is renegotiating its charter at present. Its core mission is to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. It is curious that at no time in its history has it seen fit to inform or educate its audience about either political science or the progression of constitutions in the countries of Europe that now see an increasing harmonisation of political systems. People are voting on a major constitutional matter in this country on the basis of almost total ignorance. But that may be by design.
How hard would it have been to have a six-part series on BBC Four, no doubt hosted by Professor Vernon Bogdanor, and using archive footage and diagrams to show the evolution of representative governance and constitutions in the major European countries from the Napoleonic Wars to the present day? It would have cost less than one episode of ‘War and Peace’ and would have been considerably more of a public service than inserting nudity into Tolstoy to garner ratings. Instead the BBC persist in promoting a general form of splendid isolation in its output. But there may be a good reason for keeping us uninformed. Most, if not all, of the major European countries have, in the last two centuries or so, been failed states, with one notable exception. Us.
For instance, instead of comparing the EU project to the unifying ambitions of the Bohemian Corporal, Boris Johnson would have been able to use the more accurate comparison of Germany under another leader who also sported a humorous moustache. I am referring, once again, to Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Preußen, or Kaiser Bill as he was popularly known in these shores when we were not demanding he take a long jump with a short rope around his neck for trespassing on Belgian property and the rest.
This preference for Fuhrer over Kaiser in popular memory may be partly to do with the fact that the people who ran Germany before it was overrun by the Allies and the USSR seem to have all come from central casting for stock Central European gangsters, whereas the Wilhelmites were merely stiffly Teutonic. There is better quality footage of Nazi crimes and these are regularly shown on television. This is probably why Johnson invoked the toothbrush-moustached one, when one of his moustachioed predecessors was just as bad for European peace and also had unpleasant territorial ambitions.
The Third Reich was run under a ‘leadership principle’, whereby a subordinate was to obey the orders of a person higher in the organisation without question or hesitation. It was militarised government with the population as conscripts. There was no government or constitution as such, no cabinet or any popular debate. It was, after all, a Nazi dictatorship.
By comparison, the Kaissereich was a constitutional monarchy with a Prussian-dominated federal structure consisting of numerous kingdoms. However, its political institutions bore an interesting resemblance to the structure of the EU. There was universal male suffrage, this was set up in the nineteenth century, and a bicameral legislature. The lower house, the Reichstag, had no executive function. Votes of no confidence in the government could be ignored. The upper house was unelected and filled with cronies of the monarchy, as was the government, whose offices were also in the gift of the monarch. Ministers were answerable to the monarch and not to the elected body. The population seemed to serve the Imperial German Army instead of the other way round. But all most people really know about the Reichstag is that it was burnt down in 1933.
Compare this in the ‘federal’ EU to the non-executive nature of the European Parliament and the unelected Commission that makes all the decisions. It is disturbingly similar. People elect representatives to the EU, to be sure, but the people they vote for are removed from actual power in the EU. Unlike in this country, but very much like Imperial Germany, they do not form any part of the government. There does seem to be one country that dominates decision-making and its geography resembles Prussia. No member of the EU Commission fears losing a seat or any power if they annoy voters, which means they can impose unpopular policies on the people of Europe who can only punish national governments to express displeasure. But since there is no synchronisation of polls between national governments, a change in government in one country has no effect on EU policy. Kicking out an MEP by the ballot box has no effect on EU policy. There has never been an EU policy U-turn based on popular discontent. In fact, European Parliamentary elections are seen as popularity contests for national governments or a measure of how much people actually like the EU. Given that Ukip won the last European Parliament elections in 2014, the answer to the latter in this country is ‘not much’.
There is a wider point to this. The history of governance of every major European country over the last two centuries has not been an encouraging one. Vernon Bogdanor’s hypothetical BBC TV series would have had to come to the conclusion that British was best. And, of course, the BBC could not have that. The peoples of every other major country in Europe have demonstrated many times that they have been unable to govern themselves properly. Their governments and institutions have failed catastrophically and had to be recast at great cost in blood and treasure. They have had to employ coercive measures alien to these shores to preserve power.
By contrast, since 1660 or thereabouts, there has been a steady progress of freedom and liberation in this country. There has been bloodshed and ugly incidents, heavy fighting in Ireland, it has not all been sweetness and harmony in these isles. But the State has never collapsed as it has all over Europe, there has not been a year zero, and no foreign boot has set foot on these lands to impose their will. This is the Exception Britannique. Relative stability and continuity. Less bloodshed. We are the ones who repeatedly sent troops to the Continent to restore peace and a balance of power after one country or another had started causing trouble, not the other way round.
And this continual failure of governance and independence on the Continent has to be a significant driver for European integration. It’s not all about avoiding the devastation of the Second World War. Since the collapse of the Ancien Regime, France has had two empires, two kingdoms and five republics. Germany in the same period has had three empires, a confederation, and four republics, two of which were running in parallel for forty years. Spain has alternated between monarchy and republic several times in the last two centuries with a fascist dictatorship thrown in when these were all the rage. By the 1950s, it could be reasonable for some despairing European politicians to conclude that governance should be taken out of the hands of nation states and their populations, as they seem to regularly – and not just in 1939 – make a hash of them and destabilise parts of the Continent.
The exception is us. In the same period of time, we had four monarchical dynasties – three if you do not count a change of name in 1917 forced by continental war – and a continuity of governance unprecedented in a major European power. This is a record we should be proud and confident about. We have been able to look after ourselves quite well, not to mention building an empire whose former members are proud to remain associated with us in a Commonwealth.
But this comparative overview of governance has never been brought into the popular consciousness. If it were then perhaps the referendum vote would not be on so much of a knife-edge, and Boris Johnson would not be required to use inaccurate historical analogies because of our continued fascination with images and personalities from the Second World War. But then a British public informed about the pattern of failure of governance across Europe would not want to touch the EU with a barge-pole. For the Remain lobby, ignorance is strength.
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