THE Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole’s obsession with the British and their past empire knows no limits. But in many of his anti-Brexit pieces some of the analysis is correct. I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, we should note the audacity of the man who mocks the British achievement of holding off Nazi Germany both diplomatically and then militarily when many both inside and outside the Conservative party were urging Churchill to seek terms.
O’Toole: ‘Standing alone is also one of the great motifs of the English self-image, brilliantly visualised in David Low’s famous cartoon of June 1940, after the fall of France, showing a Tommy standing on the cliffs of Dover shaking his fist at the Luftwaffe bombers overhead with the caption “Very well, alone”. But Britain was not alone then (it had a vast empire) and it has never been alone. In its entire history since 1707, it has always been part of a larger multinational entity: empire first, then Europe.’
But the British always knew this. Churchill indeed said that if necessary the Empire and Britain’s prodigal son, the United States, would come to the rescue if ‘this Island’ should fall to the Nazis.
Churchill: ‘We shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.’
Britain, unlike the French, did not fall, which is one of the reasons that Ireland didn’t either. Did I mention Ireland were neutral during the war and the then Taoiseach offered condolences upon Hitler’s suicide? Well, they were and he did, but sure it’s the Brits that are the problem.
Anyway, I will give O’Toole this: ‘Let’s just say that if Theresa May were the head of a newly liberated African colony in the 1950s, British conservatives would have been pointing, half-ruefully, half-gleefully, in her direction and saying “See? Told you so – they just weren’t ready to rule themselves. Needed at least another generation of tutelage by the Mother Country”.’ O’Toole is correct on this, if we really think about it. Deep down, deep, deep down you know it’s true. The truth is what Brexit has revealed that Britain is/was too big to stay in the EU but too weak to leave.
I am afraid Peter Hitchens has been saying more or less the same thing for years: ‘For far too long we in this country have thought we were richer, more powerful and, in general, better than we actually are. Now we find out the hard truth, exposed in all its gloomy detail by the EU talks. Will we learn the necessary lesson, or will we prefer our precious illusions?’
O’Toole again: ‘The anarchy at Westminster is the political expression of anarchy in the UK, the sundering of a common sense of belonging. Brexit is a fabulous form of displacement – it acknowledges a profound and genuine unhappiness about how the British are governed but deflects it on to Europe.’ He goes on to point out some of the problems, some of which I agree with, others I don’t, and that that is where we part.
It is true that people got to blame the EU for problems that were not the fault of EU but needed addressing. Take the beloved ‘Our NHS’. We all know it needs reform, and that doesn’t mean more money. No politician was willing to explain to the electorate that heart surgeons do not grow on trees but instead said, don’t worry, we will give all the money we give to the EU to the NHS. When the NHS doesn’t magically improve, who will the politicians blame then?
This goes for the education system, the ridiculous pile of debt we live under, violent crime and the far too big welfare state. Very serious reform is needed in all these areas and the electorate needed to be told this but instead, as ever, both parties pandered away. These reforms should have started before Brexit began but too much foot-dragging means that our vulnerability is clear and being exploited by the EU.
Brexit is still the right way to go. To begin reforming education, health and the political system itself, Britain cannot become part of an ever-closer union. This is especially the case as reform will include decentralising power away from Whitehall (never mind Brussels) and back down to the local level.
Indeed, the European Union was not the source of all our ills, but it did allow successive British government to paper over the cracks for too long, especially if we could import lots of people to hide the fact that the education system, for instance, is unable to produce competent heart surgeons and that a socialised health system is unable to retain them. There is still time to make Brexit happen – and then the great reform can begin.