Incorporating adjectives into your country’s name is, if you stop and pause, a very strange thing to do. Yet nobody in Britain I have met has ever been troubled or bemused by the prefixing of the word Great to our nation’s name. Historically Great Britain as an entity evolved as a geographic appellation distinguishing our island from Brittany and, upon the now imperilled Union of England and Scotland in 1707, as a shorthand way of referring to the whole of our island rather than its constituent kingdoms. Great now, of course, has the meaning communicated by Tony the Tiger when he’s flogging Frosties or Donald Trump when he’s flogging xenophobia.
But the events of the last week have made a mockery of our nation’s name. I wrote at Christmas about how misconceived this referendum was and as Friday morning unfolded disbelief, distress, denial gave way to the feeling that I know will now endure for some time and that is shame. I am ashamed of what my country and my countrymen have done. One of the greatest acts of voluntary self-harm that any nation has inflicted upon itself in recent times presents a real risk of harm to people far beyond our borders and within them. The forebear of the European Union existed before our membership and it may subsist beyond our departure but the evidence is clear that nationalistic fervour across the continent has reached an alarming pitch.
Many are convinced that Article 50 will never be invoked, many are resolute that it must and shall. I am no sage but am confident that those whose task it will be to press the red button can now be under no illusions about the magnitude of that step even if there are some, in the country more widely, still labouring under the delusion that this process is no more fraught than uncoupling a trailer from a Land Rover.
Whatever happens now, however, the unfolding of Britain’s humiliation has only just commenced. A staying of the divorce from Europe will involve Britain playing a permanently diminished role in the EU. Any reputation we once enjoyed for cool headed pragmatism will be obliterated. The ill will attaching to holding a continent to ransom cannot possibly be underestimated.
On the other hand if we go through with this catastrophic schism we can expect such a precipitous falling away from our previous status in the world and the high regard that attached to it that there is a serious question to be asked about whether Britain could tolerate such an economic humbling. We have no manufacturing base. We sell services, primarily financial services, we are attractive as a market because we are the gateway to Europe for the world. There is no reason why Dublin or Frankfurt could not supplant us in months.
Underlying my shame at Britain’s naively or maliciously self-interested folly, however, is a real hope for the future. The Socratic dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living is a precept that Britain has in the past conspicuously failed to execute. As a country we are amazingly bad at soul searching, at desiring to understand how others see us. At its best this liberates us from the interminable navel gazing that can hobble some of our near neighbours but at its worst this stifles development and national emotional maturity. Our press is often adolescent at best and therefore it is no wonder that our politicians follow suit.
The moribund mythologising of World War II is to a very great extent responsible for the impulsive rejection by so many of even the concept of the European Union. In Europe we were a valued partner but just that. Faragist self-delusion about our importance in the world looks absurd in Brussels, as it should and does anywhere, yet here it resonated with so many. I wrote previously about how victory in the World Wars gave Britain a free pass in facing up to its profoundly difficult role in the world over the previous two centuries. We have never embarked upon a truth and reconciliation process but we are about to and this is long overdue.
However much the truth hurts it is better than living a lie and lies and liars are being found out right now.