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Appalling Vista

Maurice Earls writes: Attitudes towards the English in continental Europe are mixed. On the plus side there has long been positive talk of English good sense and pragmatism, a perspective that is encountered regularly on the continent but is not heard too much in Ireland.

This European admiration for the sensible English has a sound basis in history and has to do with the way the English handled the transition from royal authority to aristocratic parliament and thence, through the stages, to universal suffrage, without having to endure ideological extremism or social revolution. Generally speaking, the middle classes across Europe, who like to enjoy their comforts in peace, took their hats off to that one.

But now the old image of pragmatic Albion is crashing to the ground as the English are seen to be giving two fingers to common sense in pursuit of what Europhiles believe are will o’ the wisps. The long-admiring continental bourgeoisies are shaking their heads in disbelief and incomprehension. It’s as if a diligent and prudent neighbour known and respected over many decades has suddenly taken to whiskey and crack cocaine. It’s a real surprise.

On the negative side there is the frequently heard charge against the English of having a superior attitude. What is behind this allegation? Is it made because when the English drive down from Calais they don’t have the humility to adjust and expect the comforts of home while abroad? In response, it is said, many cafes along the main routes south have signs in English at the entrance reading “WE HAVE NO RED SAUCE”.

But this is hardly the explanation, and in any case is at least as much an example of Gallic arrogance as English superiority. Also worth noting is that many superior types in England would share the annoyance of the French café owners. The Monty Python “Watney’s Red Barrel” sketch is hilarious but, among other things, it represents a bunch of Oxbridge toffs having a go at ordinary folk, implying they should not stray beyond Brighton and that anything approaching the Grand Tour is strictly for the better sort. Interestingly, that Oxbridge elan may hold the key to understanding the European complaint of English superiority.

No one can beat the Oxbridge/Westminster nexus when it comes to spin, or more accurately, propaganda. The economically privileged were very happy for inferior ranks to travel to the continent during the world wars, called them heroes and happily shipped out bully beef and tea to keep them happy. Once the shooting was over and the continent was in ruins the spin nexus began explaining to the world what had happened: Some really bad types ‑ fascists, nationalists and such ‑ threatened the world with an unprecedented onslaught of evil. (Some truth in that of course.) The English, though reluctant to leave their island home, rose to the challenge and with the aid of their American cousins sorted things out and gave all those foreigners another chance at decency. This became the Anglo-American and dominant orthodoxy of the West, primarily because the Americans found it useful during the Cold War.

Unfortunately for the English, their upper crust gave every evidence of actually believing all this wonderful guff, with the natural result that they just didn’t rate the Europeans. How could you? In 1967, when Britain wished to join the Common Market, George Brown , the Labour government’s foreign secretary, asked Willy Brandt to “let us in” so we may “take the lead”, while Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, wrote privately that “if we couldn’t dominate that lot, there wasn’t much to be said for us”. (The Americans adopted the same line but never allowed it to get in the way of clear thinking.)

In earlier times the English had a healthier relationship with their own propaganda. During the high imperial era, the immensely useful propaganda line was that the purpose of empire was to spread the blessings of civilisation. No one above the age of eleven, however, believed this and, as a result, it never caused the imperialists harm. It was simply a useful rhetorical tool to have in your box of tricks.

The problem for continental Europe was that this postwar Anglo-American orthodoxy reduced Europe to the status of a rescued sinner, saved from its own fascist and even communist proclivities. The complex polities of Europe were relegated to a sort of moral re-education kindergarten. Naturally, it was all very irritating and as a result, some element of pleasure is now taken in England’s current difficulties.

In retrospect it may be possible to say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the Stalingrad moment for the postwar narrative. Communism had kept it alive and now that threat had vanished. The West does not much like Mr Putin but the old propaganda is not much use in opposing him. There have been attempts to employ it but it’s not really working. Putin’s Russia is a different thing altogether. But if the decline of the old narrative can be traced to the end of the Cold War, the advent of Brexit and Trump is the moment when its demise has become crystal clear.

For seventy years Europe had to ingest Anglo-American propaganda and stay stumm (apart from the French, of course). The main European response was the silent but very significant one of building an economic powerhouse. Now, with that powerhouse at its back, it can tell the English to get real. What we are now witnessing is an epochal change. England will never be the same, nor will Europe ever be the same, nor will transatlantic relations ever be the same. You could, of course, add Ireland to that list.

But any idea that Europe can now enjoy the sunlit uplands would be delusional. Europe may be about to shake the English monkey off its back but it is facing other threats, including an existential challenge from its own home-grown far right. It is quite possible that it may not have within it the means to overcome these challenges. The European Enlightenment and its Romantic modifications yielded three major political inheritances. Two of them are now facing off in Europe. In very rough terms one is universalist and democratic in tendency and the other is undemocratic and ethnicist in tendency. If the second triumphs the EU as it has existed will perish.

Some readers may regard this as alarmist. Two points should be considered when deciding on this question. The forces on the populist right are not an exotic phenomenon blown in on the wind which will go away when the weather changes. They are a native phenomenon with deep roots and are here to stay. Secondly, if they are not voted into office, the re-emerged far right will not be content to be a quiescent and loyal opposition. They will devote themselves to political disruption and will require a political response.

Something along these lines happened before and the democratic forces were found wanting. One can’t say that in the 1930s the democrats were beaten off the streets; that was the fate of the hard left, who are no longer a significant political presence. The liberal and conservative democrats didn’t go onto the streets. They stayed at home. How will it play out this time? Have those democrats who stayed at home the last time toughened up in the meantime?

Certainly, various liberal grandees and intellectuals are worried. They include Thomas Piketty, the man who, to his credit, rediscovered inequality and they have spoken out and produced manifestos. Only last week George Soros sounded the alarm bell, again. There is, however, no sign of these people at the roundabouts forming alliances with elements within the gilets jaunes, a phenomenon which the middle classes appear very eager to characterise as crypto-fascist.

Without doubt, some hard democratic politics will be required. The new right will not be stopped by argument or uplifting suggestions remote from actual politics. Crucially, there is no sign yet where this new, necessary and substantial politics might come from.

Piketty’s group has emphasised the necessity of economic equality in combating the new right. This is a good idea but, without politics, it remains just a good idea and such ideas are alas cheap, which is to say they are insufficient. Will the outcome of Emmanuel Macron’s desperate round of popular consultations reach the conclusion that wealth has to be taken from the rich and used for the common good? That would be encouraging, but also a great surprise.

Will the property-owners of Europe embrace economic sacrifice? Maybe, but over the neo-liberal decades which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union economic justice has not been fashionable amongst the property-owning classes. It is, indeed, very difficult to imagine the circumstances where the Swabian housewife mentality would consider loosening the purse strings. Yet the same elements were convinced to accept the principle and practice of redistribution after 1945. But that was when a harder alternative was available for a disgruntled working class. It worked for everyone. Maybe it will happen again.

The problem is that people don’t tend to make economic concessions unless they are deemed absolutely necessary. It may be that the agreed judgement of the materially comfortable will be that there is nothing really to worry about, that the far right’s electoral share will not go beyond 20 per cent and that the police will deal with any trouble on the streets. Even if that complacent view turned out to be correct, the effect on the EU’s geopolitical project would be decidedly negative.

The union cannot develop in a climate of permanent social disruption. Rather it requires a feeling that “we’re all in this together”. This is something necessary for stability in any democratic polity; it was absent during the neo-liberal period and without it, it is nigh impossible to imagine the EU project succeeding. Even in the best of times it is extremely difficult to achieve a culture of fellow feeling and mutual solidarity within a multinational entity.

If the EU were to begin a process of weakening, this would be welcomed by numerous geo-political forces. To the east the Russians and Chinese would approve and already are working against European interests. The US likewise is currently promoting instability in central and eastern areas. The only forces which want the EU to succeed are found in Europe itself and Europe is facing the danger of fragmentation from the twin internal threats of far right ethno-nationalism and divisive wealth disparity.

In the absence of some tough political leadership and decisions, the EU is at risk. There are conceivable circumstances where we might witness the appalling vista of a weak Europe being manipulated from the east by Russia and China and from the west by Britain, with enthusiastic cousinly assistance from the US. If that were to come to pass, perfidious Albion would be back in the game and Jacob William Rees-Mogg would have the last laugh.

19/2/2019