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Forging a post-Brexit identity

20 September 2018

What does this episode tell us about the sort of society we are, asks Stephen Green


Pro- and anti-Brexit protesters confront each other outside Parliament, this month

Pro- and anti-Brexit protesters confront each other outside Parliament, this month

I WOKE up very early that morning after the Brexit vote two years ago. The news was a shock, and sleep vanished instantly. I will not forget that day. Nobody, it seems, was prepared for it.

Since then, we have spent more than two years arguing about what Brexit actually means. Some still hope that it may not in the end come to an actual Brexit. Others want a complete break. Most are confused, and wait nervously for Britain to find a reasonable new deal with its European neighbours.

But, whatever the eventual outcome, a critical question we need to ask ourselves is: what does Brexit tell us about what sort of society we are? Why, in fact, was the referendum result such a shock?

Answer: because we had not understood how divided the country was. Old against young; provincial against metropolitan; and Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London against much of the rest of England and Wales. The overall result was close; but few of the results by area were close — most were strongly one way or the other.

Apart from anything else, this referendum displayed the extent of the distance between the British Establishment, on the one hand — in which I include Westminster and Whitehall, the City, big business, academia, and the professional middle classes — and, on the other, much of the rest of the country.

You learn by recognising individual and collective failures. The failures that produced such divisions include all the sins of omission and commission which have resulted in a society so unequal in life chances, and in which many feel so resentful of what they see as so alien.

The financial failures of recent years clearly played their part — and bankers, of whom I was one, have much to atone for. But deeper still lies the failure over decades to invest properly in the country’s societal future — above all, through education and training to enhance life chances. Instead, we have followed an economic growth path that has allowed the country to live beyond its means by running a yawning trade deficit, and we have found it easy to fill gaps in the skills base through immigration.

We should also note the shortsightedness of the British political class (of all colours) since the years after the Second World War, when the founders of the European project sought to create a new European order in the aftermath of catastrophe. How much better the European project could have been, if only Britain had engaged wholeheartedly from the start and led the shaping of it, at a time when Britain’s influence would have been dominant. But our forebears were still at that time fixated by empire.


THIS leads me to an even deeper question that we must ask ourselves as we chart a new course; for, if we just focus on the policies and practices of the British Establishment over the past few decades, then we will miss some of the most uncomfortable truths about ourselves.

Brexit poses a question about identity: who are we now, post Brexit? But to answer this question, we have to live honestly with our past. In our individual lives, we do not hesitate to acknowledge that spiritual maturity comes through honest self-analysis, recognition, and renewal. I think that is true of nations, too. And I believe that too many of us have lived for too long with a general sense that we can be proud of our history and of the part Britain has played in European and in global history.

There is, indeed, much to be proud of: yes, we did stand alone against the evil of the Third Reich in May 1940. Yes, we did bring a halt to Napoleon’s vaulting ambition at Waterloo (albeit with the crucial help of the Prussians). Yes, it was the British who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade. Yes, we have had a continuously adjusting constitution ever since the signing of the Magna Carta which has given us the mother of parliaments. Yes, we are the heirs of Shakespeare, and our language has become the lingua franca of the planet.

But the fact is that there are other things in the scales, too; for this was also the country whose foreign policy, from the 19th century onwards, was conducted with what can only — from our present vantage point — be described as breathtaking arrogance and selfishness.

What do we make of the famous dictum of Lord Palmerston: that Britain has no permanent allies, only permanent interests? Not only was this wrong even in its own terms (he clearly defined the British presence in India as a permanent interest): more generally, it reduces all international relationships to pure contracts.

How much wiser (and, indeed, ironically appropriate in this context) were the words of John Donne more than two centuries earlier: no man is an island entire of itself, but every man a piece of the continent. He meant this in the context of individual human relationships; he meant that we are not just autonomous individuals, but that we are connected deeply, that we are “involved in mankind”. But what he said applies not only to individuals but also to the communities, the nations we are part of.

And still more basically: where does the notion of Britain itself come from? Answer: it was the creation of an 18th-century Establishment — both English and Scottish — that closed down the Scottish and Irish parliaments and that led to the over-centralisation of national life in London.

It was, to be sure, the beginning of a vibrant time of industrial inventiveness, scientific progress, Enlightenment philosophy, missionary zeal, and trade. But it is also true that the concept of Britannia became the icon of a 19th-century imperialism whose record is a good deal more mixed than many of us are comfortable in recognising — as any Indian or Chinese, for example, can remind us, if we choose to forget some of its darker episodes.

If that isn’t enough, we need to remember that Ireland was, in effect, Britain’s longest-running colonial experience. No one can read about the greed, insensitivity, and often outright brutality in the behaviour of both English and Scottish interests in Ireland over the 400 years leading up to the First World War without a sense of shame and tragedy.


ALL of this may seem a long way from the Brexit question. But it’s not. We live with the consequences still: even the Brexit negotiations themselves have been immeasurably complicated by the sensitive question of the Irish border. Just as Brexit has told us something about our own society, so it tells us something about who we think we are. At home, we have walked by too often on the other side: on the world stage, we have been blind to the beam in our own eye.

Other European nations, of course, have reason enough to be honest about the past. But we have, too. Brexit is one of the those history-making crossroads that — whatever else it means — give us occasion for honest reflection about who we are. That is now our challenge: to be honest about our history, to invest in our people, to be good neighbours in Europe, to be open to the wider world.


Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint is a former chairman of HSBC and an Anglican priest. He was Minister of State for Trade and Investment from 2011 to 2013. His book Brexit and the British: Who do we think we are?, is published by The Armchair Traveller at the Bookhaus at £7.99.



I think there will be a deal, although it may well come at the last minute. Leaving the EU without a deal would cause serious disruption in the short term, undermine the peace in Ireland, and weaken Britain strategically for a long period of time.

Those who think that we should make a clean break have not understood either the risks or the lessons of history. We have so many interests in common with the rest of Europe that we will inevitably need a very close partnership: in trade, security, police co-operation, education and research, business and tourist travel, aviation, environmental management, and in the island of Ireland, to name just a few areas of vital interest to Britain, in each of which detailed and complex arrangements will have to be put in place.

The deal will not be the last word: Britain’s new partnership with our European neighbours will take a long time to bed down — at least five, and probably ten years. To pretend that this can all be sorted out any more quickly is to avoid having a grown-up conversation with the British public.

Over the coming decade or more, Britain will find the web of its connections with the rest of Europe being constantly rewoven, ever more densely. This is partly because of the geographical facts of life; but it is also because the whole structure of European relationships more broadly will probably evolve significantly.

I believe that the EU itself will undergo substantial reform over that period. Some expect (or even hope?) that the EU will disintegrate. I do not think that this is at all likely: it grossly underestimates the existential commitment of the two most important members — France and Germany — to its continued progress. But the EU faces mounting challenges, and there is a growing possibility that the whole European project will be significantly reconfigured.

This reconfigured Europe will be made up of three concentric circles of relationships. In the inner core will be the Eurozone members, who, as President Macron has rightly argued, will need to accept a tighter degree of integration for the zone to achieve durable robustness.

Outside that core, there will be a ring of countries (such as Denmark, for example) who are happy to be members of the EU and of its single market but have no intention of joining the Eurozone — and perhaps one or two that are currently in the Eurozone but would be happier out of it.

This ring will also include some countries which are not yet members of the EU, but that aspire to join: there are several such countries in south-eastern Europe (although the question of Turkish membership is probably now off the agenda for the foreseeable future). Whether these new members subsequently join the inner core of the Eurozone would be a bridge to be crossed at a later stage.

Then there will be an outer ring of countries that are not members of the EU and recognise the need for close partnership, but do not want to commit themselves to all the obligations of single-market membership and the EU customs union. This outer ring already exists: it is a mixed group that includes Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Liechtenstein.

As Britain moves from the second ring to the outer ring, some rearrangement of the furniture will be necessary. Over time, I see the possibility that some other members of the second ring will want to move to this outer ring (Sweden?). But, however the pattern evolves over the next generation, the end result of such a reconfiguration will be a Europe built up on the basis of more flexible — and therefore more robust — relationships. And that is in the interests of all of us.

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