Brexit and paranoid fantasies


The unfolding drama around Brexit is utterly bewildering to watch. As these famous political scientists sang:

EU: So tell us what you want, what you really really want
GB: I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want
EU: So tell us what you want, what you really really want
UK: I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want
EU: So tell us what you want, what you really really want…

The Guardian published an extract from Heroic Failures: Brexit and the Politics of Pain by Fintan O’Toole yesterday. It’s the most beautiful summary of what’s going on right now, particularly in the context of British and European identity.

As someone with German ancestry and a keen interest in the centre of the continent post-World War II, this struck a chord:

In retrospect, German reunification is perhaps the greatest missed opportunity for the English finally to have done with the war. Had there been a capacity to generate new narratives of Europe, this could have been shaped as a moment of British vindication – the final working-out of the consequences of nazism. As Anthony Barnett puts it, “the triumph and relief of the unification of Germany could and should have belonged to us in Britain, as well as to Germany itself. It was the final liberation from nazism, the end of that country’s punishment, a time to welcome a great culture back into our arms.”

Everyone I’ve met from my dad’s side of the family tell me they cried when the wall fell. It represented the final end of a bitter and sad part of history, and optimism for future cooperation. The French were on board with open arms, but I can’t say I was surprised by Thatcher:

Why, then, were there no photographs of Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl holding hands at the Brandenburg Gate to match the pictures of Kohl and François Mitterrand at Verdun in 1984?

My Cantonese in-laws may have an idea. But back to Fintan:

Because Thatcher literally carried in her handbag maps showing German expansion under the Nazis. This was a mental cartography that English conservatism could not transcend – the map of a Europe that may no longer exist in reality, but within which its imagination remains imprisoned. “Europe,” Barnett writes, “moved on from the second world war and Britain didn’t.” One might go so far as to say that England never got over winning the war.

This is a fascinating observation. The reason behind the UKIPs name wasn’t just cynical political bluster against perceived foreign interference, it was at least partly informed by fear.

(The first irony is any British business that wants EU trade will still require the same regulatory compliance, only now they won’t have a say in how it’s all drafted).

One could dismiss this as a case of Godwin’s law, but the pro-Brexiters were the ones who invited the comparison:

The sleight of hand was not subtle: Hitler tried to unite Europe, so does the EU, therefore the EU is a Hitlerian project. But the lack of subtlety did not stop the trope from being used in the Brexit campaign: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this [unifying Europe], and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods,” Boris Johnson told the Telegraph on 14 May 2016.

It’s like witnessing someone purposely riding their bike into a wall.

(And the second irony is the real threats to western hegemony are amused and emboldened by these dummy spits, from Mr Orange to the Brexiters. No need to interrupt your enemy when they’re making a mistake and fighting among themselves)

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Ruben Schade is a technical writer and infrastructure architect in Sydney, Australia who refers to himself in the third person. Hi!

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