Brexit and the echoes of empire

Map of England swivelling roundNot only did Britain vote to leave Europe: it seems we can’t even negotiate with it. We seem overconfident that we can push our weight around and get what we want, while unable to take other Europeans seriously.

Why? Do we really think the British are so superior to everyone else? Or is it just the English? Is England revealing its cultural failings?


The history I remember from my school lessons was mainly about England and its wars. The moral of each story was: we won. Winning, colonising, imposing your rule on foreigners, was a good thing.

Even if you don’t buy into that, those who inherit an empire have to do something with it. If you are going to retain it in any form at all, you have to convince yourself that ‘we’ are superior. So far superior that foreigners are better off ruled by us than left to their own devices.

Hence the popularity of racist theory at the height of the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Killing them off and colonising their land makes the world a better place.

The idea of evolution helped. By the end of the nineteenth century many European intellectuals, especially in Britain, believed that their own race had evolved further than other races. Killing off the others speeded up evolutionary progress. Ideas like this can survive long after scientific support collapses.

Of course England is not the only country to have had an empire. France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Italy also had them. But they also felt what it was like to be occupied, either during the Second World War or after it. To some of the English, on the other hand, the imperial dream is revived by telling how Britain once stood alone against Hitler.

The idea of being different, and better than everyone else, still survives. I don’t want to exaggerate it, but imperialism has bequeathed a residual English exceptionalism bearing no relation to what England is actually like.

Born to rule

It is maintained most strongly in our public schools, where many government ministers spent their teenage years.

I was sent to one. There, I learned that ‘we’ were destined to rule. I was reminded of this many times while David Cameron was Prime Minister, with his governments packed with Eton boys.

I don’t know what it’s like in girls’ public schools. I only know about the boys. Deprived of a given role in their own family, and instead surrounded by boys around their own age, they have to carve out an identity for themselves. Where everybody is supposed to have been born to lead, not everybody can be a leader. What I learned was to run away – and suffer the consequences when I didn’t run fast enough. The various identities are designed to avoid that fate. Some become alpha males. I think of David Cameron as one of them. Others establish different roles. To me Michael Gove characterises the classic nerd, never popular but useful because he knows things, and Boris Johnson became the joker. These are classic roles, established in the intense competitiveness of common room and dormitory. When Vince Cable described their behaviour as ‘dormitory pillow fights’ he understood why government ministers behave the way they do.

More serious than pillow fights, and still sometimes taken seriously, is the idea that ‘The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton’. Attributed to the Duke of Wellington, probably erroneously, this proposal expresses an attitude that is still all too prevalent among the governing classes.

What happens on the playing field is that some quick, unimportant process allocates you to one team or the other. Then you strain every sinew for your team to win. You put all your effort into a victory that achieves nothing at all, except for the reputations of the players. Hence the need for trophies.

Apply these values to running a country or empire, and the dangers are obvious. The winners get the trophies. What happens to the losers is of no interest to anyone except themselves. The whole project has no purpose except to be competitive. Whoever we are competing against become ‘the enemy’. This may be harmless enough on the playing field, but when transferred to government it needs greater justification. Stories need to be told about how evil the enemy are. Donald Trump depicts North Korea and Iran as evil. Philip Hammond’s unfortunate description of the EU as the enemy, though quickly taken back, probably opens a window onto the way Brexit is being discussed in high places.

The effect is a hierarchical, top-down, unequal society where the organs of communication are full of celebrity gossip about the winners and rarely mention the losers. This is Britain today.

There is an alternative

There is nothing new about this kind of hierarchical, competitive imperialism. Biblical scholars have shown how the ancient near east was mostly governed by competitive imperialists.

It is therefore all the more significant that the Bible offers an alternative. Jewish history, written by losers rather than winners, managed to record the perspective of those at the bottom of the heap.

From their perspective, there is more to life than winning. Instead of killing each other we could live together in peace and harmony. They taught that the human race had been created for this purpose.

To achieve it, they said, was shalom. Shalom is usually translated ‘peace’, but it means more than this. It also means fulfilment, everything being in harmony, the way it should be.

Given the state of politics today, it is not surprising that the English language doesn’t have an equivalent word. We are governed by people who are too hierarchical, too competitive, too imperialistic, to imagine a world where, instead of competing against opponents, we cooperate with colleagues.

Gaining some economic advantage from leaving the EU, or alternatively from staying in it, all depends on the sums. It’s doubtful whether either would really be worth achieving. What would be worth achieving would be what the ancient Hebrews hoped for: shalom.

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18 Responses to Brexit and the echoes of empire

  1. Stephen Jones says:

    is this not excatlty though why people think they need to compete, to do well for their chosen leader, in this case God. If we believe in people not a god, can we not humbly accept our differences and live together in what in English is called peace, in Hebrew shalom, in muslim inshallah, etc. Can we not celebrate our diversity instead of wanting everybody else to join our club, and only ours. Surley it is this that creates the conflict in the first place, and it will be this that kills off the human race whether or not we call it race, creed, or in fact religion.

    • Agreed. Believing in the kind of god who wants us to compete against others is a major cause of conflict. But I don’t think refusing to believe in any god at all improves the situation. It just leaves us without any responsibilities except the ones we choose for ourselves. Some then choose to do as you suggest – accept our differences and live in peace. Others do the opposite. As is the case now!

  2. Andrew (Andy) Crow says:

    I don’t ‘refuse’ to believe in God.

    I just don’t believe and see no evidence for the existence of a deity.

    I think that to describe the Jewish scriptures (in so far as they are consistent with our ‘Old Testament’) as a record of the underdog is a somewhat partial picture of the nation which colonised Canaan by force and invented total warfare. That nice Samuel was a bit of a stickler for destroying the Hebrews and their women and children and cattle and goats.

    The European sense of ‘racial superiority’ combined with biblical authority went a long way towards creating the United States we know today. It’s a model society I have grave doubts about.

    I don’t find religion as I’ve found it to date particularly helpful, but highly informative.

    Those who can filter out the positives and use them as helpful guides to the good life whilst ignoring the ….unhelpful(?) bits are welcome to it. I just wish they wouldn’t feel the need to fight about it. Like there’s only one way to live? YOU don’t think that and you don’t say that. That in part is why I’m prepared to read what you write.

    You might have discovered something I’ve missed. I wouldn’t want to miss it twice.

    • ‘The European sense of ‘racial superiority’ combined with biblical authority went a long way towards creating the United States we know today. It’s a model society I have grave doubts about.’

      Likewise, Andy. But the biblical authority in the US is the Scofield Bible: Schofield ‘interpreted’ the KJV in an astonishingly distorting way to create the shameful Christian Zionist theology. After his death in 1945, his distortions were made even further-reaching and more grotesque by someone at OUP. Have you seen Revd Dr Stephen Spicer’s work on this subject? He points out the grave heresy in the Christian Zionist theology. And that lost him his ministry — in Britain! (This is the nastiest piece of injustice I have seen in the CofE.)

  3. Andrew (Andy) Crow says:

    Whoops! ….destroying the Hebrew’s enemies ….that should have said. I really ought to read it before I hit the send! 🙂

    • Thanks Andy.
      I’ll respond with two brief points.
      First, on evidence for the existence of a deity. In the Middle Ages (after the debates with Gnostics and Manicheans), the dominant Christian and Jewish belief was that we have been created by a good god and therefore the human mind is mainly reliable. Because of what we believe about how we have been created, we have faith in our mental processes. Later (Descartes is the fulcrum) this got inverted: because we take for granted the reliability of the human mind, we can prove the existence of God. Except that it doesn’t work this way round: we carry on taking for granted the reliability of the human mind, and conclude that there is no god. But in that case, how do we know the human mind is at all reliable? Hence the rise of nonrealism and evolutionary psychology, offering theories to show that our minds are deceiving us. So the Gnostics and Manicheans were right after all. At present, atheist thought is still convinced of the reliability of the human mind. Many atheists go so far as to insist that nothing can exist unless the human mind can know about it – the most extreme possible apotheosis of human thought. It’s an illogical position. For all you know, you may be a brain in a vat fantasising about everything else. To justify the belief that we are more than that, we need faith that our minds have some kind of design. Evolutionary theory can explain how our minds are adapted to making us move our bodies for survival and fertility, but no more.
      The second thing is about the content of the Bible. Unfortunately we’ve inherited a misleading tradition, that tells us the whole Bible is true, and consistent, so we have to either accept the whole lot or reject the whole lot. Anybody who has an education in literature, or even more generally in the humanities, knows you can’t treat ancient texts like that. To understand what the authors were getting at you need to know the circumstances in which they wrote, who they were supporting and opposing, etc. Then you add in the people who preserved and edited the texts, and their motives – which could have been very different. And then the people who incorporated them into their set of revered scriptures. And, if you want to go that far, the people who for their own reasons decreed that the words had been dictated by God. Although Hebrew and New Testament scholars continue to debate the issues, there’s a large body of scholarly opinion arguing that the Hebrew scriptures differ from other ancient near eastern traditions in the way I described. I cite some references in my book Why Progressives Need God.

  4. Jonathan, I cannot help thinking that your view is basically anachronistic: You think of ‘the governing classes’ as the traditional English ruling class, the aristocracy. And you call David Cameron, the quintessential puppet, an ‘Alpha male’, and assume that he is a member of that traditional English ruling class. In fact, the only genuine representative of the traditional English ruling class in all of parliament is the backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, who does not fit the images of the public schoolboy you paint. (Incidentally, my son went to an excellent English public school; I saw nothing there of the attitudes and types you describe.) And you seem not to notice that it is the globalist money power, not the traditional ruling class, that runs Britain and pre-selects the creeps who people our parliament and are nothing like leaders but totally the lick-spittle servants of that global money power.

    Our present problem vis-a-vis Brexit is that the international money power has a certain agenda that is not made known, and we watch our hopeless PM flap about, unable to move ahead for wont of clear orders from her global money power puppet masters. The glory days of English arrogance are in the deep, deep past. The English, more even than the Germans and the French, are prostrate and quiescent under the boot of the global money power that has all but eliminated them with the ‘diversity’ it has imposed, not to mention the battery of statutory laws that exist to subjugate them. (And you know, given that the most vicious contemporary murders are the ‘shalom’ users, we can well do without that word in our vocabulary.)

    • Sophie, this is an interesting take.
      I agree that Cameron and his closest associates – especially Osborn – belong to the global money class rather than the traditional British aristocracy. I didn’t say otherwise. But I do think there is a fair amount of overlap between the two. After all, it is the Conservative Party that supports the interests of both. I vaguely remember the squeals of anguish when Thatcher decisively pushed the party towards the global money agenda. I like what you say about Rees-Mogg although I see him as an extreme example. What would his father think of the Times as it is now, compared with when he used to edit it?

      • Jonathan, I do not think that either Cameron or Osborn are part of the global money power; I think both are (or were, for they have both been dropped) the puppets of that power, as was Thatcher, who was also dropped. Tony Blair, mega-criminal, has not been dropped. The best dirty-work man of the contemporary crop, the global money power seems still to be finding work for him.

        I loved your question: ‘What would his father think of the Times as it is now, compared with when he used to edit it?’ What indeed! But he certainly would have disdained being the editor of The Times once it got Murdoched.

        Now I have a question for you: Is it a sign of the times that the wonderful city-centre oasis of tranquil greenery that has soothed the nerves of Londers and visitors for over 100 years, the Victoria Tower Garden, is in severe danger of being destroyed by a thoroughly unnecessary Holocaust memorial? (My question is intentionally not-PC. I shall understand if you ignore it.)

        • On Cameron and Osborn as puppets. I suppose this is a confession that we are no longer a free country. Actually, the people we elect, whoever we elect, are controlled by megarich groups about whom we usually know nothing. I see the point, but I think Cameron and Osborn believed in it.
          So also did Blair. I don’t think of him as worse than them in respect of dirty work, though he did some dreadful things. To my mind the main difference was his boyishness. Look! Me! Having a summer holiday with the Bee Gees! I’ve made it!
          As for the Victoria Tower Garden, is this something in London? I don’t know anything about it.

  5. ‘Do you think there are enough memorials now?’ More than enough, especially of the kind that will destroy a beautiful, loved and much needed stretch of bountiful nature.

    • I’ve had a look at the website. I think I’ve been there. Yes, it would be a shame to lose the park. North Liverpool has very few parks, and the Council very nearly built over its only big one, to give Everton Football Club a new stadium. In these days when nothing is valued unless it makes a profit for someone – usually someone who already has too much money – parks need protecting.

      • Of course, you are absolutely right about Cameron and Lybia. It occurs to be that the difference among puppets is negligible when the puppet-master is the same. And I’m delighted that you think of parks as you do. Thanks. 🙂

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