Brexit and the Crisis of Identity
If only Britain had spent the last 100 years perfecting a way to uproot itself, we could raise the pirate flag and rid ourselves of these meddlesome neighbours once and for all. We could even take Ireland with us, roaming the seas in search of a new home far from the anchoring presence of Europe. For many of those desiring to leave the EU, Brussels has become the judge and jailer of Britain’s future, forever trapping us into a prison in which our black and white jumpsuit is no different than any other nation’s.
But that won’t do. We’re not like any other nation. We’re Britain; magnanimous, proud and, at times, inexplicably great, with a quiet authority that transcends population size or military power. We don’t bend a knee, and we’d rather lose a hand than yield a finger. There’s something about being British that makes us inherently deviant, less willing to toe the line. And for the most part, this condition has made us strong.
Being an island has defined us. It’s enabled us to accomplish significant military feats and control a globe-spanning empire, not to mention that Blitzkrieg wasn’t quite as effective with an ocean in the way. But crucially, being surrounded by water has created an isolationist mentality that is as ingrained in our nation’s psyche as tea drinking. John Donne once wrote that no man is an island – a supposition that many British would happily challenge.
In the throngs of globalisation, the British mentality is suspended in a continuous tug of war. At some point, we were meant to become more than just British, but we missed the cue. We have a self-affirming history of greatness and strength, and the words of Shakespeare and Churchill ring in our ears to remind us of our unique circumstance and character, an egotism that was, perhaps, never truly justified to begin with.
And much of this dichotomy between the modern world and our past glories is at work in the minds of the undecided voters. With polling day upon us, figures put undecided votes at 9%, but the number is likely to be far greater when including the likely scale of flip floppers. Britain is a victim of its own success, which has imbued our nationalism with an unnatural hardiness and resolute unwavering from tradition. Everything we succeeded at reinforced our self-belief, so we became stagnant and stuck in the mud, letting our feet sink deeper and deeper into what we knew – we’re Britain and our position in the world is guaranteed on virtue of that unwavering truth. Many of us have yet to contemplate that, in fact, we could also be something more, arguably greater.
Britain has a powerful brand, with a wealth of soft power assets that extends its influence beyond its realistic means. In this way, we’re a uniquely harmonious nation. We’re polite to each other to a fault, even to our enemies, and our contempt for fellow Brits abroad is more to do with an admonishing of something we recognise resides inside each of us. Sometimes we’re ashamed, sure, but we’re unable to reconcile this on a level of national self-doubt.
But Europe’s identity is just beginning to form. In a large way, we’re already intertwined in everything European – we have been a key player in its history and evolution, and we can never exit that responsibility. A vote to leave the EU won’t necessarily negate our past or future position, but we’ll become the uncle or the neglected cousin instead of the father. The EU could survive without us, but its identity would be significantly altered as a consequence. The question is of Britain’s survival. Economically, despite the doom and gloom, we’ll be fine. Not as well as we would otherwise, perhaps, but fine. The real question concerns our future identity, and how far we remove ourselves from our responsibility in emerging international and global identities. Nationalism is a tricky thing, and identities confined by borders naturally, invariably, create opposition.
We’re proud British, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also be proud Europeans. If there is something so vivacious and magnificent about being British, perhaps it is our duty to share that with the world. Patriotism doesn’t have to equate to nationalism, and embracing our identity doesn’t have to preclude the possibility of extending it. We will always be Britain, but we can be much more still.