The British Empire Strikes Back

This right here. This is why Brexit will be a godalmighty disaster. That’s a Conservative Party MEP saying that. Not some random commenter below a Daily Mail article lamenting the end of the British Empire. Check out the banner image on the guy’s profile

British Empire 2: The Hannansphere

No, I assure you, that’s not a joke. That’s the flag beneath which a tory Member of the European Parliament chooses to speak to the public. It’s the kind of detail that makes you wonder whether Hannan might not be a character created by Peter Cook, somehow escaped from the pages of an uncommissioned script. But it’s tough to be whimsical for too long when it’s clear from his tweets that this Tory MEP genuinely thinks of Ireland as “belonging” under that flag. And he’s a little put out, quite frankly, that everyone else doesn’t think so too.

It’s not just Hannan. A 2014 YouGov opinion poll has recently resurfaced — given fresh new relevance by the brexiteering lurch towards isolationism. In this poll, a significant majority of respondents believed Britain should be more proud than ashamed of its imperial past.

And this is why we find ourselves in a peculiar farce. The British unilaterally* took a course of action that at the very least is causing a lot of concern here in Ireland; and at worst could potentially be catastrophic for our country. And yet a significant portion of the British Establishment and commentariat seem vaguely affronted by the notion that we’re not falling meekly into line behind them. The referendum campaign on the British mainland barely mentioned Ireland. And the subsequent General Election campaign featured Ireland mostly as a 1980s-era prop with which the tories could beat Corbyn.

I love the UK. I lived there for many years. Went to university there. Worked there. Met many great friends there. Here in Ireland, if I was ever idiotic enough to enter politics, I would be immediately tarred with the term “West Brit” and it’d be a tough label for me to shake. By a great many yardsticks, I would be considered an anglophile for an Irishman**.

Point being… given the mess of a situation we find ourselves in, and accepting that we can’t change the past… if the argument for Ireland to leave the EU and join some kind of federation with the UK was likely to find any sort of traction here in Ireland, then I’d be exactly the sort of person who would give it some consideration.

But I’m not. When Irish people are polled on EU membership, you get numbers that would appear baffling to a lot of British people. Even after the frankly unjust and unjustifiable way in which the Irish citizenry were treated during the banking crisis… even then we never polled less than 80% in favour. Right now… it’s creeping closer to 90. At some level we didn’t fully appreciate until quite recently, we Irish are European. And if we leave the EU, it’ll be because the entire thing collapses, or we get dragged out kicking-and-screaming for some other reason. It won’t be because we feel an attachment to the Union Jack, or because it makes logistical sense for us to climb into the boat with the British, even as they blow holes in the hull with an antique blunderbus inherited from their Great Grandad.

Brexit is a psychotic pitbull the UK brought into the neighbourhood. It’s up to them to make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone else. It’s not up to us to accommodate their delusions that the thing is a harmless poodle.

The British have seriously screwed up with Brexit. Whatever they have done to themselves (and it may be very damaging indeed), they have likely inflicted a great deal of harm here in Ireland too, risking both political and economic upheaval in a region that might still have a bit of Semtex knocking about in it. And yet the Tories are exasperated when, far from backing them up, the Irish are infuriated. After literally centuries of utterly shameful behaviour in Ireland (Empire-nostalgia notwithstanding), I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to expect Britain to start acting like half-decent neighbours for once.

Fat fucking chance.

* Let’s be clear… I am in no way questioning the legal — or even the moral — right of the British people to choose their own path (within reason — you’re not allowed randomly nuke countries even if you vote for it 52-48). However, if something is to be described as truly “democratic” then I’d argue everyone significantly affected by it should be given an equal vote. The Irish were not allowed to vote on Brexit. Again, let me stress, I’m not saying we should have been. I’m just saying you need a different word than “democratic”.

** Though it’s a good deal more complicated than that. There are aspects of British culture (the monarchy, the militarism, a huge chunk of the national character surrounding class, self-image and nostalgia for empire) where I would be far more extreme in my dislike than even the most fervent Republican. So yeah, as ever, do be careful with those broad strokes.

6 responses to "The British Empire Strikes Back"

  1. “a significant portion of the British Establishment and commentariat seem vaguely affronted by the notion that we’re not falling meekly into line behind them.” Totally delusional.

    I’ve lived in Britain all my life. I’ve never seen ANYONE suggest Ireland ought to join the UK and leave the EU.

  2. Why can’t I just let it lie?

    It really doesn’t matter that much.

    And yet…. how is it possible that someone can read my post and respond with that comment?

    I’ve lived in Britain all my life. I’ve never seen ANYONE suggest Ireland ought to join the UK and leave the EU.

    “All my life”? While the attitude of the British establishment towards Ireland has been questionable for a long time, the specific terms of this debate only arose very recently (with the UK referendum). Of course nobody suggested Ireland ought to join the UK and leave the EU 10 years ago… how would that make any sense? People did talk about the Irish decision to adopt the Euro and whether or not it might not make more sense to join the UK Pound Sterling instead (that was a real debate at the time — albeit on the fringes of things).

    The point I was making (I do so hate it when I have to post an explanatory comment deconstructing and explaining my own post… I’m not saying I don’t leave dots to be joined… but I am saying they’re not that tricky)… the point I was making is that the prevailing imperialist mindset within the UK that views Ireland as subservient has been hidden for a while during a relatively stress-free time in Anglo-Irish relations. Since the Good Friday Agreement, Britain has occasionally claimed Irish artists and athletes; while in return the Irish inflicted Mrs. Brown on them. But that’s the worst it’s got in the last couple of decades.

    But now, Brexit has created a massive problem out of nowhere; and one that has the potential to get very bad indeed. And suddenly, in that context, the Empire resurfaces and is given voice.

    So in terms of “join[ing] the UK and leav[ing] the EU”, let’s clarify a couple of things.

    Firstly, while I have heard people make that argument, I wasn’t for a moment suggesting that lots of people explictly express that view in exactly those terms. It’s usually newspaper columnists and bloggers and it’s almost always deliberately provocative. I was getting at something deeper and more subtle when I used the phrase “falling meekly into line”…. an unconscious belief within the British establishment that somehow Ireland specifically (though also, pretty much everyone else) should subordinate its own interests to those of Britain. It’s a hangover from Empire and your institutions are soaked in it.

    We got our own institutional problems over here, believe me. But that’s not what’s at stake here because, importantly, we’re really not imposing our mess on anyone else just now. Which is exactly what’s happening with Brexit. I’ve been accused of over-reacting when I suggest Brexit could see a return to sectarian violence in Ireland. But anyone who thinks that’s not a serious risk should armed British border guards appear on the Sligo-Enniskillen Road is being recklessly naive. And anyone who thinks there’s zero possibility of border guards on the Sligo-Enniskillen Road, presumably has never crossed an international border.

    Secondly, while nobody (serious) is talking about Ireland joining the UK, I opened my post with a tweet from a Tory MEP calling for Ireland to leave the Customs Union. As you must surely be aware, if you’ve paid even the slightest bit of attention to the Brexit process as it unfolds, that is effectively synonymous with a call to leave the EU. Check out the #Irexit hashtag on twitter (which admittedly is mostly Irish people lampooning the idea, but they’re only lampooning it because it’s being seriously proposed by British politicians and pundits). Farage never shuts up about it. And watch what happens when Irish politicians are interviewed on the subject of Brexit by the British media… we have Bertie Ahern being asked about the possibility of an Irish exit in March. They pursue the same line of questioning when they interviewed him again yesterday.

    Let’s reiterate, Daniel Hannan is a British MEP — a member of the governing party — and he is suggesting Ireland accept some kind of collective customs union with the UK as a solution to the border problem created by Brexit. In other words; it is up to Ireland to restructure its arrangements with the other 27 EU nations in order to best accommodate British policy. In the same week a DUP MP (one of the ten who now possess a certain level of access and influence in Westminster) suggested that it’s time for Ireland to “wise up and leave the EU” (and Paisley is hardly alone — though he doesn’t find many echoing voices in the Republic).

    So when you say you have never heard ANYONE express the view that Ireland should leave the EU, then might I respectfully suggest it’s due to the fact you’ve not followed the Brexit discussion as it pertains to the Irish border, because it’s a regular part of that conversation. And whether it’s a Tory or a UKIP or a DUP politician… while they may not openly say Ireland should join the UK, they all unambiguously imply Ireland should significantly shift its national policy (against the clear will of its own population) in order to solve a problem created entirely by Britain.

  3. I totally agree with your original post and subsequent comment, Jim. As a resident of Northern Ireland it is quite clear that no British pro-Brexit politician has a clue about the disasterous implications for Ireland North and South. The DUP, on the other hand, know fine well and are just out to make trouble.

  4. Hey Stephen, thanks for stopping by.

    I’m still hoping Brexit won’t happen at all. I think the chances of the UK pulling back from the brink are pretty low, but they’re not non-zero. It’s blindingly obvious to any rational person that Britain will lose more than it gains by Brexit. My hope is — over the course of the negotiations — this fact will become obvious to the irrational people too.

    It’s very much a hope, rather than an expectation.

    Of course, I’d be more hopeful if Jeremy Corbyn and his party used some of their undeniable political capital to put that position to the British people. But instead he’s adopted a strategy that I find difficult to differentiate from that of UKIP.

    As for the DUP… what the hell are they playing at? Nobody sane really expects Westminster to factor Ireland into their policy-making, but the DUP have to know the disastrous impact Brexit might have on Ireland (North and South… individually and collectively). They can’t be so delusional as to imagine the Republic is genuinely going to leave the EU, can they?

    So why are they supporting something that carries so much risk and presents absolutely no obvious upside? None. There is no scenario… no realistic scenario… in which Northern Ireland is improved by Brexit. The same is broadly true for Ireland as a whole, but I don’t expect that to be the DUP’s concern.

    Whatever small benefits do arise, e.g. companies relocating out of the UK to retain their EU status, will — by definition — benefit the part of the island remaining in the EU.

    I’ve never understood the DUP. But I’ve always felt there was a steely streak of self-interest running through them. Supporting a Hard Brexit is willfully self-destructive by their standards.

  5. You’re right, Jim, that the best we can hope for is the fairly slim chance that Brexit will implode, with the bonus that the Tory Party probably would too. Corbyn’s position is baffling. I think maybe he has worked out that there isn’t really any such thing as a soft Brexit. The only viable alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit, but he can’t support the latter for fear of antagonizing the Labour Brexit voters, so he goes on advocating something the EU has repeatedly said is not an option. As for the DUP, no question that they are fully aware of the consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland. They were never fully reconciled to the Good Friday Agreement and the cross-border governmental collaboration and social interaction that stemmed from it. They see the South as a source of contagion and a hard border that would disrupt contact is fine by them. Sectarian interest trumps economic considerations, I’m afraid.

  6. […] albeit less fearsome than it once was… but so is the hereditary chamber, the royalty and the belief that Empire was something to take pride in. So is the sense that 52% of the population can make a massive, long-term decision without even […]

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