There are tough and rancorous times still to be endured as we stumble our way to Brexit
There are some mornings when it’s worth writing down your reaction to news that has broken overnight. Thursday 11 April 2019 was clearly one. At 5.30 a.m. an extension of six months to Brexit day agreed by the EU 27 drizzled into my semi-active grey cells.
First reaction? Relief that we were not going to grind into a hard exit at 11 p.m. on Friday 12 April. I had gone to bed thinking there was a small but still real chance of this happening. If one of the 27 had vetoed the extension (and one was all it would have needed), I had my own contingency plan drawn up.
With the family in the Orkney Islands, I would have made my way just before 11 to a place, for me, of special serenity – one of the narrow peninsulas of South Ronaldsay, just beyond St Margaret’s Hope, where you can absorb the beauty of Scapa Flow to the right and the mighty Pentland Firth to the left.
Second among my sleepy reactions was a sense of shame. Apparently at the insistence of President Macron of France, the EU council will “review” the UK’s behaviour in June on the road to 31 October 2019, the new deadline set by the 27. It’s not easy to think of the UK being a country placed in the diplomatic equivalent of special measures. Being put on probation doesn’t fit our self-image as a serious player in the marketplaces of international influence.
Last Thursday morning there was a whiff of the days following the disastrous Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in November 1956, when the United States encouraged a run on the pound and threatened oil sanctions if military action was not halted. As Sir Oliver Franks, one of the wisest of post-war diplomats, later put it, Suez was a “lightning flash” that suddenly illuminated a landscape of declining British power that had long been in the waning.
Talking later on Thursday morning with my historian colleague, Dr James Jinks, in an echo of Franks he said the overnight events “feel almost like a bookend of Britain’s post-war influence in the world”. Quite so, with such a fundamental matter for the UK being determined by 27 other nations while the British Prime Minister was out of the room and waiting to be summoned to hear the outcome.
The shock of Suez had significant long-term consequences. It speeded up the withdrawal from territorial empire (a process already underway). It also contributed to the tilt towards the first application for membership of the European Economic Community in the early 1960s. But its searing impact on the British political conversation was surprisingly short-lived. I fear the scarring of Brexit goes deeper and will be much longer in the healing.
Should we care so deeply about our place in the world? Is it not just the latest example of a former great power suffering “the itch after the amputation”, as a Whitehall friend of mine with long experience of playing the world game once put it? I think it does matter. You do not have to be a member of the “Land of Hope and Glory” school to feel these slights, or to believe that the UK still has experience and wisdom to bring to the diplomatic tables of the world.
It could be that tough times intensify one’s love of country. George Orwell caught this in perhaps the most famous essay he ever penned, “The Lion and the Unicorn”, written in London during the 1940 blitz and published the following year. In a celebrated passage, Orwell declared that England (for which read Britain) “is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”
What we are going through now does not compare to 1940-41 and the EU is not an enemy. Nonetheless, there are tough and rancorous times still to be endured as we stumble our way to Brexit. But now is the time the country should be seriously thinking about what lies beyond, above all the improvements we need in our society around which a consensus can be built. It’s time to listen hard to the beating wings of the better angels of our nature and remember that whoever presides in Downing Street and Whitehall, it is Britain as an extended family that matters and our ability to draw deep on our wells of tolerance and civility.
Peter Hennessy is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University of London and an independent crossbench peer.