Brexit: an embarrassing time to be British

Written by Tom Freeman on 11 April 2017 in Comment

Cringing at Brexit jingoism is all very well, but Scotland is just as guilty of 'historical amnesia' when it comes to relating to the world

Elizabethan wargames - credit Jon Marlow

“We want to remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent.” 

This was how Theresa May opened her letter to Donald Tusk ahead of the start of formal negotiations of Britain’s divorce from the European Union.

“The United Kingdom wants the European Union to succeed and prosper,” she wrote. 

Only the United Kingdom has a funny way of showing it.

Within a week, we saw xenophobic taunts on the front pages of the tabloids, a veiled threat over security co-operation and the small matter of former Conservative leader Michael Howard threatening war with Spain over Gibraltar.


Sketch: Who knew Taking Back Control meant a war with Spain?

Brexit and British nationalism- Theresa May's metamorphosis

“Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country, and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar,” Lord Howard told Sky News.

Even if you find such jingoistic sabre-rattling at the expense of a key NATO ally a bit of banter, it is astonishingly naive tactically. 

To threaten one European nation is to threaten them all. That’s the whole point of the EU. 

Theresa May has since disowned threats of withdrawing anti-terror cooperation or war, but Britain as a collective, it would seem, is going into these negotiations hard-nosed and uncompromising, and brandishing its trump cards before even sitting down at the table. And when that trump card is a threat to break the one success no one can deny the EU since its inception – peace across Europe – there really has rarely been a more embarrassing time to be British.

‘You can take our cheap holidays to the sun, but you’ll never take our thick card blue passports.’ 

Howard’s conjuring of the image of a Great British armada taking on the Spanish-speaking countries is more Elizabeth I than Elizabeth II, and reveals the deep nationalism at the heart of Brexit. Gibraltar, after all, is among the last meagre remnants of a British Empire still thought of fondly by those with an unhealthy obsession with past glories long gone.

Last month former UN under-secretary general Dr Shashi Tharoor said Britain had “historical amnesia” about what that empire did.  

Brexit has become deeply cringeworthy stuff, and criticism of the approach leads to accusations of talking Britain down. “Which side are you on?” that other kind of cybernats scream. “It’s almost as if you want Theresa May to fail.”

Of course, there’s a difference between wanting her to fail and rather hoping she doesn’t incurably fall out with our neighbours.

Nicola Sturgeon will attempt to couch independence as the internationalists’ choice, of course, but there has been little evidence that an independent Scotland could be the north European progressive beacon that was suggested in 2014.

Despite the devolution of new powers over tax and welfare since, what has Scotland’s parliament delivered? 

Tiny tweaks to tax bands and a centralised social security agency all sound rather more British than Scandinavian.

Meanwhile child poverty and income inequality are on the rise. Despite pressure from poverty charities, an uplift in child benefit is all a bit too universal for a government once wedded to such things.

And at the same time, I don’t think our schools teach how Glasgow’s majesty was built on the proceeds of the slave trade. “Historical amnesia” is alive and well north of the border too.

If Scotland has no appetite for forging a different way now, will it ever? Perhaps the country will play as willing a role in Empire 2.0 as it did in the last one, whether as a part of the United Kingdom or not.



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