The EU membership referendum in 2016 confirmed what had been a long held suspicion for many; that the United Kingdom is a bitterly, if rather neatly, divided nation. In many senses, we have ceased to see ourselves as a single nation at all, but rather as a loose coalition of states held together by vague and outdated notions of unity and identity. Several spectres hang over the modern UK, but perhaps the largest and most profound of these is that of Britain’s exit from the European Union, or “Brexit”, to give it its snappier, more hashtag-friendly title.
The political conversation may have shifted significantly in the 12 or so months which have followed the vote — we have had a general election, after all, and fresh tragedies to deal with — but Brexit has never left the frame, not entirely anyway. Brexit is the political equivalent of Banquo’s ghost at the feast, if Shakespeare had written Macbeth as one interminably long feast scene.
As you might imagine, much has been said about the political rights and wrongs of Brexit. Its legality, its legitimacy, its timeframe, the practicalities of its implementation, have all been picked clean as conversation pieces. They are now as likely to be conversation enders as starters, although it would be wrong to say that any meaningful consensus has been reached.
It is refreshing, then, that Stephen Green takes a different tack in his latest essay, Brexit and the British (subtitled Who Are We Now?, University of Chicago Press, and Who Do We Think We Are?, Haus Publishing), at least within the scope of this work, wherein he is concerned with the philosophical aspects of the soul and self-image of what is now, unquestionably, a discordant Britain. From the outset, Green is intent on uncovering what has brought us this far; right up to the cusp of an exit. Green wants to know why, when we encounter evocations of ‘Blitz spirit’, sneering and aggressive xenophobia, and the symbolism of global warfare in our mainstream press, so many of us lap this up.
What is clear is that the soul and identity of Britain is now cut free from that of Europe, even if, at the time of writing, we are still yet to fully sever our political bonds. Culturally, many of us are keen to return to the ‘good old days’; a time when Brits were Brits, and our society was celebrated above all others. The parallels between such jingoism and the rise of nationalist and fascist sentiment across Europe in the ’30s are unnervingly apparent.
When, exactly, Green asks us, were these good old days? Have we fallen for the fantasy of the rose-tinted spectacles and been drawn into a fictional alternative history? In reality, the soul and identity of Europe and of the UK, in both a political and a cultural sense, are not so far removed from one another.
In a blistering few lines, Green demonstrates this for us. He presents to us the ebb and flow of religion, science, music, literature, and any number of other cultural touchstones, back and forth between our shores and those of the continent. We see Anselm and William of Occam leading the metaphysical debate in Medieval Europe, we see Christopher Wren taking cues from the Louvre and other iconic European structures, we see Hans Sloane conversing with Carl Linnaeus in the only language common to them, Latin, and we see controversial English writer D.H. Lawrence developing his artistic palate in pre-war Germany.
“This is not to say,” Green assures us, “that British cultural expression is just another European voice without any distinctive accent — any more than French, German, Italian or Spanish are just those of a Europe in unison. These voices are all different, all influenced by their language and their history in ways which have created distinct styles and outlooks.”
As such, the British voice and identity is unmistakably individual, just as the German or the Italian is, but it’s also a product of “these intermingling [European] streams.”
It goes without saying that Green is not approaching this from an apolitical, wholly-philosophical standpoint. Full disclosure is required here, and Green provides us with this in the very first lines of the first chapter, describing his shock and disappointment at the result of the referendum. Green is a card carrying ‘Remainer’, through and through.
Green is also a member of the Conservative (with a capital ‘C’) Party, he is a life peer in the House of Lords, he is a Baron, he is an ordained Anglican priest, he is a former Chairman of HSBC Group; all hallmarks of an individual on the centre right of the political spectrum, and an economic and social conservative (with a small ‘c’).
With these declared interests, Brexit and the British could so easily have become a political diatribe about how X side was right and Y side was wrong and how X-supporters were browbeaten and betrayed by Y etc., etc. It could quite easily have been simply another opinion piece, extrapolated out to about 15 times the length and serialised in a national newspaper. Thankfully, it wasn’t. We’ve had plenty of those already.
Rather than attacking us with his politics, Green lays bare the social issues associated with Brexit with an examination of history and his philosophy. There is no soapboxing here — he doesn’t beat us about the head with his convictions — he simply takes stock of the contemporary British soul, examines its condition, and then explores this elegantly across 60 pages. A cool head and a considered tone are underrated attributes nowadays, and are all too often lacking in modern political discourse.
Anyone looking for a one-stop rundown on what happened, what is going on, and what we can expect, might be left a little disappointed by Green’s fascinating essay. But then anyone looking for a one-stop rundown on an issue as complex as dismantling a 45-year-old political union had better get used to disappointment. What Green does provide, however, is a valid and coherent point of view within an ocean of noise and distortion. In what is often a heated, emotional debate, such level-headedness is certainly welcome.