One of the defining features of modern conservative politics is a fixation with the building of walls.
In America some of these walls are real – the notion of “securing” the US southern border with a physical wall, no matter how medieval that sounds, is now mainstream politics. It’s not just the wild rantings of Trump, all of the remaining prospective Republican candidates are committed to some form of a physical barrier between the USA and Mexico. So popular are walls amongst Republican activists that Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin and mayfly pursuer of the GOP nomination, went so far as to suggest a mirror project that would seal off the lower 48 states from the terrifying threat of marauding Canadians.
In Europe the walls are mostly, so far, symbolic. The disastrous crises in Africa and Asia have created unprecedented pressures that are far beyond anything any of our institutions were designed to manage. Faced with the horror of mass human suffering, many European conservatives have sought to retreat behind border restrictions and threats to rebuild legal walls that have been eroded by nearly seventy years of ever closer union.
Britain has a tendency to be more literal-minded than other EU nations. It, of course, rests beyond a natural, physical, boundary and its conservative heartland nurses a mindset that balances a sense of entitlement to a central role on the international stage with (despite centuries of empire) a parochial psyche that is remarkably untouched by the world around it. There is a significant proportion of the British 1 population that peers at the world from behind castellated walls, constructed in their minds from Dover chalk, and doesn’t much like what it sees. Seeing a world in turmoil, a particular kind of conservative mind has responded with demands that the drawbridges be raised and defences buttressed.
Walls, however, are a poor protection in uncertain times. Physical walls – think of Hadrian’s effort aimed at keeping out those awful Picts or the Great Wall in China hoping to hold back the fierce Mongols – were only ever really useful in times of relative stability. They rarely ever acted as barriers to determined raiders, there are always weak spots and always ways around, under or over walls. In peace walls could form a means of controlling trade and reinforced the useful illusion that here were rulers who had the power to reshape the world to impose order. These illusions rarely survived the reality of a crisis. The “Verdun mentality” of placing faith in fixed defences was politically, economically and militarily obsolete long before the Germans drove their tanks around the Maginot Line in 1939. Those with siege mentalities need to be prepared to suffer an awful lot of Alamos.
In times of the greatest stress, walls are worse than useless. When the world is changing fast, what is needed is flexibility and subtlety whereas walls breed complacency and encourage entrenched bloody-mindedness. It is a cliché but, when the strongest winds blow, it is the trees that can bend with the gale that are most likely to survive.
Which brings me to the point of this rambling: the British referendum on membership of the EU.
Our world is being reshaped. Populations are moving, economies are shifting, technologies, climates and ideologies are transforming faster than we can really grasp. These pressures are beyond the control of any individual government, they may be beyond the combined powers of every government on the planet. Impotent in the face of these global pressures and unable (or unwilling) to address their real causes, Britain’s conservative core has chosen to use the EU as both a distraction and a whipping boy. Cameron’s negotiations have delivered next to nothing in real terms but they have succeeded in funnelling concerns about disastrous failures of foreign and economic policy into a narrow debate about European institutions and the predilections of Boris Johnson.
Cameron (and Osborne) may not support the UK’s exit from the EU, but the rhetoric with which Cameron framed those negotiations – of a plucky British struggle to take control of their own law-making while shutting out those thieving, leaching foreigners – has fed the confidence and boosted the ambitions of wall builders. It allows them to peddle the myth that all the bad things in the world will dissipate or pass the UK by if they can just build their walls higher and retreat from the world. They would lead Britain to disaster.
The EU is often dismissed as a slow-moving and hide-bound organisation, but even a glance at its history provides a case against such a view. The European construct has, in a little over half a century, transformed itself repeatedly. It has moved from its starting position as a small, narrowly economic community to a continent-encompassing political and social union that has absorbed a series of potentially shattering crises while spreading wealth, encouraging democracy and enshrining peace amongst peoples with millennia-long histories of mutual violence. There is a good argument that, in fact, this is a rather successful, adaptable body. It is certainly one that has transformed its own institutions more rapidly and more sensitively than most nation states 2.
It is not always easy to “get things done” in Europe. It is not easy for one nation or one ideology to impose itself on every part of the EU. For absolutists (on both the right and the left) that is a frustrating obstacle to their desire to remake the world in their own narrow image.
To me, though, it is precisely the stickiness of the EU’s institutions – that they require debate and negotiation and that they demand the construction of broad-based coalitions to achieve change – that makes them so valuable in meeting the challenges we now face. The EU demands that we engage with those who have different interests. It forces us to take into account the circumstances of others.
Yes, membership of the EU sometimes requires members do things that their governments would not, on their own, choose to do – but those moments are rare, they are negotiated and they are part of a process in which we achieve other things that we could not achieve on our own. The alternative to EU membership is not “greater sovereignty” 3 and the freedom to do whatever we like behind inviolable walls. The alternative is to be cast loose on an ocean of forces with which we cannot negotiate and having to abandon many of those goals that require the pooling of our power with others. The result of leaving the EU is not a Britain with more power but a Britain with fewer options.
Britain has tried to hide behind its ancient walls before. It did, after all, turn its back on the creation of the EEC. Within a generation that decision was revealed to be unsustainable and the UK was forced to beg for entry on humiliating terms, forced to wedge itself into institutions that it had missed the opportunity to help create. Those who imagine that Britain’s Anglo-Saxon ruins can be rebuilt are either fooling themselves or cynically pursuing narrow self-interest. It takes no great powers of prophecy to predict that the walls that failed in the relatively mild upheavals of the 1960s will offer inadequate protection in this wilder millennium.
Our world is changing and the crucial thing about these changes is not that they are rapid – though sometimes they are – but that they are relentless. They will sweep away those who offer nothing but blustering resistance, but that does not mean our only option is meek surrender. An institution like the EU, despite its many flaws, is necessary. It, and institutions like it, are the best chance we have of not just surviving but adapting and perhaps even thriving in an uncertain environment. We will not always get exactly what we want as part of the EU, but we stand a better chance of not being swept away.
On balance, and despite its many frustrations and frequent failures, the EU is a progressive force. It forces us come out from behind our walls.
- The proportion is higher in England, but it by no means only “little Englanders” who think this way. ↩
- Despite its reputation as a vast bureaucracy, the core of the EU is rather modestly-sized, employing around 35,000 people (less than half the number employed by a single UK government department like HM Revenue and Customs) and with a budget, spread across 28 nations, smaller than the UK’s NHS budget. It is also often attacked over the level of budget fraud, but at 0.2% its estimated losses due to fraud are in line with levels experienced by the British government. ↩
- A meaningless, mealy-mouthed, phrase. ↩