In the late nineteenth century, Britain loftily
turned its back on the squabbling European powers by adopting a policy that
became known as Splendid Isolation. In
cocking a snook at Europe at the time, Britain would concentrate on
developing its relations with its Dominions and other parts of the Empire. This worked for a while.
Now, a century later, much of the
country seems drawn to reviving the concept.
Not that many people in these
islands have heard of Splendid Isolation, or would pretend to know what
Disraeli and Salisbury
were thinking in throwing their support behind it. That doesn’t matter, because
today’s anti-Europe campaigners have reached the same verdict based entirely on
what they believe to be the evidence of their own eyes and ears.
That verdict may be summed up as
‘a plague on all foreigners’. It means particularly
those who reside in Europe, those who once resided in Europe but now wish to reside
and just about everyone else no matter where they reside.
The movement to get Britain out of
the European Union is gathering momentum.
Dozens of parliamentary back-benchers of the ruling Conservatives,
panicked by a strong showing in local elections by the UK Independence Party,
now clamour for an absolute, legally binding pledge to hold an ‘in-out’
referendum, and to hold it as soon as possible. Even cabinet ministers, both former
and current, have lately been tumbling over themselves to be interviewed on
television in order to declare their support for this rush to the exit. The Labour party, as usual, dithers, but
ultimately can be relied upon to follow the herd in whatever direction it seems
to be going.
Meanwhile, demands for stringent
curbs on immigration grow ever louder, ever more irrational and ever more
hateful. Again, it’s UKIP, with arguments based on a thinly-veiled xenophobia,
which has lit the blue touch paper.
Poor David Cameron can only bob
and weave, staying off the ropes, while waffling about preparing for the
referendum he himself promised by reforming the EU membership. If he succeeds in this he will demand a vote
to stay in. Good luck with that, says Nigel
Lawson, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a convert to the anti-EU
campaign. And so say all of us.
It’s all become a little
unedifying. UKIP, until this month’s elections, was regarded as a fringe party
– in Cameron’s words, a bunch of nutcases and closet racists. Since then, of course, Nigel Farage – leader
of a party without a single seat in the House of Commons – has been basking in
the privilege of setting the nation’s political agenda.
Nature abhors a vacuum. The same can be said of politics. Farage’s fame and current influence can be
blamed on the abject fear displayed by the leaders of the main parties. They have been proved incapable of
articulating a cogent long-term national strategy, the kind that is maintained
through thick and thin and can then be sold to the country. That used to go under the name of statesmanship. Mr. Farage is no statesman. He’s merely a rabble-rouser, a pusher of hot
In the absence of anything
resembling intellectual discourse, and at a time of economic hardship, the
British electorate is simply casting about for people and institutions to
blame. This can only lead to hasty and absurd
conclusions, and has done. The idea takes
root that economy is in a mess because Europe can’t get its act together; that
there are too many foreigners taking our jobs; that Britain has abandoned loyal members
of the Commonwealth. And so on.
Last on Britain’s ever-lengthening blame list, if it
appears at all, is of course Britain
itself. We don’t seem to think it’s our
fault that we can’t produce goods that other countries want to buy; or that our
manufacturing base has dwindled to nothing; or that we’ve allowed all our best
companies to be snapped up by predatory foreigners; or that we now have to buy
all our utilities from abroad; or that our education system is in a mess.
British politicians, company
directors, and we the voters must – if we’re in the mess we think we’re in – share
the blame more or less equally. Then, if
there’s any blame left over, by all means assign it to those European political
and financial leaders who insist on maintaining a single currency in countries
of such widely disparate economic, cultures and histories that is has created chaos
in world financial markets and misery in half of Europe. Clearly this Euro business needs to be
resolved, and soon – and we all know what that means. But that alone will hardly solve Britain’s
Nor will leaving the EU, going
after the immigrants, or voting for nutcases and closet racists.
Splendid Isolation sounds
splendid, but opting out of everything didn’t work for long in the nineteenth
century, when Britain
was a global power, and it won’t work in this one, when it isn’t.
At the rate we’re going, the
vacuum will soon start to resemble a black hole.