With the election of Donald Trump on top of Brexit, the two pillars of British foreign and security policy are crumbling before our eyes, and taking with them a good part of our national identity. It is now clear that large numbers of Americans are committed to the national interest and identity of the United States rather than those of the “west.” And recent elections and opinion polls across Europe suggest strongly that the European Union is unlikely to last for much longer in its present form.
These developments are a challenge to the British people to think of their country once again as a “community of fate” and to explore what national identity should mean in the generations to come. After all, Britain existed for some 250 years before the EU, and England for a thousand years before that. In a national history of this length and depth, the decision to leave the EU is only an episode—if a deeply painful one.
Charting a British national identity and role will be of paramount importance to this country but also to Europe—of which we were part before we joined the EU and of which we will remain part. It is in many ways tragic that the idea of a European federal state has failed; but failed it has. We appear to be heading for something closer to Charles de Gaulle’s vision of a L’Europe des patries, co-operative and at peace, but made up of independent states. In such a Europe Britain will still play a vital part, and we need to think how to make it a positive one—especially if the American role in the continent is going to decline steeply.
One of the reasons why it is so important to think of Britain’s (or England’s, if the Scots leave the union) identity as a nation is that in Europe and throughout the world, the future clearly belongs to nations and their supporting nationalisms. It is now obvious that while the threat of war between countries has thankfully been banished in Western Europe at least, and close links have grown up between nations there, the vast majority of Europeans remain loyal to their own nation state.