L-R: Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Daniel Hannan

Britain's new Gaullists

The Brexit bunch would shudder to admit it—but they are following a decidedly French script
September 14, 2017

The schisms within the burgeoning ranks of British nationalists can be baffling for outsiders. Earlier in the summer, however, two flag-waving factions went into open confrontation over the unlikely question of chlorinated chicken. In the distant event of a British trade deal with the United States, Britain would have to submit to a new regulation for treating the meat, which may result in chlorination. Liam Fox—a reflexive, US-good-Brussels-bad Thatcherite of the old school—insisted that this would be necessary. Another, Michael Gove, a nationalist of an altogether more reflective and romantic stripe, insisted that it would not. Gove is reliably eloquent, but I suspect it is Fox who has the sounder grasp of how power and sovereignty will actually work after Brexit. You can tell yourself you are voting for freedom, sovereignty and independence, but you can’t even bank on taking back control of your own dead chickens.

The argument about Britain’s role in Europe has always been conducted in terms of splendid superiority, but now that the vote to leave has been achieved, it is time to survey the new national story. That last word really is the mot juste, because the leading advocates and chief architects of Britain’s departure from the EU—Gove, Boris Johnson, David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Daniel Hannan—between them are drawing on a conception of the nation in which the dormant spirit of liberty is being reborn. This is not the chauvinistic nationalism of the BNP or the less appetising parts of Ukip. This is a nostalgic yearning for a Britain of recovered glory. It is British Gaullism.

The British memory of Charles de Gaulle’s nationalism is dominated by the defiant wartime broadcasts that allowed him to claim the leadership of a Free France that was, at the time, more of a hope than a reality. But France eventually recovered, and de Gaulle’s patriotism was no small part of the reason why. Gaullism in France was a state of defiance for which a good historical defence can be mounted, given the times and the egregious nature of the enemies. It is true that de Gaulle sulked his way through the Fourth Republic but his reason for doing so was essentially patriotic: he believed its architects had sold the country short. He then rewrote the French constitution at the peak of the Algerian crisis but then, again justified by pragmatic patriotism, let Algeria go. In the name of the same conception of la gloire, de Gaulle drove his partners in the European Economic Community (EEC) to distraction.

His splendid concentration on the supremacy of French interests found its most irascible expression, at least for the British, when he wielded his veto at two prime ministers seeking EEC entry, threw Nato out of Paris, and insisted on a nuclear defence that pointed in “all directions.” Throughout, there were hints that this version of France, in which a strong military man commanded a single definition of the nation through a strong and efficient state, was unsustainable. “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” as de Gaulle himself once despairingly asked. Part of his own answer was to bring the central state’s power to bear in all sorts of corners of industry and day-to-day economic life.

De Gaulle’s almost excessive patriotism was the thread that tied together his career, and this is the thread that brings together the most prominent Brexiteers too. It is always something that has a darker shadow, and there were occasional hints at where the feeling might head if it were to be deployed by a less savoury movement, such as the later Front National. But, so long as de Gaulle was in situ, he was able to express a faith in the efficacy and nobility of France, which was crucial after the humiliations of the war.

Even so, some of the Brexiteers will resist the comparison. Hannan is, in his more romantic moments, a Victorian whig of a touchingly optimistic kind. He also has many classical liberal instincts, as does Johnson. In domestic public policy, these right-of-centre Brexiteers are deeply sceptical of the efficacy of state action; it is only the EU that turns them into unapologetic Gaullists. Suddenly, confronted with overwhelmingly the most difficult administrative problem the British state has ever been lumbered with, the British Gaullists become optimistic to the point of cavalier about the capacity of the state. This is Great Britain, and we can do as we wish. With the zeal of the convert, these new dirigistes suddenly regard the government as entirely capable of replacing four decades of European economic, social and environmental regulation without difficulty or hiccup. Such is their uncharacteristic faith in the benign hand of Whitehall that, through the Repeal Bill process, they are even prepared to put all power in the hands of ministers and bureaucrats to make regulations by edict, without the scrutiny of parliamentary legislation.

De Gaulle truly believed in his own precepts. The British Gaullists only half believe in theirs. They tend to believe that states are inherently weak yet the EU, despite being held back by the attempt to co-ordinate its 28 (or soon 27) members, is somehow capable of transforming itself into a super-state. They trumpet the virtues of their liberated Britannia but, at the same time, they know in their hearts the British state will struggle with the process of leaving neatly. Hence we are subjected to the rather pathetic spectacle of leading writers on Brexit getting annoyed that, though the end is correct, the government is making a mess of the process. This is the right’s equivalent of the left’s claim that socialism has never been properly tried. Why all the contradictions? Because nationalism is trumping everything else, and blinding them to the nature of the reality they have let themselves in for.

*** The first use of the word nationalism can be traced to the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. In 1774, Herder invented the category of radical patriotism. The best British account is to be found in the work of Edmund Burke whose speech to the electors of Bristol in November 1774 is famous for the distinction drawn between the representative acting according to noble conscience, and a mere delegate slavishly doing as bid by the voters. Strangely enough, however, the new nationalists are no longer loyal to this part of the national inheritance: they tend to regard the referendum result as a sacrosanct gift to a delegated nation. They are not very happy, all of a sudden, about MPs coming over all sovereign, acting as representatives of “the nation” and interpreting, according to conscience, the instruction of the electorate. The more excitable among them hyperventilated wildly when the Supreme Court ruled that parliament remained in charge, and there would be no Brexit without its say-so. Nigel Farage (who is admittedly, strictly speaking, probably more of a Poujadiste than a Gaullist in French terms) has talked explicitly of the sovereignty of “the people” trumping fusty notions of the sovereignty of parliament.

None of that sounds “very British” to anyone who knows Britain’s political history. But if Gaullism is pursued too far, this is where it inevitably ends up. De Gaulle himself had a precarious relationship with representative democracy. His belief in a unified national interest was so close to mystical that, if only the perfect clerisy could be found to interpret it, then the need for conventional politics and parties might be suspended. That national interest was embodied in the office of the president which is why de Gaulle pushed to have the president directly elected, a change he forced through by way of a referendum. It is not much of a journey from Gaullism to Bonapartism.

For the moment, though, the imagined British national story remains a magnificent epic about liberty which began with the glorious revolution, was latterly rudely interrupted by joining the EU, but can now be resumed. On his arrival in Bristol to contest the election of 1774, Burke gave an introductory speech that articulates even better than his famous victory speech the exceptional philosophy of the British Gaullists: “I am not, I hope, apt to take up or lay down my opinions lightly. I have held, and shall maintain, to the best of my power, unimpaired and undiminished, the just, wise, and necessary constitutional superiority of Great Britain.” Burke’s account of English liberty (it is English, really, rather than British) begins with the accusation that the government was corrupt and that the balance between the king, the Lords and the Commons had been subverted. Substitute the European bureaucracy and the power-grabbing of the federalist political class and you have the exact accusation from the Brexit gang. The original 18th-century patriot believed that liberty had been preserved by the ancient constitution, whatever that was. There is more than an echo of this argument in the stunningly fatuous Brexiteer claim that we are now recovering the rightful freedom temporarily and shamefully surrendered to Europe. This attitude leads neatly to the 18th-century view that England, the birthplace of liberty, was an elect nation. When Davis, the Brexit Secretary, points out that trade deals will be easy because even foreigners will understand that co-operation is self-evidently in their interests, his magnificent complacency recalls this attitude. It remains to be seen whether the countries of the Commonwealth, as well as the Americans, will come running at the sight of Fox appearing over the hill.

This implied nation after Brexit is not a real country. It is forged in the imagination, through myth and argument. That is not so unusual: myth is always a major ingredient in any nation that takes itself seriously, as de Gaulle’s intermittently mystical pronouncements showed. Indeed, the root of the word nation is natio, meaning to be born, implying there was a time when it didn’t exist. The physical boundaries of the nation are always contested, and so are the invisible borders of power. This is exactly what the dispute over Europe is all about.

The boundaries of France have always been fluid, and the attempt to manufacture an identity especially deliberate. First Louis XIV and then the Revolutionaries of 1789 trampled on local customs, dialects and other markers of difference, a manifestation of the same neurosis that would later plague de Gaulle.

As Brexit veers towards administrative chaos, the fetishes of the British Gaullists are making a mess of their real country. The referendum bequeathed to them an intractable tangle of identities, problems and putative desires. There was a clear sense of dissatisfaction at the political class. The earlier referendum in Scotland revealed a distinct national consciousness there, allied to a rejection of the old elite. No wonder the Brexiteers feel a pressing need to forge an identity to suit.

In defiance of the simplifying comfort of our “island story” this is a uniquely complicated endeavour. The British state is a labyrinth which does not map onto a single nation. A mongrel identity has to encompass its constituencies of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, itself split into two nations. So the UK state is not restricted to one island at all, although in talking of “Britain” most of its subjects, most of the time, are happy to casually disregard Northern Ireland. Then there are the three Crown Dependencies: the Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey in the Channel Islands which are not, in fact, part of the UK but are defended by it. The Isle of Man might be attractive to the Brexit bunch. It has never been a member of the EU although it did gain access to the customs area when the UK acceded, enjoying all the free trade Brexiteers appear to want. With apologies to the Manx people, Johnson and Hannan should move there at once.

Salvaging an identity out of all these various nations, islands and bailiwicks is not easy. It is hard to find any activity, attitude or event that is distinctively British, which cannot be further broken down into English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. Most of the culture attributed to Britain is better described as English. The best illustration is, to paraphrase Norman Tebbit, the test of sporting allegiance. The teams we are supposed to cheer for change with the game. The football teams are resolutely national. The rugby union teams are national, too, with the exception of the united Ireland team. However, they come together as the British and Irish Lions to tour the southern hemisphere. Team GB goes to the Olympics. The Scottish, Welsh and Irish play for England at cricket.

A viable nationalism is therefore tough enough before we even consider the realities of power. The British Gaullists talk of reclaiming some forgotten ideal of self-government, or—in the confused buzzword they fancy connects them to the people in some mysterious way—“sovereignty.” When any power is vested in the European Commission, the European Parliament and the jurisdictions of the European Court of Justice, then the British parliament and the British Supreme Court are not sovereign.

*** As a description of how power actually operates between complex states, this legalistic waffle is so far from useful as to be intellectually childish. Nations which trade, for example, do deals with each other (as Davis and Fox assure us we will soon do all over the world) to enhance mutual prosperity. This involves submitting to an independent arbiter on contracts. Whether that arbiter is the World Trade Organisation or the EU or a bilateral agreement, one signatory to the deal has no sovereign right to disregard it. For the purposes of the contract, sovereignty is pooled. The same principle applies, of course, in every military treaty which Britain has signed. But when it comes to security, the British cease to be Gaullists. None of them display de Gaulle’s allergy to Nato, for example. They see the point that security is enhanced when it is collectively arranged, which makes a philosophical mockery of everything else they think.

Power in the world is not exhausted by notional legal sovereignty; what matters is whether, as a matter of fact, control actually exists. It can be entirely sensible, in order to maximise control, to cede some sovereignty. Power is not like an apple which is reduced by being sliced. Like noble sentiments, power can multiply when it is shared. The Brexiteers are blind to this truth, or indeed the equally plain sharing of sovereignty with the Scottish parliament and the devolved assemblies. They are purists, unable to countenance the ragged compromises of the real political world. It is hard to recall a more insultingly stupid or stunningly fatuous notion than the repeated claim of the British Gaullists that Britain was not really an independent nation before 23rd June 2016.

One must assume that the British Gaullists are merely playing stupid. For they make eloquent play with all these arguments when defending the union of Great Britain, but in 2014 when Scotland was considering going it alone, to a man, they rallied to defend that great exercise in pooled sovereignty which is the 1707 Acts of Union. Scotland and England both retained aspects of their command over governance and legal, religious and educational systems. Unless the Brexiteers deny that Scotland is a nation, which they certainly don’t openly do, then they accept that its sovereignty can be pooled. Yet this is precisely what they deny with respect to Britain within the EU. The passions of nationalism can make fools of some otherwise rational people.

Since its formation as a fully-fledged doctrine in the emerging nations of the 19th century, nationalism has always shown a Janus face. The nasty side was defined to prohibit uninvited elements from the nation. The atavistic impulse of the nationalist was present in the referendum: Farage stood in front of a poster which threatened that millions of immigrants were on their way. In all the data about the vote, immigration figured highly, and surely was the one practical thing that many voters hoped would be gripped when the advertised abstraction of “control” was taken back.

But this was not the preoccupation of most British Gaullists. Indeed, it is pathetic how many of them are fugitives from the victory they actually won. They see their new nationalism as pure and good, something that couldn’t possibly be predicated on anti-immigrant sentiment. There is something other-worldly about their denial, as there is something other-worldly about the chief advocates. Rees-Mogg has stepped out of the 18th-century remake of The Code of the Woosters, while Hannan has the constant tra-la-la effusiveness of a man forever on his way home from choral evensong at an Oxford college. There is a sense from all of them of living out a caricature. None of them thinks they have signed up for the narrow version of nationalism written in blood.

Instead the British Gaullists emphasise nationalism’s second aspect as the impulse for liberation from an oppressor, an ideology of release. The more usual context here is colonial, or involves outright occupation. From Greek and Latin American independence wars up to the struggles in Indo-China and Eastern Europe, nationalism appears as part of the pageant of progress. Strange as it may seem, this is the beating heart of British Gaullism. Its advocates think Britain is about to emerge blinking into the light of freedom. In his comic masterpiece What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit, Hannan writes that as the door out of Europe gradually creeps ajar: “A rectangle of light dazzles us and, as our eyes adjust, we see a summer meadow. Swallows swoop against the blue sky. We hear the gurgling of a little brook. Now to stride into the sunlight.” In Europe it was cold and wintry, the sky was birdless and brooks did not gurgle. The retreat into a metaphor of landscape is telling. It is freedom and it is an English freedom.

*** On 22nd March 1775 Burke gave a speech in the Commons on reconciliation with America. He reminded the House that most Americans were of the same stock as its members, and thus unlikely to back down: “the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen... They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles. The people are Protestants... a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it... My hold of the colonies is in the close affection which grows from common names, from kindred blood, from similar privileges, and equal protection. These are ties which, though light as air, are as strong as links of iron… As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you… Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain, they may have it from Prussia…” They have it, a Gove or a Johnson could continue, at the European Commission in the Berlaymont building in Brussels, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg and at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The thinking behind this spirit of English liberty is grand and sweeping. It is why the British Gaullists mean it when they say they want Britain to be confident and open to the world. They mean it like Joseph Chamberlain meant it in 1903 when he said that he believed in empire but he did not believe in a Little England. Only there is no empire any more, and neither is there any viable future for the British Commonwealth, which remains a staple of every anti-European speech, from Winston Churchill through to Hugh Gaitskell and now, without any conviction, Theresa May.

When Burke took exception to the resort, by Lord North’s administration, to the use of military force in the American colonies he noted, with some regret, what he thought was a change in the English national character: “As to the good people of England, they seem to partake every day more and more of the character of that administration which they have been induced to tolerate. I am satisfied, that within a few years there has been a great change in the national character. We seem no longer that eager, inquisitive, jealous, fiery people, which we have been formerly.”

The new nationalists imagine that the eager, inquisitive people are now back. How strange to think they have been harbouring, for 40 years, the notion that they did not live in a free nation. “There are,” wrote Salman Rushdie in his novel Shame, “two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space.” Not that any nationalist ever feels anything so self-critical as shame, even if the project that has inspired their patriotism falls apart in their hands.

If you are possessed of the idea that Britain’s departure from the EU is the recovery of its ancient liberty then it simply cannot go wrong. To think that it could would be a category error. There is no price measured in GDP that is not worth paying for national liberty. It is always easier, too, when someone else is paying the price for your physic benefit. It’s a fictional country they are making, and—for the moment—it is where the rest of us live.