Poets, princes and an island apartby Various / November 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
To many who voted “Remain” in June, the Leavers’ insistence on English exceptionalism was chauvinistic, deluded and—worst of all—alien to Britain’s outward-looking tradition. The truth, however, is that the tales we tell ourselves about “the kind of country we are” are never the whole story. To see that it is necessary only to reflect on the very disparate real individuals, from Henry VIII to John Maynard Keynes, who have shaped British history.
With nations—as with individuals—there are always different aspects of character, tugging against one another. The most extrovert of us can take an introvert turn when an awkward social event crops up in the diary. Likewise countries vary between moods where they are excited by the possibilities of the world, and times where their only wish is to stay in and bolt the door. If you doubt it, just look at the US. As Martin Woollacott sets out in in December’s Prospect, if the arrival of President-Elect Trump has stunned the planet, that is because the world does not know its American history. Sure, the reigning assumption since the Second World War has been that the US will make the problems of far-flung places its business. But this internationalism has always contested with a rival, insular tradition that puts “America first,” the tradition which—when you take the long view—has been dominant over most of the lifetime of the Republic. Trump’s isolationism, his penchant for tariffs and walls are not so much shockingly new, as shockingly old.
And so to Brexit. It is well familiar that Europe has divided both of the UK’s major political parties like no other issue since the 1960s. But what if you go further back? We’ve asked leading authorities on 14 poets, princes and other great Britons to tell us whether they would have voted “Remain” or “Leave” this year. I tally up seven “Remainers, several of them grudging, four out-and-out Brexiteers, and another three who might be inclined to side with the Outers, depending on circumstances. The nation, in other words, has been split down the middle over Europe since the Tudor origins of its modern state. Besides—and whether or not you buy that conclusion—don’t you want to know what George Orwell would have done?