Monday, 11 June 2012

UK Independence: a cautionary tale

If you’re going to be a conservative, you ought at least to know what you’re trying to conserve. So it astonishes me how little people shouting for Britain to leave the European Union seem to know about the context of their views.

Naturally, I want to try to help those poor benighted people out. Above all, I want to help those who might be tempted to support them. So here’s a little fictional dialogue that may make some of the issues clearer.

The setting is Venice in about 1454. A conversation is taking place between a wealthy merchant and member of the Senate, Girolamo, and his son Giovanni.

Giovanni has become worried about the disunity of the Italian states. He has read Dante’s great diatribe against it, ‘Oh, enslaved Italy, hostel to pain, ship without a helmsman in a storm-tossed sea, no lady of provinces but a whorehouse’.

‘He wrote that early last century, but isn’t he right, Dad?’ he asks, ‘aren’t we just a patchwork of little States squabbling with each other while more powerful countries circle round to pick our bones?’

‘Nonsense, son,’ replies Girolamo, ‘Venice is a great power. Our forts and holdings extend through the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. No-one moves there without our permission.’

‘But the French. They’ve become a great nation. They don’t need to trade with us. They can look after themselves.’

‘You’ve not been to France, my boy. When you go you’ll find a country that likes to eat well, and eating well means using all those clever spices. Where do you think they come from?’

‘Spices? Our future depends on spices?’

‘Don’t underestimate the importance of food. We are what we eat. And the French want to eat well. Not a peck of pepper comes in from the Levant without paying dues to us. And there’s a windswept island up north of France where the food’s even worse and they pay even more. We may not have them by the balls but we’ve got them by the stomach, and that’s the route to a man’s wallet.’

‘But... how much control do we still have? Really? I mean, we couldn’t stop the Turk taking Constantinople last year. That’s another one of these big powerful States. What chance has a bunch of little islands in a lagoon against them?’

‘A bunch of little islands?’ Girolamo was getting angry. ‘What about our holdings in Crete? In Greece? all along the Adriatic?’

He was afraid of his father’s reaction but Giovanni couldn’t stop himself blurting out: ‘Well, that’s just it. The Turk’s been taking them, hasn’t he? Fortress by Fortress. How long are we going to be the great power you talk about?’

Seriously put out now, Girolamo raised his voice,‘well, not long if your generation is full of that kind of defeatist talk. I’m sorry to hear it. What we need right now is a people ready to re-establish the greatness of our country, not to run it down. In any case, what would you have us do?’

‘Well, if Italy pulled together we’d be a great power ourselves. As big and richer than France. Perhaps than Turkey.’

‘‘Italy’? ‘Italy?’ What the hell is ‘Italy’? You young idealists. There’s never been an Italy. There’s a Florence, a Milan, a Genoa, a Rome, a Naples. We don’t even speak the same language, for God’s sake.’

‘Well, quite similar languages. I admit Neapolitan’s a bit odd, but it only took me a week in Florence to learn to understand Florentine.’

His father pulled open his money bag and pulled out a coin.

‘What’s that?’

‘Well, it’s a gazzetta. One of our coins.’

‘One of our coins. That’s right. Ours. It isn’t a Milanese marengo. It isn’t a Florentine florin. We have our currency because we’re our own nation. And we’re not giving it up.’

‘I bet the Milanese felt the same about their marengo.’

‘Of course they did. What of it?’

‘They’ve fallen to the French. 
You may have noticed.

‘That’s it. Now you’ve really pissed me off. Get the hell out of here. I’ve got work to do.’

Glorious legacy of Venetian grandeur: the harbour at Ragusa
Today it's called Dubrovnik and belongs to Croatia
Over the rest of the century, the Ottoman Turks drove Venice out of its East Mediterranean holdings. Meanwhile, Portugal led the way around Africa to the Indies, and Spain, while trying to find its own route westward, stumbled into the New World.

Venice became irrelevant as a major power. It remained charming and cultured but became a declining backwater until it fell to the French under Napoleon and then got passed the Austrians. Over four centuries after Girolamo’s time, Venice finally woke up to the fact that it made sense to pull together with the other states of the peninsula and contributed to the formation, at last, of Italy.

So when I hear people demanding Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, I'm reminded of Girolamo and the half-baked arguments he came up with.

Our world, dominated by the United States and China and other huge nations coming up behind, makes me think of Benjamin Franklin: ‘We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.’

Wise words. Addressed to those who wanted to break from Britain. Time Britain took them on board too.


Sere said...

That's a great and still modern story..

David Beeson said...

Thanks - and I think it's time those of us who think this way started to speak up...