Monday, 28 August 2017

Backing Brexit, because I know it makes sense. Or ought to, apparently

Ah, the pride and joy of Britain as a great power
Putting down the Kenya Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s
Normally I don’t get into debates on Twitter – or what passes as debate – but I’m on leave so I felt I could put in half an hour or so yesterday and today.

What was the issue? Well, the one that’s going to dominate British politics for years. As our local MP points out, if he’s lucky enough to be re-elected for the next ten years, his professional life is going to be dominated by Brexit.

So, as you can imagine, it was Brexiters who were – how shall I put this? – a little exasperated with me.

“What an infantile perspective he has.” That was one of the politer comments. Still, note that referring to me in the third person is delightfully dismissive. Seen as witty, too, I expect. In certain quarters.

Slightly less courteous were references such as “…hundreds of people … ripping the piss out of your preposterous assertion... Pompous ass!”

It’s never easy to come up with an effective response to an argument as well constructed and closely reasoned as that.

Some people decided to focus on another major shortcoming of mine.

“…well you are a fiction writer – a bad one at that.”

It had never struck me that my skill as a writer, or lack of it, was going to be an issue in the Brexit process. But, hey, that process has already amazed me repeatedly, so perhaps I should contain my capacity for surprise.

At the crux of the argument, aside from the gentle remarks on my personality, was the proposition that Britain would be better off out of the EU. I suggested that this view was based on the belief that Britain remains a global power which, I pointed out, struck me as illusory. At work, I felt, was nostalgia, a backward-looking sense of greatness, which has little or no contact with current reality.

“We are a global power,” I was told indignantly. “Despite the best attempts of some. Recognising that doesn't involve 'going backwards'.”

Another commentator put up a pair of tables, showing that Britain still accounts for 3.9% of global GDP, and that the country is fifth in spending on defence, making it a major military force too.

On the face of it, this sounds compelling. At least, if you see military might as an essential component of global importance, a proposition I might question if it weren’t a digression from the main point here

In any case, this writer failed to set his claims in historical perspective.

Comparative GDP
As far as GDP is concerned, Britain’s 3.9%, according to my correspondent’s own figures, represents US$2.9 trillion. That compares with the US’s GDP of $18 trillion – over six times more. When Britain was a genuine world power, its GDP was close behind the US’s: in 1890, British GDP was moving towards $250 billion dollars, when in the US it was nearly $350 billion.

Comparative military strength
It’s also telling that, according to my critic’s other table, Britain, still the fifth most powerful military nation, has a total of 205,330 serving in the three branches of the forces – army, navy and air force. Now, when Britain was still clinging on to its status as a leading power, in 1914, it was criticised for the weakness of its army. On the brink of World War 1, the army’s strength was only 733,514.

A weak force and it made for a difficult start in the fighting that engulfed Europe. And yet – it was slightly more than the three and half times more than the total in all three branches today.

Hence my suggestion that aspiring to be a global power is a backward-looking, vain aspiration for Britain. We simply don’t have the economic muscle or, if military strength really is a key factor, the firepower to play that role. Once, maybe, but not now. “We are a global power”? Wake up and smell the cordite.

And that is my quarrel with these people. They’re refusing to wake up to the reality of our real status. We remain a power, but an intermediate one. In the same league as Germany, France or Italy. To be taken seriously, but in no position to dictate terms to great powers.

Not that I regard the situations as anything to regret. I don’t want to go back to Britain as a world power. When it was, it chalked up a string of horrors: genocide of the aboriginal population of Australia, the cruel putting down of the Indian ‘mutiny’ (in reality, an uprising against a colonial presence that had no right to be installed there), the Amritsar massacre, the hunting of insurgents in Malaya or Kenya or Cameroon – the list goes on and on. Indeed, the British Empire provided the first trial of an innovation that marked the twentieth century: concentration camps used against its Boer adversaries – civilians and not just fighters – in South Africa. Torture, of course, was commonplace across the Empire.

No, I want those things behind us. I’d like us to recognise that they already are. I’d like us to come to the realisation, as Germany, France and Italy have, that we are now intermediate powers. Alone, we’ll be pushed around by the US, China, Russia, Japan and others who may well grant us free trade deals, but on terms we’re not going to like. Together, on the other hand, in the European Union, we, Germany, France, Italy and 24 other countries can truly influence the way the world travels.

That’s why I feel the Brexiters are missing the point. They’re grasping at a mirage. And missing the real opportunity in front of us.

But, hey, who am I to have a view? It seems that “the arrogance of [my] position is breathtaking. And hilariously stupid”. The hilariously stupid should, presumably, just shut up and let others do the talking.

Which is what I’m going to do now.

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