Friday, 27 April 2012

Crisis of Identity, Loss of Sovereignty...

Periodically, every country goes through a crisis of identity. Demography changes, borders change, internal boundaries change, international relations change - friends become foes and foes friends.

Throughout the chronicle of recorded time countries have expanded, contracted or have, like Poland and Persia, vanished temporarilly or permanently. Historically, mainland Europe has been accustomed to the rise and fall of nations within the contours of its geography. Prague was governed by Vienna, Rome by Paris, and in World War II all four were governed by Berlin. Today, they all are governed by Brussels. Wars and revolutions are volcanoes; in the aftermath the landscape changes, maps have to be changed: Czechoslovakia becomes the Czech Republic, the USSR breaks up into its constituent republics, the United Kingdom becomes a satellite of the European Union.

In my lifetime the EU has had almost as many incarnations as Shakespeare's seven ages of man. In my youth the European Economic Community (EEC) of six nations was scarcely a blip on the horizon of my consciousness. By my thirtieth year in 1979, it had got bigger and much closer. The 1972 European Communities Act had gone through Parliament, our currency had been changed to decimal, elections for the European Parliament were taking place. In my fourty-fourth year the 1993 Maastrict Treaty was ratified and the EEC became the European Community (EC) with fifteen member states and a flag of its own - blue with a gas ring of gold stars that reminded me of Custer's Seventh Cavalry. By then I had visited Brussels and Luxembourg. In my fifty-eighth year the EC became the European Union with twenty-seven member states, seventeen of which had given up their own currency in exchange for the euro. Monetary union was the precursor of the original idea behind the entire enterprise: political union.

Throughout these six decades, an idea has pervaded the political, social and literary culture of this country, the idea of angst. Superficially, this looks like post-war Existential anxiety of the Jean Paul Sartre kind. One of the features of my frenetic youth, before I learned from Christopher Hampton's play Total Eclipse that what was aestetically plausible wasn't necessarily true, was the specious linking of disparate political and social events to cultural phenomena. Thus, Beckett's Waiting for Godot and John Osborne's Look Back in Anger embodied the crisis of national identity that resulted from the loss of empire and Suez. Though which was cause and which was effect had me stumbling over definitions of deductive and inductive reasoning. The literature of pre-revolutionary Russia is ripe with characters worrying about whether they have become "superfluous" - a nineteenth century form of angst.

Who are we, what are we, what is any of it worth, did not originate from the independence of India in 1947 or the invasion of Egypt in 1956. These universal questions have been around at least since the three temptations of Christ - at least Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor thought so (see chapter five of The Brothers Karamazov). Nevertheless, they have been projected as the Questions of Our Time during my brief lifetime. Every so often they break out, red and raw. The recent Channel 4 programme Make Bradford British aroused the irritable rash of identity, once again making perfect strangers red in the face at the thought of all pervasive foreigners, political correctness and red tape. Ambivalent as I am about most things, I felt swayed first one way, then the other, as the debate, largely manufactured by newspapers, raged on.

And then, yesterday, my friend Richard North mailed me a Foreign and Commonwealth Office paper entitled Sovereignty and the European Communities. I was startled. The thrust of what I understood from this 15-page document was that while the nation was getting knotted up over identity a huge amount of national sovereignty has been sheered away from the white cliffs of Dover, deliberately not accidentally. The identity crisis had been a distraction. What had vanished was not the national character. In spite of the creation of a Parliament for Scotland and Assemblies for Wales and Northern Ireland, the old regional rivalries were still apparent. Britain, the United Kingdom, call it what you will, was still a place of faith, hope and charity, in its support of good causes, its dislike of fatalism in response to catastrophe and something a dissident Russian poet once told me she most admired about Britain: "You are not a coward." Gullible, yes,credulous, certainly, piss-taking, abosolutely, lacking in self-confidence, of course, suspicious of seriousness, yes. In Russia, poets are expected to be prophets. In this country they are expected to be light entertainers.

Allow me to quote some extracts from this document.  Note the self-satisfied tenor of the language, which would not be out of place in a script for Yes, Prime Minister:-

We are all deeply conscious through tradition, upbringing and education of the distinctive fact of being British. Given our island position and long territorial and national integrity, the traditional relative freedom from comprehensive foreign, especially European alliances and entanglements, this national consciousness may well be stronger than that of most nations.

When 'sovereignty' is called into question in the debate about entry to the Community, people may feel that it is this 'Britishness' that is at stake. Here Mr Rippon's pointed question "are the French any less French?" for their membership (sic)...

However it is presented, entry to the Community will mean major change. It is natural and inevitable that this should be disliked and resisted by many. Even the 'loss of sovereignty' may be limited to fairly precise areas of Government and Parliamentary powers and be without significance for the lives of most of the country, still the phrase conjures up a spectre of major and uncontrollable change and of adjustments that will have to be made which are deeply disturbing...

...In entry to the Community we may seem to be opting for a system in which bureaucracy will be more remote (as well as largely foreign)...The British have long been accustomed to the belief that we play a major part in ordering the affairs of the world and that in ordering our own affairs we are beholden to none. Much of this is mere illusion. As a middle power we can proceed only by treaty, alliance and compromise. So we are dependent on others both for the effective defence of the United Kingdom and also for the commercial and international financial conditions which govern our own economy...

...Joining the a further large step away from what is thought to be unfettered national freedom and a public acknowledgement of our reduced national power; moreover, joining the Community institutionalises in a single, permanent coalition the necessary process of accommodation and alliance over large areas of policy, domestic as well as external...

...the transfer of major executive responsibilities to the bureaucratic Commission in Brussels will exacerbate popular feeling of alienation from government. To counter this feeling, strengthened local and regional democratic processes within the member states and effective Community regional economic and social policies will be essential...

...The Community, if we are to benefit to the full, will develop wider powers and coordinate and manage policy over wider areas of public business...To control and supervise this process it will be necessary to strengthen the democratic organisation of the Community with consequent decline of the primacy and prestige of the national parliaments.

The task will not be to arrest this process, since to do so would be to put considerations of formal sovereignty before effctive influence and power, but to adopt institutions and policies both in the UK and in Brussels to meet and reduce the real and substantial public anxieties over national identity and alienation from government, fear of change and loss of control over their fate which are aroused by talk of 'loss of sovereignty'. 

This long-sighted paper was written in April 1971, the year before the European and Communities Act. The following was written by Dostoveysky in his aforementioned novel and published in 1879:-

Mankind as a whole has always striven to organise a universal state. There have been many great nations with great histories, but the more highly they were developed the more unhappy they were, for they felt more acutely than other people the craving for world-wide union.

Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor describes how a select group of 100,000 will run the lives of thousands of millions by taking away the anxieties that come with freedom. Ruled by Miracle, Mystery and Authority, the masses will be allowed to work and play and sin, strictly under the controlling guidance of these religious Bolsheviks.

The dictatorship of the proletariat has moved westwards. For the time being at least, for all empires fall eventually, we take our orders from a governing class of federal technocrats. The existential crisis of who we are and what we believe is, like the poor, always with us. The carving away of sovereignty, however you define it in relation to power and authority, is a twentieth century decision. The deliberate and progressive erosion of sovereignty, like gum recession, has weakened the teeth of the British bulldog. No point in seeking assurance from Churchill.


Kolnai said...

It is the superior 'Sir Humphrey' tone of the document which drives one to fury. There is no argument with this Platonic guardian, whose real aims have to be read through a filter. The truth would burn out the eye sockets of us mere mortals, it seems.

We are told it is 'illusory' to imagine we order our own affairs. This, though undoubtedly true in some ways (for example NATO or globalisation) is interpreted as carte blanche for a new social order. His new friends, the continental guardians of 'The Community', will be given full permission to 'develop wider powers and coordinate and manage policy over wider areas of public business'. Don't go getting any funny ideas about decision making, people. That's our job.
Curiously, and at the same time, Sir H. unblushingly admits that public anxiety around control by the faceless and unaccountable is 'real' and 'substantial'. This 'snag' is subtly erased. The promiscuous use of weasel phrases and words like 'belief', 'illusion', 'thought to be' etc.. provides a sneer commentary in the background. Truly the hoi polloi are still trapped within the cave, useless blind creatures of appetite and stupidity.
Darkness falls....

Anonymous said...

Kolnai wrote: "The promiscuous use of weasel phrases and words like 'belief', 'illusion', 'thought to be' etc.. provides a sneer commentary in the background."

If ever you have been on the receiving end of a "Customer Service" department you will recognise the sneering, patronising, phrases calculated to make you go away and do as you are told.