Not only did Britain vote to leave Europe: it seems we can’t even negotiate with it. We seem overconfident that we can push our weight around and get what we want, while unable to take other Europeans seriously.
Why? Do we really think the British are so superior to everyone else? Or is it just the English? Is England revealing its cultural failings?
The history I remember from my school lessons was mainly about England and its wars. The moral of each story was: we won. Winning, colonising, imposing your rule on foreigners, was a good thing.
Even if you don’t buy into that, those who inherit an empire have to do something with it. If you are going to retain it in any form at all, you have to convince yourself that ‘we’ are superior. So far superior that foreigners are better off ruled by us than left to their own devices.
Hence the popularity of racist theory at the height of the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Killing them off and colonising their land makes the world a better place.
The idea of evolution helped. By the end of the nineteenth century many European intellectuals, especially in Britain, believed that their own race had evolved further than other races. Killing off the others speeded up evolutionary progress. Ideas like this can survive long after scientific support collapses.
Of course England is not the only country to have had an empire. France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Italy also had them. But they also felt what it was like to be occupied, either during the Second World War or after it. To some of the English, on the other hand, the imperial dream is revived by telling how Britain once stood alone against Hitler.
The idea of being different, and better than everyone else, still survives. I don’t want to exaggerate it, but imperialism has bequeathed a residual English exceptionalism bearing no relation to what England is actually like.
Born to rule
It is maintained most strongly in our public schools, where many government ministers spent their teenage years.
I was sent to one. There, I learned that ‘we’ were destined to rule. I was reminded of this many times while David Cameron was Prime Minister, with his governments packed with Eton boys.
I don’t know what it’s like in girls’ public schools. I only know about the boys. Deprived of a given role in their own family, and instead surrounded by boys around their own age, they have to carve out an identity for themselves. Where everybody is supposed to have been born to lead, not everybody can be a leader. What I learned was to run away – and suffer the consequences when I didn’t run fast enough. The various identities are designed to avoid that fate. Some become alpha males. I think of David Cameron as one of them. Others establish different roles. To me Michael Gove characterises the classic nerd, never popular but useful because he knows things, and Boris Johnson became the joker. These are classic roles, established in the intense competitiveness of common room and dormitory. When Vince Cable described their behaviour as ‘dormitory pillow fights’ he understood why government ministers behave the way they do.
More serious than pillow fights, and still sometimes taken seriously, is the idea that ‘The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton’. Attributed to the Duke of Wellington, probably erroneously, this proposal expresses an attitude that is still all too prevalent among the governing classes.
What happens on the playing field is that some quick, unimportant process allocates you to one team or the other. Then you strain every sinew for your team to win. You put all your effort into a victory that achieves nothing at all, except for the reputations of the players. Hence the need for trophies.
Apply these values to running a country or empire, and the dangers are obvious. The winners get the trophies. What happens to the losers is of no interest to anyone except themselves. The whole project has no purpose except to be competitive. Whoever we are competing against become ‘the enemy’. This may be harmless enough on the playing field, but when transferred to government it needs greater justification. Stories need to be told about how evil the enemy are. Donald Trump depicts North Korea and Iran as evil. Philip Hammond’s unfortunate description of the EU as the enemy, though quickly taken back, probably opens a window onto the way Brexit is being discussed in high places.
The effect is a hierarchical, top-down, unequal society where the organs of communication are full of celebrity gossip about the winners and rarely mention the losers. This is Britain today.
There is an alternative
There is nothing new about this kind of hierarchical, competitive imperialism. Biblical scholars have shown how the ancient near east was mostly governed by competitive imperialists.
It is therefore all the more significant that the Bible offers an alternative. Jewish history, written by losers rather than winners, managed to record the perspective of those at the bottom of the heap.
From their perspective, there is more to life than winning. Instead of killing each other we could live together in peace and harmony. They taught that the human race had been created for this purpose.
To achieve it, they said, was shalom. Shalom is usually translated ‘peace’, but it means more than this. It also means fulfilment, everything being in harmony, the way it should be.
Given the state of politics today, it is not surprising that the English language doesn’t have an equivalent word. We are governed by people who are too hierarchical, too competitive, too imperialistic, to imagine a world where, instead of competing against opponents, we cooperate with colleagues.