Brexit, bulldogs and self-congratulatory illusion

By Jill Segger
May 30, 2016

When our hereditary head of state opened parliament 12 days ago, she arrived in a gilded horse-drawn coach built in 1852 and was escorted by soldiers dressed in 19th century uniforms. The speech which she was required to deliver by a government anxious to emphasise its technological cutting edge credentials contained plans for driverless cars and a UK space-port. The incongruity has received little comment.

Britain's preoccupation with 'tradition' – which in reality often dates from fairly recent history – is not unique. Many countries treasure a romantic notion of themselves and of their perceived national characteristics. This may be comical on occasion, but it also has the potential to deform national behaviour.

These national rosy views have gained much currency through the cinema. The United States' vision of itself owes much to the Hollywood depiction of the the intrepid pioneer – rifle in one hand and bible in the other – and of the GI atop his tank, bringing freedom and democracy to downtrodden people.

While both these archetypes represent qualities of resilience and courage which should be respected, they also mask a less admirable reality. The pioneer, carving out a homestead for himself and his family often did so at the expense of the First Nation peoples of America. The warriors of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave do not always seem to notice the sullen, broken and traumatised people who observe their triumphant progresses, so wedded are they to images of pretty girls tossing roses onto their armoured vehicles and blowing grateful kisses to their 'liberators'.

War and armed conflict have been the originators of self-congratulatory illusion on this side of the Atlantic too. The 'Dunkirk spirit' and the associated concept of a small, valiant nation standing alone are part of our country's historic response to a desperate and dangerous situation. While this should never be forgotten, it is unwise to take it as an unexamined exemplar of how we should think and act in the very different conditions of 21st century Europe.

These events from almost 80 years ago, although they have inevitably influenced our thinking, cannot be permitted to define us forever. That narrow stretch of water which separated us from the experience of mainland Europe in the time of Nazi ascendency, has no military significance today. Only reflect on yesterday's (29 May 2016) images of the German Chancellor and French President laying a wreath together to mark the centenary of Verdun. This is the reality of modern Europe, a continent where old emnities have been laid to rest, a continent where we may rejoice in our common heritage. Bach, Zola and Van Gogh are part of my birthright as are Elgar, Dickens and Turner. My spiritual life owes as much to Martin Luther and Francis of Assisi as it does to George Fox. My generation welcomes a far freer and more accessible exchange of experience, work, culture and language than was once possible. The generation younger than me have never known anything different and in these things are the seeds of peace.

To persist in stereotyping and to remain stubborn in a 'contra mundum' mindset is to refuse change, development or growth. It is a self-inflicted imprisonment, obdurate isolationism being limited in both shelf-life and appeal, however much temporary reinforcement it may offer to the fixing of blinkers. The anti-EU billboards which have appeared along the M40 announcing 'Halt ze German advance' – although disowned by the Vote Leave campaign – are a sorry example of this Dad's Army tendency and are an insult not only to mainland Europe but to our own identity as Europeans.

The European Union is far from perfect. As with all institutions, it requires vigilance and periodic reform. But the instinctive 'right little, tight little island' model which has been embraced and exploited by some Brexiters whose cultural frame of reference is not naturally that of the inward looking and self-congratulatory xenophobe, could truly be said to be a trahison des clercs – even the Reformation has been co-opted to the spirit of Leave. If we are to choose well – and, despite the venomous absurdities being peddled by some on both sides – there are honourable opposing views, we have to step away from a readiness to indulge in emotional spasms based on a skewed reading of history.

Writing of patriotism and the 'bulldog spirit' in 1940, George Orwell observed that the bulldog is "an animal noted for its obstinacy, ugliness and stupidity". He also reflected – in words which were probably even less popular then then they are now – that the English shared "an unconscious patriotism and an inability to think logically".

It's time for change.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Further resources from Ekklesia on the EU referendum: *What kind of European future? (Ekklesia, 13 June 2016) – http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/23160
* Assessing Christian contributions to the EU referendum debate (Ekklesia, 20 June 2016) – http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/23188* Ten principles to guide voting in the EU referendum and beyond (Ekklesia, 21 June 2016) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/23194
* Ekklesia’s EU referendum briefing and commentary: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/eureferendum

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.