Monday, July 4, 2016

Is Britain an island...or a lake?

It is a holiday in the United States today, so I'm making an effort to write something of interest to my non-U.S. readers. But rather than targeting India as I did on U.S. Memorial Day, it's fitting to look at something that is affecting the United Kingdom - and the rest of the world.

And yes, I know that I already looked at Brexit, but I'm going to look at it from a different perspective.

I took a college course on British history in the early 1980s. One of the first things that we learned in that course is that Britain is an island. It sounds like a throwaway statement - Clifford is a big red dog, Joan Jett loves rock and roll, Britain is an island. However, those four words hold great significance. Or held great significance, since there is a raging argument over whether Britain is still an island.

Back on May 13, when the failure of Brexit was a possibility, historian Peter Ghosh advanced the idea that Britain was no longer an island. Certainly at one time it was an island - not only with geographic isolation, but with a parliamentary system that was dramatically different than those political systems prevalent on the Continent.

There was no despotism in 18th-century Britain; no revolution after 1789; and no dictatorship in the 20th century. There was instead a uniquely successful combination of liberty and order. And if this was not enough, there was also a unique prosperity. The nation of shopkeepers despised by Napoleon was the most affluent in Europe.

But by World War I, and certainly by World War II, the British system was not enough to protect it, and the Americans and Soviets had to help out. Ghosh argues that today's world is global, and that even the Victorian world was global. The British have second homes on the Continent, and actually choose to do so. Ghosh concludes:

We have to decide what form of regional and global connections we want today, unless we wish to be little Englanders. But anyone who thinks like this should remember that even in Victorian Britain, “little Englander” was a term of abuse. The most important contribution history can make is what any teacher tries to achieve through historical education: that is, training the eye to look at big issues with a cool, sober, and well informed gaze.

As I mentioned, Ghosh wrote this in May. By June, a majority of UK voters had endorsed Brexit. While it is uncertain what the future holds, it is apparent that one of the factors in the endorsement of Brexit was the desire to keep refugees out of Britain, and that at least some Brexit supporters were willing to risk a political and economic divorce from the Continent in order to keep the foreigners on their side of the English Channel.

In the worst case scenario, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, but will NOT be able to negotiate any special (Nordic, Swiss, or whatever) access to the countries within the Union. British working abroad will need to get special visas, and foreigners (including a Frenchwoman that I know) who are working in Britain will have to do the same.

Ironically, this means that the United Kingdom - whose national interests in the 19th century clearly put it in the free trade camp - would have to deal with trade restrictions when dealing with countries just across the Channel - or, in the case of Ireland, right across a land border.

Could the island become a lake - a lake in which the British economy will drown?

Time will tell.
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