The UK cannot move for embarrassment
Rafael Behr had a rather interesting wee article in The Guardian recently, but I fear many might have ignored it because it appeared to be mainly about the new Dunkirk film. However, if you ignore those bits, it’s actually about how the UK collectively feels its was embarrassing to join the EEC (as the EU was called back then), and how all outcomes of Brexit are likely to feel humiliating, too:
Embarrassment is underrated as an engine of history, maybe because it is embarrassing to admit it as an individual motive. […] Humiliation corrodes the soul of nations. […]
[It] was at a moment of underachievement that Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973. The empire was lost. West German industry had been rebuilt to a higher spec than its British rivals. Ungrateful France did not repay its liberators with humility. De Gaulle had vetoed British entry a decade earlier. The doors to the club were opened not on demand but after supplication. The seeds of Brexit were thus sown with the foundations of EU membership. It was, at some level, embarrassing to be joining through dread of decline. […]
And in psychoanalytic terms, shame is a kind of violent impulse directed inwards. Brexit, in this conception, is not a rational expression of cost-benefit equations based on considerations of trade. It is self-harm, born of a neurotic urge to expiate an imaginary guilt: the sin of having been obliged to join the enterprise in the first place. I fear we are about to rehearse the cycle of shame and resentment all over again. There are two routes ahead, neither free of humiliation. The enactment of Brexit will complete an economic, diplomatic and strategic devaluation that is prefigured already in sterling’s post-referendum slide. Britain will be measurably smaller on the world stage. The reversal of Brexit, or its dilution into some pale simulation of the status quo, requires a plea in Brussels for more time and a fresh start. That will be hard to distinguish from a grovel. Either way, there is disappointment in store for many leave voters who anticipate a national renaissance. If they don’t get Brexit, their democratic will is denied; if they do, and it makes them poorer, their faith is betrayed. Each path risks incubating more bitterness.
This might explain why most Scots don’t suffer from the same negative feelings towards the EU as many people south of the border – you would need to identify strongly with Britain to feel the humiliation, rather than seeing the UK as a marriage of convenience.
It also provides us with a novel reason for breaking up the UK and letting the nations of these isles regain their independence: If British history has become so painful to deal with that the country needs to lie on the national equivalent of a psychologist’s couch for several decades, perhaps it would be much easier to start with an almost blank slate?
England would probably – just like Scotland and Wales – find it much easier to deal with other countries (including the EU) in a rational and constructive manner if the blame for some of the most painful memories of the past could be blamed on an imperialist UK that had been confined to the history books.
Even Brexit itself could be dismissed as one of the last idiotic acts of the UK, and England, Scotland and Wales could then join the EU as full members without needing all the opt-outs that past humiliations made necessary for the UK (and Ireland could finally reunify peacefully because there would be no Union for the Unionists to cling to).