09 December 2019, The Tablet

Does Boudicca hold the clue to our Brexit conundrum?

It is a curious fact that large numbers of people would rather be badly run by those like themselves than better run by outsiders.

Does Boudicca hold the clue to our Brexit conundrum?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds up a banner with the words 'Get Brexit Done' during a visit to the John Smedley Mill, while election campaigning in Matlock, Derbyshire.
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

The current consensus seems to be that the outcome of the general election on Thursday lies mainly in the hands of working-class voters in the Midlands and North of England, a sufficient number of whom may be prepared to vote for Boris Johnson because they want to "get Brexit done". They will have voted Leave in the 2016 referendum and still regard that result as binding. They are not natural Tory voters, and without the Brexit issue might well have stayed loyal to the Labour Party despite their doubts about Jeremy Corbyn's competence and personality.

Most commentators on the Left have found them baffling, not least because Brexit represents a credible threat to their jobs and interests. Are they racists, xenophobes, nationalists and Little Englanders; or are they just gullible? I think the answer is none of the above. There is a respectable case for what they believe – indeed not just respectable, but familiar.

If I had to spell out the case for Brexit, I would start with the Grimsby pro-Brexit fishwife who declared on camera: "We just don't want to be bossed around by no bloody foreigners." We can disagree whether that is an accurate perception of what the European Union is about, and indeed about her grammar, but that is her perception of it. And she is entitled to it.

Doesn't her cry from the heart echo down the centuries? Wasn't it that which motivated the Iceni to rise up under Queen Boudicca against the Romans? Or Hereward the Wake against the Normans and Robert the Bruce against the English? They didn't want to be "bossed around by no bloody foreigners", and were willing to pay a great price to avoid it. The regime they were rebelling against wasn't obviously worse than the regime with which they wished to replace it. Such regimes, new ones and old ones, native ones and foreign ones, are ruled by terror rather than consent. But being beheaded by someone of one's own kind was somehow infinitely better than being beheaded by the agent of a foreign power.

It is a curious fact of human nature, to which the postwar dismantling of the British Empire bears witness, that large numbers of people would rather be badly run by those like themselves than better run by outsiders, people different from them. The British Colonial Office did a much better job of governing Uganda than Idi Amin, for instance, and similar examples can be readily identified. The cry of "Freedom!" is not necessarily a cry to be delivered from oppression but from government by foreigners, even if they are relatively benign. And even if that government is in fact well rooted in the local community, as was usually the case with British colonial rule.

Thus working class people thinking of voting for Boris Johnson are expressing a preference to be governed by a privileged public-school-educated elite with which they have very little in common except for not being foreign. But we dismiss this irrational visceral emotion at our peril. It is often what drives nationalisms everywhere, from the "no taxation without representation" of the American Revolution to the "Scottish laws for Scottish people" of the SNP today, even if some English laws might be actually better than their Scottish equivalents. And as I said, it was what has dissolved colonial empires across the world.

This drive, this instinct, is one of the major shapers of human history. Neither Marxism nor free market economics has anything remotely as powerful behind it. Because it is essentially an emotion, it is not easily confronted by rational or factual argument. "Confirmation bias" works continuously in the background in its favour. It is only racist in the sense that the British desire not to be governed by the Germans in 1940 was racist, or by the French in 1805 or by the Spanish in 1588. There were good reasons for that resistance, but patriotism (if that is the right word for what we are dealing with) was an even stronger motive than any rational argument. Whipped up by Thomas Cromwell, it was undoubtedly a factor in the English Reformation.

I do not believe that the European Union is in any sense an oppressor or a threat to English liberty, but represents a sensible sharing of sovereignty by a group of equal nation states, to their great advantage. But British participation hasn't escaped from being represented as "being bossed around by foreigners". The right-wing and partly foreign-owned tabloid media in Britain has found that numbers of the public are ready and willing to be persuaded, perhaps on quite slender evidence, that that is the case. But the evidence of a British (ie foreign) willingness to boss around the American colonists in the run up to 1776 was quite slender too. That, and some fervent agitation by the mass media of the day, was all it took.

Boudicca still lurks in the English collective subconscious like William Wallace lurks in the Scottish one. "Free us from foreign control so we may enslave ourselves and each other" is an unlikely battle cry. It is a primal desire to make our own mistakes, and not suffer from those made by people who are outside our own national community. This is the great Brexit conundrum. So far the EU hasn't cracked it, and maybe never will.


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