16 April 2005

Fog in Channel - Continent Cut Off

I found yesterday's test a little tricky, mainly because I tried to do it as a British subject, rather than an Irish citizen (albeit one of half-English blood) who happens to live here. It seems to me that in voting next month I ought to cast my ballot as though I were planning on living here in, say, six months time, rather than going home.

So, why did I assume I'd wind up backing the Liberal Democrats? In a word: Europe.

Yeah, I know things are looking messy on the European front at the moment, what with Germany still struggling to pay for reconstruction, the constitution in danger of being chucked out by the French of all people, nobody having children anymore, and the fact that while hardly anyone really wants Turkey to join -- for starters because she's not European -- nobody is willing to take responsibility for saying 'no'.

But despite all that, I think Britain -- England in particular -- should get stuck in. For over a thousand years the British were at the forefront of European culture and politics... and with the European project to give political expression to cultural reality having stalled, this could be the ideal time to jump into the driving seat.

It all started that day in July 306 when Roman troops in York hailed the young Constantine as emperor. Within a few years he had achieved that position in fact as well as name, and had put Christianity on the path to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. Four hundred years later Saint Boniface, a monk from Devon, would go on to evangelise to the Frisians and to the Germans, founding vast numbers of churches and bishoprics, earning for himself the accolade of 'Apostle of Germany'. Alcuin of York, just a few decades later, would be the leading figure of the Carolingian Renaissance, the first great flowering of western European civilization after the fall of Rome.

Just as Britain had shared in her neighbours' woes as Rome fell and the Germanic tribes plundered their way across the disintegrating Empire, so she shared in the crisis of the ninth century, when Viking, Saracen, and Magyar ravaged the successors of the Roman west. Eventually she succumbed to Norman invasion in 1066, only to be drawn even further into the European story. The Angevin dynasty that ruled England until the close of the fourteenth century had more lands in France than in Britain, and so their kings were naturally at the forefront of European affairs. Richard the Lionheart was one of the leaders of the ill-fated Third Crusade, while Edward III began the Hundred Years' War through his desire to unite the crowns of England and France.

While the Plantagenets were embroiled in the blood and dirt of European politics, medieval culture was flowering in Britain. Gothic cathedrals in England were the match of any on the continent, and Franciscans such as Roger Bacon, John Scotus, and William of Ockham were among Christendom's greatest thinkers, while John Wycliffe anticipated the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Geoffrey Chaucer freely borrowed from Boccaccio and other continental writers to compose his Canterbury Tales, perhaps the most unforgettable portrait of medieval life, and Thomas Malory, in his Le Morte d'Arthur, retrieved and reworked a British legend that had become the literary obsession of whole medieval world.

It was only as the medieval world faded away, with Constantinople falling, the invention of Gutenberg's printing press, and a New World being discovered, that Britain began to slowly break from the continent. While figures such as Thomas More and William Shakespeare were true Europeans, giants of the Northern Renaissance, analogous to Erasmus and Cervantes, Britain's rulers turned away from her continental cousins.

I'm thundering into Mongolia!
The Henrician Schism began the break, of course, as Henry established himself, in the manner of an Eastern emperor, as head of Church and State. The monasteries were dissolved and a vernacular liturgy imposed, severing many of the cultural ties that linked Britain with her neighbours. Until the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century and the Puritan dictatorship, Britain's Reformation was relatively painless - at least compared to the carnage on the continent. This comparative stability allowed Henry's successors to disengage from the chaotic quagmire of continental politics, and seek empire overseas, first in the New World, then in India, and eventually in Africa. But what of her newly estranged European brethren? Lord Palmerston put it best, in 1848:  
'We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are perpetual and eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow.'
Perhaps the most obvious of those perpetual interests was the principle that no major continental power should be allowed gain control of the Low Countries. As long as the continental powers were occupied with each other, and a threatening fleet wasn't harboured at Antwerp or Rotterdam, Britain could do as she wished around the world.

(I know, it's a bit squalid when compared to the glories of the previous millennium, but you've got to give it full marks for cunning. If you play Risk you'll recognise this tactic. It's the classic move where you grab Australia and maybe South America early on, leaving all the other players to slog it out over the main Eurasia block, only interfering to prevent anyone getting a whole continent. Clever, eh?)

The Twentieth Century changed all that, of course, as like the continental powers, Britain lost her empire. Ireland was the first to go, but it was India's attainment of independence that sent the imperial dominoes crashing to the ground.

'We must recreate the European family...'
Winston Churchill may have called for a 'United States of Europe' in 1946, but he never envisaged Britain as being part of this European Union. Rather, he saw Britain maintaining her traditionally distant position, aloof from continental affairs and occupied with her empire. But then, he hadn't foreseen that Britain might wind up sans empire.

Having lost her empire, Britain has spent much of the last forty years or so trying to perch between two stools, claiming a 'special relationship' with the United States of America, whilst becoming a half-hearted member of the European Economic Community, and later the European Union. This has led to such perversions as the conviction that Britain is separated from the continent - oddly referred to as 'Europe' - by a channel just 21 miles across, while linked with the United States by an ocean over 2,000 miles wide! Strangely you also get people who claim that Britain never joined a European Union, that the British people were lied to in the 1970s, not being told that the 'common market' they joined had a secret political agenda.

Hmmm. Well, Mrs Thatcher was surely aware of what was going on when, joining the European Community to gain access to the 'common market', Britain signed the Treaty of Rome. I've always thought her posturing as Prime Minister to have been a bit on the disingenuous side.

By signing up to that treaty, Britain affirmed that she was 'determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe'. Yep. Ever closer union. And that phrase, that objective to which all the members of the EEC bound themselves by treaty, wasn't exactly hidden away in the thickets of the treaty. No, it was in the preamble. You know, the bit that says what the treaty was meant to achieve?

In fact, it wasn't just in the preamble. It's the first substantive clause in the whole thing.

'Let Europe Arise'
So, what does this have to do with the price of fish, you might ask? Well, despite having gone into the EEC with her eyes open, Mrs Thatcher spent most of the 1980s complaining about her European partners infringing on Britain's sovereignty. She seemed oblivious to the notion that sovereignty could be shared, and by being shared, could be amplified.

Unfortunately, by the time her rather more open-minded successor, John Major, took office, the Europhobic poison had run to the heart of British political discourse, with large chunks of the national media being adamantly opposed to any progress in Britain's relations with her European partners. Strikingly, the most rabidly anti-European papers were owned by Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, neither being English and both having media empires primarily based in North America.

It hardly seems healthy to have such powerful organs of public discourse under foreign ownership. You might wonder whether they really have Britain's best interests at heart.

Back in Spring 2004, Irwin Stelzer, Rupert Murdoch's right-hand man, visited Tony Blair in Downing Street...
'Soon after, the Prime Minister made the biggest U-turn of his career by announcing a referendum on the European Union constitution, a matter on which he had originally said he would not budge. Political commentators were in no doubt: Stelzer had threatened Blair with an ultimatum that, unless he let the people decide, the Eurosceptic Murdoch would order the Sun and the Times to withdraw their support and back the Tories at next year's general election.'
And it's not just liberal journalists, desperate for any conspiracy to fill their columns, that have made this assumption. No, Chris Patten has wondered the same way, and considering that he enabled John Major to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the early 1990s, he probably knows what he's talking about:
''Is it true, and I think we are entitled to be told, that Irwin Stelzer waited on the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or their nearest and dearest, to tell them that, unless the British Government committed itself to a referendum, the Murdoch papers would support the Conservatives in the run-up to the next election? We hear a great deal about British sovereignty: are we to set, alongside the Queen in Parliament, Mr Irwin Stelzer and Mr Rupert Murdoch? How would the Americans react if their agenda were being set by foreign press proprietors? How would any of our European friends?'
Sure, Europe has problems. But maybe it's not the case that Britain shouldn't get involved because her partners are having difficulties. Maybe it's rather that they;re having difficulties because she's not helping. Certainly, her standing on the sidelines, crossing her arms and wittering about 'red lines' isn't doing anybody any good. And if she's doing this just because Iago Murdoch is whispering in her ear...

It seems to me that of all the British political parties, the Liberal Democrats are the only ones willing to jump into the European boat, the only ones with the balls to give it a shot. The other parties seem paralysed by a mixture of ignorance, distrust, fear, and contempt.

It seems to me that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for hope, for courage, and for a future that builds on a glorious past. Somehow, I suspect I may be in a minority on that one, mind.

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