Last Canadian thoughts on UK Brexit : trying to remember Orwell’s “Toward European Unity” in 1947

Jun 21st, 2016 | By | Category: In Brief

Two activists with EU flag and Union Jack kiss in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin this past Sunday, urging UK to stay in European Union. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters.

[UPDATED JUNE 22, 23 : scroll below for LFB’s VERY LAST-MINUTE THOUGHT. LUNCHTIME, JUNE 23]. It first became altogether clear to me that the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom across the seas this Thursday, June 23 was serious, when I met the UK uncle of a friend of my son, in Canada on business earlier this year.

We were at a local jazz and blues bar. “So,” I asked just to keep up conversation, “is the UK going to leave the European Union?” And I was a bit surprised when he said that he was starting to think it just might be a good idea if it did. He was in some branch of the movie business – a sophisticated guy, with an attractive female companion perhaps half his age. I was impressed.

Now, early on the morning of Tuesday, June 21, in what the old (British) Canadian nationalist George Grant used to call the Great Lakes region of North America, the Brexit referendum is starting to look a little like the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

Even fairly close to the end, it seemed that an independent Scotland just might be lurking around the corner. But then, as the fateful day of decision grew very close, the greater common sense of a No vote finally prevailed. On the actual referendum day of September 18, 2014, 55% voted No. (And then, some might say, the Scottish Nationalists prevailed anyway in the 2015 UK election.)

As someone whose paternal grandparents moved from south London in England to the Great Lakes region of North America in the early 20th century, I do hope that common sense finally prevails again, and the “Leave” Europe option is finally defeated in the UK on June 23.

I like the European Union of the blue flag and gold stars myself. And the euro (which the UK and Scandanavia still do not embrace in any case, except for Finland) certainly makes travel in Europe easier for North Americans. Insofar as I identify with anything in the UK these days, it is the local currents reflected in a George Orwell essay called “Toward European Unity” – first published in the New York-based Partisan Review in the summer of 1947, 69 years ago.

CW EDITORS UPDATE JUNE 22, 2:30 PM ET : Éric Grenier’s piece on the CBC News site today – “British voters split on Brexit referendum vote, but Remain may have edge: polls” – summarizes one side of the prevailing wisdom. On the spot in London, Leonora Beck at Associated Press reports : “Polls suggest it is too close to call, while bookies give the ‘remain’ side a higher chance of winning.” It is impossible of course to have any real sense of what is going on anywhere in Europe from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but Carole MacNeil on CBC News Now has promised to try tomorrow. Bunting just shrugs his shoulders and says  he remains a Remainer himself, and still hopes the best side will win.

LFB’s VERY LAST-MINUTE THOUGHT. LUNCHTIME, JUNE 23 : Apparently we here in the Great Lakes region will be learning the final result sometime around 2 AM June 24 (which of course amounts to 7 AM June 24 in the old imperial/new global metropolis).

The biggest question may turn around just how close the vote is. Whoever wins, eg, will the victory be as strong (decisive?) as the 55% of interested Scots who voted against full Scottish independence in 2014?

(Or, from another but perhaps not entirely unrelated angle, as the 55% of interested Australians who, back in 1999, voted against altering “the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.”)

The lovely Helena Bonham Carter, actress, great granddaughter of Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, and prominent Remain advocate 2016.

Similarly, it seems not unreasonable to wonder just what the Brexit referendum will mean for the future of government and politics in the United Kingdom if the vote is close to, say, 51%/49% (on either side) ???? And this may be the question of most interest to the rest of the world.

The biggest thing about Brexit, in other words, is finally political, not economic. And, apart from its place in Europe, the UK today is most interesting as the global homeland of a kind of model parliamentary democracy – with special claims on such places as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but also (and increasingly more importantly in the 21st century) India and even Ireland and certainly Trinidad and Tobago and much more (including the diminutive island republic of Dominica, homeland of the present secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations).

Whatever happens with Brexit by this time tomorrow, at some point we in Canada are going to suddenly wake up and realize that the United Kingdom which gave us our rightly respected system of parliamentary government in the 19th century is growing increasingly away from the real-world United Kingdom today. And that has at least a few implications for our future too … Meanwhile, I am still personally hoping that the Remain side wins … We the North …  etc.

* * * *

George Orwell in his youth, in the Burmese Imperial Police.

Of course, no country of the world in the early 21st century has just one international or regional identification. Language, if nothing else serious nowadays, prompts UK citizens to also identify with the US – along with the three former “white” British dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in the so-called “Five Eyes” security alliance.

This does not mean, however, that the UK should abandon its essentially European character – any more than Canada’s anglophone connections mean it should abandon its long parallel connections with France. (And if you’re talking about the English language around the world, old former “brown” British dominions like India are crucial too. And then there is Kenya, great alleged birthplace of President Obama.)

Europe certainly has its problems on the edge of the summer of 2016. And one of these problems is that it is at the moment a little too attractive to too many migrants from the Middle East and Africa. But that seems to me no reason at all for the UK today to walk away. Many other parts of the world have problems right now as well. In fact, the ultimate report I received from the UK uncle of a friend of my son, in Canada on business earlier this year, was that what was really engaging citizens of the UK was not Brexit, but Donald Trump.

Here at any rate is a toast to the long-term future of the land of my paternal grandparents in the evolving European Union of the 21st century.

And here as well is a toast to George Orwell’s conclusion of 1947 : “It may be that Europe is finished and that in the long run some better form of society will arise in India or China. But I believe that it is only in Europe … that democratic Socialism could be made a reality …”

It is of course no accident that both Brexit and Donald Trump are political projects of the far right on the contemporary international political spectrum. And here’s a final toast to the final prevailing of common sense in both cases – in the early summer and later fall of 2016.

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