Brexit: When paranoia is the other side of patriotism
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Brexit: When paranoia is the other side of patriotism

For all its faults, the European Union has taken Europe beyond the narrow, hateful, and destructive nationalisms of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It would be a shame if the EU experiment failed.

columns Updated: May 21, 2016 20:40 IST
Brexit,European Union,Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson has compared the EU to the pan-European super-states that Napoleon and Hitler once wanted to erect.(Getty Images)

Many years ago, an English friend told me a story about the Lancashire cricket team, which had a long-standing sporting rivalry with Yorkshire, the county the other side of the Pennines. One day in the 1960s, the president of the Lancashire County Cricket Club walked into the dressing room at Old Trafford, and asked a debutant fast bowler where he was born. ‘Todmorden’, answered the young man guiltily, this being a village just across the border in Yorkshire. Overhearing the conversation was the Lancashire wicket-keeper. ‘Bloody foreigner!’, he exclaimed, when he heard his team-mate’s reply.

The wicket-keeper’s disgust was (of course) feigned. For his own name was Farokh Maneksha Engineer, and he was born in Dadar Parsi Colony, a million miles away across the seas. His presence in the Lancashire team made the president’s enquiry seem rather hypocritical. The men who ran Lancashire County Cricket Club were happy to import Engineer from Bombay and Clive Lloyd from Guyana to help win them trophies, yet seemed ambivalent about choosing a player born in the neighbouring county.

Read: ‘Civil war’ in Conservative Party over EU referendum

I was reminded of this story recently, for I have been spending a couple of weeks in London, where the main political story concerns the impending referendum on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union (EU). The referendum was promised by Prime Minister David Cameron while campaigning for the 2015 general elections. The nativist United Kingdom Independence Party was then growing in popular support, while sections of Cameron’s own Conservative Party were sceptical of the intentions of the EU.

Read: UK minister rejects Brexit claim of Indian benefit

The movement to leave the EU (known as ‘Brexit’) is part of a wider surge of populist, nativist, sentiment across the world. Consider thus the growing influence in France of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, of the Law and Justice Party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, and, most significantly, of Donald Trump in the United States. These parties and politicians all blame outsiders for allegedly damaging their nation. Keeping ‘bloody foreigners’ out is a central part of their agenda; whether these foreigners are defined as Muslims (by the National Front), or as Muslims and Mexicans (by Donald Trump).

The shrill, vulgar, often abusive language of a Donald Trump would be (the word is inescapable) foreign to Boris Johnson, the leader of the Brexit campaign. His rhetoric is not as inelegant, but he resorts to outrageous hyperbole all the same. The more sober Brexiters say the EU does not let the British design their own laws, or run their own economy. Boris Johnson goes further. In his most recent speech as I write, he has even compared the EU to the pan-European super-states that Napoleon and Hitler once wanted to erect. Whether, as the contemporary defender of British honour, he sees himself as the heir to Wellington or Churchill, or perhaps to both, is left to the imagination.

The burden of the Brexit campaign is that too much exposure to foreign influences, too much hospitality to foreigners, is somehow bad for national morale, national self-respect, and (not least) national greatness. Keep the world at bay, the (somewhat paradoxical) argument runs, and Britain will once more be a major power in the world.

Le Pen, Kaczynski, Trump and Johnson all profess to be patriots, whose policies are dictated by the desire to make their country happier, more powerful, and less discontented than it is at present. Yet patriotism may merely be the other side of paranoia. There is a tendency to blame foreigners for all that is wrong with the motherland. There is a refusal to acknowledge fissures and fault-lines within one’s own society, which may in fact be far more responsible for the country’s failures than malign or grasping outsiders.

In the past week, while I have been in London, a range of influential voices have spoken out against Brexit. Five former secretary-generals of Nato said that leaving the EU would imperil rather than enhance Britain’s security. The chancellor of Oxford University has warned that the country’s top colleges would suffer from being insulated from European and global influences. A leading scientist has pointed out that the EU subsidises research in Britain to a considerable extent. The governor of the Bank of England has warned that leaving the EU would hurt both the British economy as well as the British pound.

Read: Hitler jibe rankles EU; Cameron says Brexit would make IS happy

These warnings have been scoffed at by the ‘Leave’ campaign. The warnings of former Nato heads are dismissed as being motivated by their own past position as the head of a multinational organisation. Intellectuals are disparaged as being detached from the ‘people’. And the fact that the governor of the Bank of England is a Canadian citizen means that his views can be dismissed on nativist grounds.

In every modern democracy there is a continuous battle between cosmopolitanism and chauvinism. In Britain, as in India, there are patriots who love their country while glorying in the illumination of a lamp lit anywhere in the world, as well as hyper-nationalists whose love of their land consists chiefly in seeking to keep its culture ‘pure’ and ‘uncontaminated’.

For all its faults, the European Union has taken Europe beyond the narrow, hateful, and destructive nationalisms of the 19th and early 20th centuries. A continent that saw the most savage battles in human history bravely put those battles behind it, by making partners of former enemies. That France and Germany, Germany and Britain, France and Britain, could be part of a single collaborative political entity would have been inconceivable to French, German, or British politicians in 1716, 1816, or 1916. It would be a shame if, due to the insecurities of Little Englanders, this fine and brave experiment in trans-national co-operation would now have to unravel.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. The views expressed are personal.

The author tweets via: @Ram_Guha

First Published: May 21, 2016 20:37 IST