Louis de Bernières: The moderate case for Brexit and English independence

If Ireland was strictly rational it would leave the EU for an Anglo-Irish economic zone

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has used a speech at Belfast's Queen's University to warn that Northern Ireland will be the part of the United Kingdom worst hit by Brexit. Video: Reuters

At the age of 20, in June 1975, I became one of the young people who voted to confirm the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. In 2016, my generation voted to bring us back out. Why did we change our minds? There are several reasons, but the main one is simply our loss of sovereignty.

I was personally comfortable with “sharing sovereignty”. The European states were democratic, I felt there was common cause between us, we had a shared interest in an enduring peace between us, and nationalism seemed an unmitigated evil, especially when combined with an ideology.

My own comfort gradually disappeared as it became clearer that our lives were increasingly being shaped by officials whom we had not elected. We had joined the “Common Market” and been told that it was all about free trade, which always sounds like a good thing.

Half the Labour Party was opposed to it, however. Remainers have enjoyed depicting Leavers as little Englanders and right-wingers, but there are also impeccable left-wing reasons for opposing membership. I remember the big posters enjoining us to “Say no to the Bosses’ Europe”, and the Labour manifesto of 1983 declaring that we would leave if they were elected. They were worried about food pricing, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and restrictions on socialist industrial policy.


I also remember that the Scottish nationalists were against membership, perhaps because it was obvious to them back then that being governed by an unelected government in Brussels was even worse than being governed by an elected one in Westminster.


In any arranged marriage a couple sometimes makes the most of a bad job by working hard at pretending to be in love. Even after I perceived the deception, I was arguing that we needed to be part of something that could counterbalance the United States and the Soviet Union. My parents had campaigned to join but became sceptical long before I did. This was because they had not anticipated such things as the damage to our fishing industry. More importantly, they felt outraged at having endured two World Wars only to end up being subject to laws not drawn up by our own parliament. It was easier for continental Europeans to compromise on democracy because they do not have the advantage of being protected, as we are, by the mere fact of being an island.

As time passed, I came to share my parents’ anxieties. Having researched and written extensively on the two World Wars, I increasingly developed a sense of the vastness of the sacrifice, and therefore of how sacrilegious it would be to erode our democracies. I once took my father to visit the battleground in Italy where nearly all his comrades were wiped out in one heroic and doomed attack; 20 tanks destroyed in five minutes. It was a war for the right of nations to self-determination.

Since reunification Germany has become the hegemonic power in Europe; in view of what happened twice in one century, is it unnatural that some people are wary of this? I used to think that one day we would have a proper European parliament. Now I realise that, small-minded as we are, many people would only ever vote for a candidate from their own country.

Like a lot of people who are still Remainers, I had committed a category mistake. I thought that loving the EU was somehow the same thing as loving Europe. I loved Europe’s great cities, its cuisines, its landscapes, its composers and philosophers. I wanted to be Sartre and Camus rolled into one, I wanted to sit outside a taverna on the Plaka, being Theodorakis. If people asked me what I was, I would say “European”.

I am European by culture and inheritance. Perhaps unreasonably I rate our continent’s culture more highly than anyone else’s; I speak French fairly well, and Spanish and German rather badly; my favourite composers are Bach and Beethoven. When I was 18, I travelled all over Europe with a piece of pink card that I bought at the village post office. Now, in part thanks to Islamist terrorism and Angela Merkel’s quixotic humanitarianism, the Schengen arrangement may have to come to an end; the free movement that we all loved the most about the EU may be lost because of the threat to security that is built into it.

Double-edged sword

Free movement was a double-edged sword in any case. It was fabulous for middle-class families who wanted cheap nannies, gardeners and cleaners, but it alienated the working classes because their neighbourhoods were suddenly and radically changed. There is an area of Ipswich, for example, where there seems to be nobody but eastern Europeans, hanging about, smoking in little knots. To many locals it looks threatening, even if it isn’t. In places such as Lincolnshire it became normal not to recruit from local employment exchanges, but directly from Romania. It is probably true that the indigenous British did not want to do most of that kind of work anyway, but it still sparked resentment.

My daughter Sophie (aged 12) recently asked me if after Brexit Europe would be further away, as if we might be towed into the distance on a steel hawser. She doesn't know that you cannot be towed away from more than 2,000 years of cultural, social and historical entanglement.

What you can row away from is a troubled political and economic project that has never surmounted the difficulties left behind by the 2008 crash. The euro zone contains incompatible economies, and so it is impossible to fix an interest rate or a general economic policy that fits them all. Greece could have got out of its difficulties expeditiously if it had retained the drachma and been able to devalue.

It has been increasingly obvious to me and fellow Leavers for years now that the English would be better off on their own

You can row away from delusions, such as that the EU has maintained European peace, when it was very obviously Nato, with the US providing the majority of the manpower and funding; or the delusion that we cannot rebuild our links with the Commonwealth countries we so shamelessly left in the lurch in the 1970s; or make new agreements elsewhere quite quickly; after all, we will not need the unanimous agreement of 27 other countries.

You can row away from an economic area that is not so much a free-trade zone as a protectionist one. Although today the EU offers preferential terms to many developing countries, it has traditionally helped to keep the developing world undeveloped by charging low tariffs on raw materials, and high tariffs on manufactured goods. The US does the same thing. That’s how the West prevents developing countries from industrialising and competing with us. The EU is still encumbered by the CAP.

You can row away from an economic zone that since reunification has been dominated by Germany. Euros pour into Germany but are not recycled to the periphery. You cannot, however, blame Germany for having the largest economy in the euro zone, and for finding other countries too exasperating to subsidise any further. The French, of course, will be delighted by the UK’s departure, because they will become correspondingly more important.

I bumped into David Owen last year. The former foreign secretary told me he had become a Leaver because of what had been done to Greece. That is exactly what finally did it for me too; a whole country reduced to penury for years on end; a country that elected a government on an anti-austerity ticket and was instantly overruled and humiliated by Brussels.

For people like me, with an old-fashioned classical humanist education, Greece holds a special place in the heart. At one time Greece was the only country in Europe that still stood beside us in the second World War. Greece’s humiliating defeat of Mussolini was the beginning of his downfall. After that, his troops lost their confidence and their ideological certainties. During the second World War, the Third Reich looted Greece so thoroughly that they even collected up all the pianos, but, some few years afterwards the Greeks forgave the Germans their war debt. Corrupt as Greece was, she deserved better than to be punished so severely for the crime of having been admitted to the euro zone before she was ready for it.

Now the Conservative Party has a new start, as does the country, which at last has a leader who exudes energy, good humour and optimism, and pulls impossible rabbits out of hats even as his detractors scoff. The next rabbit may be a decent trade settlement. No doubt this will be difficult, but it is evident that it only will be accomplished by someone who is positive enough to assume that it can be.

Irish reunification

The logic of Brexit should take us further. It has been increasingly obvious to me and fellow Leavers for many years now that the English would be better off on their own. It seems ever more likely that Ireland can be reunified, because all the very good reasons for the North resisting this have gone; the Republic is no longer a corrupt, backward country, it is an energetic, vibrant place where anyone would love to live, including me. We are an important trading partner; if Ireland were being strictly rational it would also leave the EU and opt for an Anglo-Irish economic zone.

England has no good reason for wanting to cling on to Northern Ireland, or to Scotland either. The English attachment to Scotland is a sentimental one, but the Scots have fallen out of love with us, and inevitably the English will sooner or later have had enough of the grandstanding of the nationalists. The English have noticed that their own nationalism is the only one that is routinely denigrated and despised, and that also grates.

The English have developed their own “cultural cringe”. I search my memory for its origins and think that it dates from the time when English football fans were notorious all over the world. The flag of St George became the emblem of chanting, rioting, racist right-wing oafs, and so the rest of the English renounced it. I couldn’t travel in France without people wanting to reproach me with les ooligans anglais. Being English was a matter of shame.

In Scotland the Saltire flies everywhere. The English should have reclaimed their flag and thought more about what Englishness is. It is at one level a love of landscape, a rubbing along of like-minded people, a shared language rich in dialect and figures of speech, a love (like the French) of the absurd. The English have lost their sense of themselves as an ancient shared culture, however. In Ireland, Wales and Scotland, the children learn their national dances and songs at school and at home. In England, I doubt if a single child could recite the first verse of Greensleeves or knows what a maypole is. In English schools history is taught in a strangely episodic manner – Roman, Tudors, second World War – so students have no continuous historical narrative and get by on what they pick up from misleading historical dramas that they find on their screens. They don’t know how much they don’t know, or how one thing connects to another.

The end of Great Britain also seems to be a distinct, and perhaps even desirable, prospect

The English don’t even know their country geographically. Most southerners have little interest in what goes on Up North, and most northerners wouldn’t be able to find Guildford on a map.

The trick is to know the difference between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is always at somebody else’s expense, whereas patriotism depends upon nothing but itself. “My country, right or wrong” is a road to Hell. “I love my country anyway” is something altogether different.

How the Scots would prosper without the pound, and outside the EU, with possible tariffs between us on the border, is anyone’s guess, but that would not be England’s problem. With any luck even if the Scottish do leave, it seems likely that the Welsh would stay in the union, either out of sentiment or self-interest.

England’s attitude should be like that of any sensible lover: if you love me, stay; if not, I am better off without you. The English should shrug, and agree that it’s understandable that everyone should prefer their own mess to somebody else’s order, because, after all, that’s how we feel ourselves. The English have never formally been asked whether or not they would prefer independence from the other countries of the UK, or even if they would like their own parliament, and it is high time they were.

Inconceivable impossibility

And so at last, we leave the EU, despite the tireless rearguard actions of ultra-Remainers. We are the rats that left the EU first, and we are probably not the last. But we are not leaving Europe. That is an inconceivable impossibility.

The end of Great Britain also seems to be a distinct, and perhaps even a desirable prospect. However, our neighbourhood of nations will remain a family, bound together by the dialectic of our history, by the uniting in death of far too many of our soldiers, and by our shared cultures. This kind of union is far more valuable, deep and durable than any faltering economic and political experiment could ever be.

People are talking about a “new relationship” between the UK and Europe. If you think that a relationship is all about trade agreements and extradition treaties, then clearly something “new” must be come up with. But the EU is not Europe. Let’s not be confused. Our relationship will be as it always has been, more than 2,000 years old, an oscillation between the polarities of love and hate, respect and disrespect, admiration and contempt, co-operation and churlishness, fascination and disregard, depending upon what providence throws in our path.

No family is constituted and determined by written agreement. The Germans and the French, the Portuguese and the Spanish, the Scottish and Irish, we’re a family whether we’re in the EU or not. Rearranging the fences between our houses does nothing to alter the fact that we are, and always have been, in the same village.

Louis de Bernières is the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. His latest novel is So Much Life Left Over