Humanity faces huge problems, starting with climate change and the attendant threats of pandemics, mass migration and war. Europe confronts additional perils: an unpredictable Russia, the unravelling of the dream of European integration, and growing alienation from the ideals of tolerant liberalism (cf. “populism”).
One problem that nobody in Europe, or anywhere, need ever have had is: Brexit. The decision by the British electorate on June 23, 2016, to demand an exit from the EU thus deserves a special chapter in future history books. It is by now well documented that the Leave campaign was rooted in decades of wantonly disingenuous tabloid journalism on Fleet Street about Brussels. Add the myopic opportunism of a few unscrupulous political clowns, and you had a perfect storm of folly.
As Britain and Europe careen toward March 29, the exit date, with “no deal” in the offing, I therefore can’t help but feel sad. By nationality, I am American and German. But I have spent more than half of my life in Britain or working with Brits, and all of my life as an Anglophile. Never mind trade and all that. Psychologically and emotionally, Brexit feels like a bereavement.
Here are just some qualities about the Brits that I fell in love with long ago. First: their humor. Other countries may have cuisine as a sign of civilization, or table manners, or poetry. Brits have that sublime trifecta of irony, understatement and overstatement, drily delivered.
Second, and tangential: their pragmatism. The moderation in the liberalism of British thinkers like Smith, Hume or Mill conveys as much about their culture as the turgid, humorless and apocalyptic pomposity of Hegel says about his. Brits are people who make an art out of “muddling through”. Combined with their humor, this was what always insured them against the worst exaggerations and temptations – for example, totalitarianism in the 20th century.
Hence the shock of Brexit. To me, the Leave side has always seemed paradoxically un-British: hysterical, unhinged, un-pragmatic, indeed humorless (if you discount buffoonish stunts). But I had overlooked something else that is quintessentially British. As Robert Armstrong, also an American journalist formerly in London, recently observed, it is the sheer, subversive stubbornness encapsulated in that most British phrase with the long ahh sound: “I can’t be arsed.”
Ultimately, the Brits gave Europe the proverbial digit because humorless technocrats across the Channel wanted to meddle in their lives, and the Brits just could not be arsed. I get that. I even sympathize. But now it’s time to pull together and deal with the big, the real, problems, for which we need you Brits. So I put it to the Leavers: You’ve made your point. Now be British and pragmatic again. Vote a second time. Please stay. We’ll muddle through together.
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