Are we suffering a national humiliation? There has been a lot of commentary – not least from elements of the Remain-supporting press – about how the UK has become an international laughing stock. Papers in other countries have joined in the chuckling. Recent events have not been good for our reputation for stability and sanity.
However, the one thing that the UK could do to destroy what international credibility it has left, is to change its mind on Brexit, and go back to the EU asking whether we can stay after all. Our national humiliation would be complete. We would be the employee who stormed out publicly, insisting to everyone that they could make it on their own, only to beg their employer to take them back. In the film Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury eats the most cringeworthy humble pie, denouncing himself and all his flaws as he begs his former band members to let him back into Queen after he stormed out in a fit of pride. The tables totally turned, and one of the band members, who used to be at Mercury’s beck and call, orders him to leave the room. When asked why he ordered Mercury out, he said “just because I can”. After his self-flagellation, Mercury is let back in to Queen – but on far worse terms than he had before.
If the UK changes its mind on Brexit, the crowing from other European capitals, not least Paris, will be deafening. No one will be more personally pleased than Jean-Claude Juncker. Our influence in the EU – which was more than most Britons realise – would suddenly be much diminished, and would probably never recover. We might be allowed to stay in on the same terms, maintaining our rebate and opt outs on Schengen and the euro, because if the EU insisted on worse terms it would risk inflaming Brexit again. But we would find it more difficult to get our way on other policies in future. France and Germany would be much strengthened: they played chicken with Britain, and Britain blinked, and they now have a new co-operation alliance above and beyond the EU. Our Anglophile partners in the US, Australia and elsewhere will be banging their heads, trying to understand why a once great country “bottled it”. Even before anything actually happened. It wasn’t the explosions, or even the whiff of gunpowder, that destroyed our national resolve – but just the thought of it.
It all underlines how Brexit is fundamentally about the self-confidence we have as a nation. There are many strong arguments for Remain, as there are for Brexit, but Remainers tend to be much more down on the UK. Emma Thompson illustrated the attitude perfectly when she backed Remain saying: ‘Britain is a cake-filled misery-laden grey old island.’ We are the only nation in the world where the default, mainstream rhetoric is to insult our own country. As someone from a multi-national family, I have always been envious of the simple pride and affection my foreign relatives are allowed to express in their own countries. I have written in The Spectator in the past about our astonishing lack of confidence as a country, a generational psychological over-reaction to our imperial hubris. We constantly think we are much less than we are.
When we voted to leave the EU, one millennial sent me a message saying: “we can’t possibly cope on our own”. This view is the new normal, a perfect statement of our national lack of self-confidence, but it has no connection to reality. There are 195 countries in the world. None of them – apart from the 28 in the EU – are part of a supranational government. And the last time I looked, most of them seemed to be coping fine. By leaving the EU, we would be joining the 167 countries that are “on their own”. And of those 167, we would be the fourth biggest economy. In other words, we would be far better placed to cope economically than 98 per cent of independent countries. That surely should give us confidence we could cope. And that is to say nothing about our close international ties, huge defence and intelligence capabilities, our cultural and diplomatic reach, and being home to the world’s main international financial centre. Canada, Australia, South Korea, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore – all are smaller than us both in terms of economy and population, and all are thriving “on their own”.
Others often see our strengths that we ourselves don’t. Woody Johnson, the US ambassador, and Alexander Downer, the former Australian foreign secretary, have both mused publicly about why we have such little belief in ourselves as a nation. A New Zealand Brexiteer said to me recently that the rest of the world sees the UK as a strong, powerful, influential nation and he doesn’t understand why we don’t see ourselves like that. I was astonished when the referendum happened that my Lithuanian au pair (I have personally benefitted from free movement!) said that if she were British she would have supported Brexit. “Lithuania is so small, we have to be part of the EU, but Britain is so strong I don’t understand why you put up with it” she stated.
The main problem for Brexiteers is this pervasive national defeatism, the pride in belittling our own country, this obsession with what we can’t do rather than what we can do. Brexit is a confidence issue. And it might just be that we don’t have the national confidence to see it through.
Anthony Browne is former Brussels correspondent of the Times