Brexit: a renewal of national identity

Brexit, despite the initial shock felt by many in the media and the political elite, offers an opportunity of renewed national identity, proposes Simon Heffer.

The public’s decision in June 2016 to vote to leave the European Union created a wave of disbelief and despair among many of those who are used to helping form or shape opinion in Britain. The broadcast media and the political class were, during the campaign, top heavy with those who wished to remain in the EU. Their anger at being gainsaid by the forces of democracy – notably by people who they sincerely believed understood less about the fundamentals of the question than they did – was systematically vented in expressions of doom in the press, in the broadcast media, in the legislature and across social media and the internet.

Doubtless many of these were sincere; some, however, were clearly motivated by a determination to be proved right and for those who had formed the democratic majority, to be proved wrong. Human nature being what it is, this was understandable, if unattractive. Happily, many Remainers accepted the democratic verdict, and have opted to choose to help make it work.

Doubtless many of these were sincere; some, however, were clearly motivated by a determination to be proved right and for those who had formed the democratic majority, to be proved wrong. Human nature being what it is, this was understandable, if unattractive. Happily, many Remainers accepted the democratic verdict, and have opted to choose to help make it work.

I believe that the majority who chose to leave, and whose access to the mass media and presence in positions of power was somewhat less, took a more positive view of the nation’s future, and of the forging of a renewed, upbeat national identity. However much the minority might disagree with this view, it is worth analysing and noting, for it contains the germs of an optimism that so many Remainers find it hard to credit ought to exist.

The sense of optimism has these components. The first is the conviction that Britain will be better off if it is truly sovereign; it will have an enhanced democracy, in that if the electorate does not like something – say, for example, the agricultural policy that obtains in any part of the United Kingdom – it can vote to change it at a general election. Around the world, many nations that have secured their independence from imperialist powers have come to regard such moments as a liberation from foreign control and a sign of the maturity of a polity. Indeed, so should we. In the past, people have died to secure such rights here and in countless other nations, and they and their sacrifices are not to be taken lightly.

The second is that Britain can now choose with whom it trades, and can choose to trade with other countries on mutually agreed terms. This is an extension of the principle of sovereignty described in the first point. It will mean re-learning now to negotiate with other powers in these matters. It will force British business to be more open-minded about the markets in which it seeks to sell. But will allow the country to develop unique selling points for its goods, possibly including improving their quality, becoming more innovative and putting new demands on the ingenuity of those developing or marketing them. It could mean abject failure, or it could mean renewed success as a mercantile people. Given our reluctance to starve, all the incentives will be for the latter.

Much of the doom-mongering since last June has been about the decision inevitably making Britain a more narrow society, as it promises to end free movement of people with our 27 EU partners once Brexit happens. First, there is no prospect that those who have migrated here legally, or their families, will be required to leave: it is unthinkable. Second, Britain can now have a jobs market in which – as in respectable and progressive countries such as America or Australia – it can negotiate visa-free travel with whom it pleases, give permission to work here to whom it pleases, deny entry to those it deems potentially harmful to its society (such as those with serious criminal records, or who pose a potential terrorist threat) and deport foreign nationals who commit crime while here. There will be no end to migration because the prosperity of the country depends on it; but those who migrate here will be exclusively those who will make a
positive contribution to the country. All these factors will help neutralise those who make racially-motivated objections to immigration, and to reduce their potential to command an audience, which should lead to a more harmonious and integrated society.

We should also take heart from the fact that since the decision was made to leave the EU, there has been no economic collapse of the sort so zealously predicted by George Osborne when, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he figured so prominently in the Remain campaign. Unemployment has continued to fall to levels not seen for years. After initial jitters, order books have improved and sterling has begun to strengthen again, particularly against the euro. Sterling’s fall has, paradoxically, helped ensure that the FTSE 100 index is 1,000 points higher than it was immediately after the decision to leave the EU. Britain has become hugely attractive to investors once more, partly because of the favourable exchange rate for those buying in foreign currencies, but partly too because the world senses the country is serious about making new bilateral arrangements with other partners when it is no longer part of the EU.

To an extent, the decision taken last June was an expression of national consciousness, and therefore possibly an attempt to arrive at a renewed national identity. Unfortunately, most discussion of this possibility focussed on assertions that this nationalism was narrow, possibly racist and certainly introverted. No-one can speak definitively for all the 17.4m people who voted to leave whose reasons will have been various.

Many will have been motivated, though, by a desire to improve democratic accountability, and that is exceptionally positive. Others will have wanted to break Britain out of its close association with Europe and make it look outwards at the rest of the world. If we believe our nationalism can only be of the extreme right, then we delude ourselves. Some of the most fervent opponents of the EU were of the left – Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, even, before he felt the constraints of office upon him, Jeremy Corbyn – and an important component in their opposition was a patriotic belief in the value of sovereignty and self-determination.

An idea of national identity based on the civilised values of democracy, equality, a rule of law and freedom of speech does not require to be fought for: it is ours already, the gift of earlier generations. It existed before 1973, when we joined the EU, and it exists still, and is the basis of our self-understanding and of how we present ourselves to the world in the future. It is because it is there that we can feel optimistic, for an identity in which such values are enshrined and safeguarded is one that we can, without fear or shame, present to the rest of the world, and by which we can ask to be judged.