When Britain’s digital spy chief Robert Hannigan apologized on April 15 for his agency’s historic mistreatment of LGBT people, he singled out for praise the World War II codebreaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing, who was persecuted and driven to an early grave for being gay.
The upcoming British referendum on exiting the European Union, or Brexit for short, threatens new harm that its supporters may come to regret. The anger fueling it resembles that of voters on America’s side of the pond. UK Independence Party chief Nigel Farage, a Brexit leader, has insulted our president over it. Obama, Farage says, is the most anti-British American president ever.
Considering that George Washington and James Madison actually went to war against the British Crown, Obama is at best the third most Anglophobic. But he thinks Britain should stay in the EU, and that sends Farage into fits. Some American conservatives have even complained that Obama removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.
I am no great fan of the imperialist Sir Winston, though a disputed account had him saying Turing made the biggest contribution to the Allied victory. Whatever the case, Mother England, whom my father’s generation saved from the Nazis and whom we have propped up for decades for old times’ sake (or perhaps out of a perverse ambition to become Minister of Silly Walks), can send itself to the Tower. As a friend in Brussels says, it might as well leave if the alternative is more of its endless obstruction.
Margaret Thatcher, it turns out, left a letter with a younger colleague scorning those who would keep Britain in the European fold at all costs. The itch to bolt is rooted partly in racist fears of being overrun by the peoples they themselves overran, and partly in nostalgia for a prettified past stitched together from pastoral idylls and the glories of empire: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
Hillary Clinton made a similar nationalist appeal during her 2014 book tour, when she touted America’s defense of freedom around the world, whistling past the graveyard of its Cold War assassinations, coups, and colonialist wars. A nation’s arrogant assumption of permanent greatness is like that of a great corporation coasting on past accomplishments. We must earn our standing anew in each generation. Our global competitors cannot be expected to hold back out of affection as we slide into mediocrity.
Britain’s situation, however, is more dire. If Brexit passes, it could lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom and fuel separatist movements in Belgium and Spain.
Our British cousins should heed Obama and pause at the brink. They have nothing but stolen artifacts and a lingering sense of entitlement separating them from the reality of a once-great country facing a changed world. America may not be far behind, with Republicans bent on starting another arms buildup while letting bridges crumble and replacing science with dogma, and with progressives drunk on facile talk of revolution. Revolutions rarely produce less bloodshed and greater freedom.
Like Brexit proponents, Americans at both ends of the spectrum are angry and looking for someone to blame and something to blow up. But our militaristic excess is ruinous, and our dreams of returning to an industrial golden age behind a protectionist wall are a cruel hoax.
The world’s inequities will not be solved by rigid ideologies or fits of pique. Diagnoses, as Secretary Clinton points out, are not solutions. But lopsided policies driven by domestic political pandering, as with her bellicose rhetoric on Israel, can undermine our relationships around the world.
The clash of voices in contests for elected officials is less hazardous than plebiscites on issues where voters can be stampeded by demagogues. We can steer a steadier course if we remember that no leader is perfect.
It could be said that our task in this election is to choose the least unscrupulous and delusional candidate, to return to basics like hard work, decency, and respect. We will sober up eventually; the question is whether we will do so before we have cause to regret, like Britain with Alan Turing, the loss of a treasure we heedlessly threw away.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2016 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.