In the last two posts we have looked at such questions as rulers changing religious (not to mention political and philosophical) beliefs of their people, and the question of national sovereignty as opposed to perceived national interests. We have used two examples over 3000 years apart – Akhenaten of Egypt and Henry VIII of England. We have looked at the beginnings of an international organization to maintain peace and hopefully enable nations to settle differences as represented by the Western Christian Church, based on Rome, from mediaeval times onwards.
This early organization had its weaknesses. For example it could encourage member states to combine together to make war on a defaulting member or an outsider – not the best if we regard world peace as a Christian ideal. (Crusades). Again, it represented only a proportion of the nations which were within the orbit of the Western European community. Middle Eastern countries and the Byzantine Empire could never be part of the set-up.
However it was a great step forward compared with early history when a powerful nation could create an empire and keep a number of nations in subjection – no question of consultation around the table! Ancient Egypt and later Persia created their areas of influence without the need to refer to an international body, so the Western Christian Church was a big step forward in international affairs. After Spain and Portugal had made their voyages to Central and South America each felt that the world was literally “its oyster”. There was huge potential for conflict between the two, which would have involved other nations as well. Papal intervention ensured that a line could be drawn dividing the huge new tracts of the world now in dispute peacefully between the disputing parties.
Philosophers/Idealists did explore the concept of “world” cooperation and world government from early times. In practical terms it was always regarded as requiring the sacrifice of too much national sovereignty. Every nation could envisage a situation where it might have to sacrifice too much of its independence in the general interest. However there were occasions where cooperation in matters of international trade made it possible to avoid a common cause of war. Even disputes over territory could be settled from time to time by nations meeting together.
The period from the 16th. to the 20th. century had seen the encroachment of Western Europe into all the Continents. Wars of conquest, and wars between would-be conquerors, were frequent and costly. The culmination of all this was the bloodbath of 1914-1918, the First World War – dubbed by some as “The War to End All Wars”. (Interestingly it was also described as “The Great War For Civilization” – did they really believe that?) As a consequence the League of Nations was set up. Sadly The League has been condemned as a failure – but it was a colossal advance in world thinking. It did not stop war. It was condemned for” having no teeth” which sounds an unfair comment on a peaceful body. But a key issue relevant to our discussion was that it must infringe too much on some members’ policies, notably those of the “great dictators”, who found resignation the appropriate answer.
The next attempt at following on from the two earlier international bodies was the United Nations after the Second World War. Again similar problems emerged in countries being frustrated when their policies were called into question. Again, a problem was its location in the USA, the most powerful participant in the War. A location in somewhere neutral and small – as had happened with the League – might have been more easy to accept. As so often sovereignty rears its head, and nations see resignation from the general body as the only solution.
We mentioned earlier the occasional coming-together of nations involved in mutual trade and commerce voluntarily agreeing in policy for their mutual advantage. Three tiny nations, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxemburg formed the Benelux group after the War. The European Coal and Steel Community was formed around the same period for the general good.
Out of all this emerged the Common Market concept, and the European Community. The Vatican , Geneva, New York were succeeded by Brussels (perhaps as a tribute to Benelux origins?) Regulations governing trade, manufacture etc., etc., became perhaps bureaucracy for its own sake in the eyes of many. The concept of breeding a “straight banana”, creation of “lakes” of unwanted milk and butter mountains etc. in a starving world did not appeal to all. Paying farmers not to grow food or to destroy their crops seemed strange to many. No doubt much good was done , but it is always the crazy stuff which makes an impact on “the man in the street”. And it is he who in a democracy has the vote.
One very interesting and hopeful aspect of the European Community was the European Parliament. The concept of moving from cooperation in trade, commerce, manufacture into the political scene was a great step forward. But how did England feel about it all? One indication all along was that England retained the Pound Sterling and did not adopt the Euro. Henry VIII must have been cheering on the sidelines. That was a warning sign that perhaps was ignored – it indicated only conditional support of the project. Again we are faced with an island’s sovereignty, and with a stubborn independence. Western Europe under the unifying influence of the Church, under Napoleon, Hitler, and the European Community is used to a “group concept” – England is not. Confused? Join the club! A Happy Hallowe’en to all.
Such appeared to be the call from the people of England (as opposed to “Britain”) a few weeks ago. Now that the dust is at least partly settling it is a good time to look at things in a historical context.
First of all, did the English people really make that decision? Britain is, they say, a parliamentary democracy. But here we are reminded of the words of the French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in the mid 1700’s -” democracy is dictatorship by the majority”. OK if, as some would have us believe, the majority is always right. But is it?
What do we mean by the majority? That is a very valid question in this case. The “majority” was small. We are told that the younger generation who would have supported maintaining the European connection didn’t for the most part turn out to vote! So where does that leave us? Again, something that surprises me is that it went on a 50/50 system. I would have thought that such plebiscites usually went on a two-thirds majority to prevent the sort of situation mentioned above.
Historically how does the vote measure up? Britain is an island, and islands historically claim the right to go it alone, manage their own affairs, pull up the drawbridge on foreign interference. Perhaps the larger half of Britain represented by England has a long and deep-rooted desire for independence and a suspicion of foreigners. I am minded of a poem by the Roman poet Horace almost 2000 years ago where he prays that heaven will protect the Emperor Augustus on his visit to the “Stranger-hating Britons”. Such long-standing traditions must be hard to break – and let us stop blaming the Anglo-Saxons who didn’t appear until much later!
Scotland, a virtual “peninsula” of England, has historically much stronger ties with the Continent, going back over centuries. Ireland also, an isolated island, likewise has long-standing European connections. It is possible that both Scotland and Ireland have regarded certain European countries as potential allies against their larger neighbor. England on the other hand has over the centuries cause to regard European countries, particularly from the south and east, as enemies (EG Scandinavia, Holland, France, Spain).
To look at a specific example of this we have only to consider the case of Henry VIII. Henry, in common with other European monarchs, had cause to resent an international system where hostile alliances could be made against them through link between the Pope of the day and other states. Far too much has been made of “religion” in looking at
Henry’s break with Rome. What we see here is an international situation where England’s independence and right to manage its own affairs was under threat.
An island nation has the advantage, given a strong navy, of being able to follow its own destiny without the constant apprehension of attack from a land-neighbor. Ithas the disadvantage of losing cultural and other contact with the rest of the world. When exposed to outside influences suspicion can set in and a phobia may even develop.
The Romans went through this phase as their Empire developed. Juvenal and other writers condemned the decline in traditional Roman standards brought in by Greeks and other races from the east. Sounds familiar?
A factor which may have played some part in the vote would be the growing “Middle Eastern” presence. Probably the last time this happened was around 5000 BC when the first farmers arrived among the hunter-gatherer inhabitants of Britain , coming also from “Middle Eastern” countries. Emigration and resulting tensions never stop, do they? Did they have a brexit vote then? Can’t take the word brexit seriously – still sounds like a new breakfast cereal!