On a business trip to London in the ‘80s, I saw a billboard for an airline at Heathrow Airport that proclaimed “Best Route to Europe’’. I asked a cabbie: “Aren’t we in Europe?’’ He answered: “No, Sir, we’re in England’’.
Whenever I visit Britain, I never feel I am in “Europe,’’ but rather in something closer to the U.S. or Canada. It isn’t just the language; it’s in the manner of the people and the look of the place. London reminds me of Boston (Mass.), Nottingham of Worcester (Mass.).
On June 23, British subjects will vote on whether the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) should quit the European Union (the exit called the “Brexit’’). There would be pitfalls (for a while) in doing so but advantages too.
The pitfalls: Harder for British people to get jobs on the Continent, less flexibility for big U.K. companies in doing deals with Continental companies and snags in coordinating sometransnational anti-terrorism security measures with E.U. members.
Still, while Brexit would hurt the U.K. economy for several years it would strengthen it for the long term.
It would give the U.K. more control over its own affairs, thus letting it better maintain its best qualities, especially its love of liberty; its quirky individualism; its entrepreneurialism; the strength and stability of its institutions, including its glorious Common Law, the astonishingly adaptable language that England gave the world and that 1.5 billion people speak now, and its special relationship with America.
For all their flaws, no nations have benefited the world as much as have the United Kingdom and its offspring the United States. The U.K.’s cultural/political/economic characteristics made that possible. Further absorption into the homogenizing, bureaucratizing and centralizing European Union, mostly run by unelected, if highly professional and well-meaning, administrators, threatens to dilute these strengths.
The late historian Robert Conquest wrote: “within the West, it is above all the English-speaking community which has …pioneered and maintained the middle way between anarchy and despotism.’’
Brexit would probably encourage the U.K. to tighten ties with its most important offspring – America -- with which it shares so many values -- and with the 53-nation Commonwealth of Nations, formerly the British Commonwealth, to help offset negative economic effects of Brexit.
I used to live in France and am a fan of the European Union – for the Continent. For all its regulations, bureaucracy and social engineering, the E.U. has, all in all, helped make the Continent more prosperous and humane and war in Western and Central Europe much less likely.
That the E.U. has made it much easier for citizens of E.U. countries to travel and work where they want within the Union has usually been a boon. But it also has made it easier for terrorists and other criminals to operate freely over a wide area, which has increasingly worried the British. Thank God for the Channel!
The biggest near-term threats to the E.U. come from the gangster Vladimir Putin’s aggression and from Islamic pathologies, which wreak terror attacks and refugee floods, but confronting them is mostly NATO ‘s job, not the E.U.’s. And the United Kingdom will remain in NATO, whether or not it leaves the E.U.
Meanwhile, for all the talk of the glories of “multiculturalism,’’ the fact is that Western culture has brought more prosperity and human rights to the world than any other. No wonder almost all refugees want to flee to the West. We need to do everything possible to boost the broader Western World through, for example, such projects as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – a huge free-trade area in the mutual self-interest of the European Union, the U.K. (Brexit or not) and the U.S.
But in such cooperation, let’s not dilute the best idiosyncratic elements of Western Civilization’s parts. The U.K., in the long run, would do better as a friendly partner of the E.U. than as a member. Its history, its enduring psychic separation from Europe, its curious blend of insularity and worldliness (much of the latter stemming from the British Empire experience) has served itself and the world well.
Robert Whitcomb (email@example.com) is overseer of newenglanddiary.com and former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune.