All sides in the Brexit debate consciously or unconsciously peddle the mythology that Britain is a “special case”
Those who still long for us to remain “at the heart of Europe” quietly forget to mention that Britain always slightly sat on the side of the European project. We did not join in with the Euro. We carefully avoided anything that hinted at fostering “ever closer union”. We demanded limitations on freedom of movement when new countries joined the Union and were for ever going on about our rebate. We always wanted to claim that Britain was a special case and so, although part of Europe, should be allowed to behave differently.
Those who favour a soft Brexit believe that because Britain is a special case, the EU will want to negotiate a special deal with us, allowing us special terms and conditions to trade etc because, after all, we are so important to Europe – what ever relationship the EU has developed with other non EU-nations, our relationship will be different because we are special.
Those who favour a hard Brexit are bullish because the rest of the world knows we are special and will want to make trade agreements with us. Why would you not want a special deal with Britain? And of course some point to our “special relationship” with the USA – surely the original fake news item and this more often seems like embarrassing begging – and even if it were true do we really want a special relationship with a Trump-led America? Is that really the best we can do for an ally?
There is no one party in the this process that is more patriotic and all in their own way want the best for this country. However we need to understand none of this makes our country a special case. We are one nation among many nation and as the centre of global power shifts away from the West, and other economies start to flourish, the days of special pleading for any one nation are over.
In part the idea of seeing ourselves as a special case reflects our loss of identity as a nation and our uncertainty where we belong in the world order. This is a process that has been happening since the decline of empire. Our role in the global order can no longer depend on our former history rather it has to be about a vision for ourselves in the new emerging world order.
The reality is that whatever kind of Brexit is achieved, it is going to take the nation awhile to find its feet again. There is going to be a wilderness period and most likely it will be Britain post-May and post-Corbyn – perhaps another ten years – before we emerge to clearer water. But this is not bad news – wilderness experiences are important. They are times for conversations and reflections, a time to rediscover our common identity, to agree the kind of nation we want to be and the part we want to play in the world.
So please, no more special pleading, no more delusions about being a special case. And similarly no more wringing of hands – this is a moment to begin a conversation we have put off for too long. Who does Britain want to be in the 21st century and what part can Britain play in building a more peaceful and just world.?