Unity through Strength

Glen Newey

Finland celebrates its centenary this year. After bowing to the tsar for a century, the Finnish Senate decided the Bolshevik Revolution was a step too far and declared independence. In the ensuing civil war, the bourgeois, Swedish-speaking Whites eventually crushed, with German help, the Bolshevik-backed Reds. To mark the anniversary, the Finland Mint struck commemorative coins, including one that features the killing of Reds by a White firing squad (now withdrawn after protests). It's all about forging national unity through strength.

Unlike in the US or France, there's no sign that the Russians can be arsed to intervene in the UK election campaign, though maybe Lynton Crosby has a latter-day Zinoviev letter up his sleeve in case of need. May remains unfathomably popular, Corbyn fathomably unpopular. Labour's likely fate compares with the Finnish Reds, blindfolded and waiting for the order to fire. The Tories are marching on under the slogan 'strong and stable government', a Crosby-hatched earworm to stun voters through Pavlovian repetition and mute any risk of intercession by critical thought. Still, it's worth recalling how it has got to this.

Let's do the 'strong' thing first. Strong David Cameron promised to hold a referendum because he was scared of Ukip. Sure of winning, he made little effort to ensure victory or mitigate defeat – by imposing a super-majority requirement, say, or by underlining that the plebiscite was only advisory. Nor was there any vision, beyond Project Fear, of how the EU might be reformed. When Cameron blew it, a vacuum opened, to be filled by the government's lack of ideas of what to do with ‘independence’ once it was won.

If a few hundred thousand more Remainers had turned out to vote, and a few hundred thousand Leavers stayed at home, Britain wouldn't have triggered Article 50. His successor is described by some besotted fans as a woman of 'passion' and 'moral vision', but Theresa May's fervid conviction seems, like the Corinthians', to be directed at an unknown god. She backed Remain when it was thought likely to win, but now thinks 'Brexit means Brexit'.

Her government doesn’t look especially stable either. Brexit is now being steered by figures of the stature of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis – though they may well wind up in the post-election tumbril. At this stage we don't even know who'll be negotiating. Inflation from sterling devaluation seems to have slowed growth in the last quarter. As for the economic upheaval while the Brexit talks go on, prospective inward investors have no basis for knowing the tariff regime in which they will have to operate. In the car industry, components cross the Channel several times before being finished. Nissan's European head of manufacturing, when asked in March if the firm's Sunderland plant, with 7000 jobs, was safe, said: 'No, I would not say that at all.'

Apart from the economic uncertainties of leaving the EU without any clear plan, there's the destabilising of the border with the Irish Republic and the further rocking of the UK's relationship with Scotland, which may well have jumped ship by the 2022 election. Strong and stable government? If only.

This week's most significant election campaign moment occurred not in Britain but Berlin, where Angela Merkel addressed the Bundestag ahead of the European Council meeting in Brussels this weekend on Brexit. ‘A third party state, as Great Britain will be, can't and won't enjoy the same rights as a member of the EU, or maybe even better ones,' said Merkel. 'I get the feeling that some people in Great Britain still have illusions about this. They're wasting their time.' Merkel reaffirmed her support for Donald Tusk's negotiating guidelines, and for insisting that talks about trade access follow rather than run concurrently with those over Britain's financial obligations to the EU. The Council quickly ratified this stance in Brussels.

Merkel talked about the disruption facing German nationals resident in the UK, such as a student finishing his studies at a Scottish university and wanting to stay on afterwards, or a couple with children brought up in London; as the chancellor noted, similar worries beset British nationals in Germany.

May shot back that 'twenty-seven other European countries are lining up to oppose us': it was time for the strength that can only come of national unity. Choose unity, choose strength, choose commemorative medals; Spitfires for victory, firing squads for the vanquished.


  • 1 May 2017 at 4:16am
    farthington says:
    Merkel, once gain, speaks for Europe. Isn't there something wrong here?

  • 1 May 2017 at 12:20pm
    outofdate says:
    Don't forget being pissed out of your skull, a tremendous unifying force. Quite a lot of the work of Finland's sole national painter, a Swede called Axel Galen, is of people being pissed out of their skulls, including Finland's sole national composer, Sibelius.

    • 1 May 2017 at 2:02pm
      outofdate says: @ outofdate

  • 1 May 2017 at 7:43pm
    streetsj says:
    I think the EU (as opposed to the member states) needs to be careful not to overplay their hand. Getting sensible agreements on everything (trade, residency etc) is in all Europeans interests. It is only the EU itself that feels threatened by Brexit being successful. Why would ordinary European citizens not want it to be as smooth a transition as possible?

    • 2 May 2017 at 8:01pm
      stephenwhite52 says: @ streetsj
      Why would ordinary European citizens not want it to be as smooth a transition as possible? ...Because they don't want to see the EU undermined by the UK pursuing its own narrow interest. Most ordinary European citizens believe that, while the EU is not perfect, it is better than the alternative. We are about to learn that lesson the hard way.

  • 1 May 2017 at 7:57pm
    Graucho says:
    The negotiation position of the EU is to extract as much money as they can out of the UK as they can and only then discuss the single market, customs union, labour mobility etc. having got what they needed and being under no obligation to be generous. The U.K.s negotiating position for the first part should therefore be as follows ...
    The single market and other benefits obviously come at a price. If the EU wants money from the U.K. it will have to come as part the the second set of negotiations.

    • 2 May 2017 at 8:05pm
      stephenwhite52 says: @ Graucho
      So who do you think has the upper hand in deciding the 'negotiating position'? The country which has just set a fixed timetable to leave no matter what, i.e. whether we get at good deal or not? EU leaders believe that the EU is worth more than £50bn.

  • 2 May 2017 at 10:53am
    Simon Wood says:
    There'll always be an England when such cheer exists as the humble yet tumbril-filling sentence, "Brexit is now being steered by figures of the stature of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis."

    Add to the tumbril the intellectually emaciated figures from the far reaches of the other side, whack the carthorse on the behind and the poverty of the discourse, citoyens, will begin to improve sentence by sentence.

    The guillotine has not yet cut the paper that a cultured, considered and considerate future will be printed on, but such sentences as Glen's are lapping at the white cliffs while the ignorant armies clash by night.

    • 2 May 2017 at 7:19pm
      Graucho says: @ Simon Wood
      We will all be sans-culottes before long.

    • 2 May 2017 at 7:52pm
      Jams O'Donnell says: @ Graucho
      Sans-cllottes - you'll be lucky. It'll be sans-espadrilles.

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