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Think before you act: against the modern cult of spontaneity

Truly living in the moment and being utterly spontaneous would render you unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others.

Illustration: Ciara Phelan for the New Statesman

Live for the moment. Be spontaneous. Be free and happy. Don’t worry about the future. Act as though it’s your last day on earth. Such is one modern conception of the good life. Adverts encourage us to drop everything and jet off for a city break at the last moment, or to walk at random into a bar where we are sure to meet a new gang of stock-photo besties, all ostentatiously sipping the same brand of transparent liquor. People are reluctant to make concrete social arrangements, so just say, “Text me.” Serendipity is our friend; planning is for losers. “Spontaneity” is rhetorically offered as the reason to celebrate both online social media and last-minute travel bucket shops.

It hardly seems to matter that anyone who really acted according to this ideology would be a kind of sociopath. Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others. You’d turn into someone like the amusing but oddly disturbing character Old Merrythought in Francis Beaumont’s play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (recently revived to hilarious effect at the Globe in London). Merrythought spends all his time singing and drinking ale, because he assumes there will always be meat on the table come dinnertime. Being so spontaneous would make you, in short, a fantastically annoying and irresponsible flibbertigibbet.

Why, then, is the dream of spontaneity so attractive? It is perhaps because most of our lives are so corralled and timetabled, and our workdays increasingly subject to silent, automated time-and-motion studies conducted by data-harvesting computers for the purpose of what is euphemised as “workforce science”, that we dream all the more of being able to be spontaneous – at least in our free time. Our “free” time, of course, as Guy Debord noted, is just that time which is left to us after the violent expropriation of most of it. And so the idea of spontaneity is a dream of liberty.

But true freedom, as Jean-Paul Sartre noted, is also terrifying. And spontaneity, it seems, is a virtue that we sorely wish to have ascribed to us but don’t actually want to act out rigorously. To be thought of as a spontaneous person is to own a certain kind of devil-may-care cool, to seem open to new experiences. Actually to be a spontaneous person, though, might be a frightful mess. Well, there’s an app for that. Indeed, a whole new class of smartphone apps offers what can be thought of as a kind of mediated, filtered spontaneity – a kind of just-in-time planning that still gives the desired impression of impetuosity. Thus, location-aware dating apps such as Tinder sell the possibility of meeting someone in a nearby bar that evening – almost like people used to do before the age of ambient internet, using only their faces. (According to my informants, a not insignificant number of Tinder users describe themselves as “spontaneous” on their carefully curated profiles.) Meanwhile, a mobile booking start-up called Hotel Tonight recently added a feature allowing users to peek at probable same-day rates a few days ahead. The company announced on its blog, deadpan, that this planning feature was part of “our never-ending quest to empower people to be more spontaneous”.

Consumer spontaneity, you might suspect, is at least very good for business. It seems as though it would be very much in the interest of people selling things if a habit of recklessly spending money at a moment’s notice were considered part of a desirable personality. As it happens, a friend’s Twitter feed was recently interrupted by a “promoted tweet” (that is, advert) from an account calling itself “Be Spontaneous UK”, and chirruping: “Go Brazilian this summer with free Ipanema flip-flops when you pick up our bikini razor now.” Perhaps the purchase of a “bikini razor” is meant to count as an investment in future spontaneity of a vaguely porny kind, though the spontaneity that really counts here is that of immediately clicking on an ad to buy a product. It turns out that “Be Spontaneous UK” is a marketing account owned by Wilkinson Sword.

Probably not coincidentally, either, one finds that recent “spontaneity surveys” showing that Britons really wish they were more spontaneous are predominantly carried out on behalf of companies for which more spontaneity equals more business: train operators and retailers. Or take the advert for Delta Private Jets, described in a recent essay by Ian Bogost, the tagline of which reads: “Perfect moments are often made on a moment’s notice.” Here, spontaneity becomes a kind of meta-luxury.

 

The rhetorical invitation to spontaneity by commercial interests exists in a productive relationship with the modern dualism of psychological science. This is not classical mind-body dualism, but the dualism of more-or-less-allegorical brain systems. In the influential lingo of the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, we have a “System 1” brain that delivers snap, intuitive judgements through unconscious processing, and a “System 2” brain that does the slow, cold reasoning.

Now, which of those brains is the “spontaneous” one? Why, System 1, of course, the blinking, unthinking brain, the site of “hot cognition”. The weirdly anti-rational weather of our age, indeed, insists that this intuitive System 1 is “who we really are”. Because our rationality can be infected with errors by System 1 biases, or so this story goes, we should give up all hope of being reliably rational.

This is certainly a convenient hypothesis for boosters of “nudge” politics, who seek to make citizens do the right thing (save for retirement, buy healthy food) by exploiting the subconscious biases and errors to which System 1 is prone. The wise folk who design the nudges are pleased to call themselves “choice architects”. As we are led unsuspectingly along their mazy garden path, on which what they consider the “right” choices are the easiest ones for us to make – the healthy meal is at eye level; we are automatically enrolled as organ donors unless we can be bothered to opt out – we casually make the decisions that they have already chosen for us. Thus, through careful engineering of the alternatives presented, the liberal paternalists of nudge ideology want to exploit our lazily automatic behaviour.

This might be a resistible challenge to our autonomy as long as the specific choice architecture and its rationale are made available in an open and transparent way, but that is not the way the field is developing. The British government’s Behavioural Insights Team, aka the Nudge Unit, was part-privatised this year, and hopes to profit from advising foreign governments, local authorities and commercial interests, now that it is immune from Freedom of Information requests from ordinary citizens who might wish to scrutinise its methods. To embrace spontaneity, then, might be to let a cadre of unaccountable behaviour engineers make important economic and political choices for us.

This seems all the more plausible when we remember that to praise another’s “spon­taneity” often carries an infantilising or otherwise condescending undertone. Black musicians of the Jazz Age were routinely praised by white critics for their supposedly innate “spontaneity”, in rhetoric that cast them almost as idiots savants, untrained yet miraculously skilful in the moment. The literary critic F R Leavis, meanwhile, wielded “spontaneous” and its cognates as terms of his highest praise when discussing writers, such as D H Lawrence, who he felt were conduits (as it were almost unreflective) of Life Itself.

In his recent book How to Read Literature, the former boy terror of literary theory Terry Eagleton surprisingly revives this Leavisite virtue as one of the positive qualities he says we should learn to recognise in fiction. Eagleton quotes a passage from John Updike and complains: “There is nothing spontaneous about it.” Casting himself as a kind of prosodic Antiques Roadshow expert, able to spot a fake at ten paces, he cites a passage of William Faulkner and diagnoses the fault thus: it has “an air of spontaneity about it which is almost entirely fabricated”.

Never mind that every “air” in a piece of writing must be fabricated, in the sense that all prose effects must be built from the careful choice and placement of words. It is probably bootless to wonder how a Leavis or an Eagleton could possibly know, absent surveillance footage and brain scans of the target writers at work, exactly how “spontaneous” this or that passage’s creation was. Further, of course, the most “spontaneous” writing is likely to be the worst writing, as long as you agree that writing benefits from thought. Many literary stories of spontaneous composition are myths. Jack Kerouac – celebrated by Allen Ginsberg for his miraculous “spontaneous bop prosody” – did bash out a typescript of On the Road in three weeks on a 120-foot-long scroll of paper, but the novel had already been through several versions and rewrites for more than two years before that first full-length draft was “spontaneously” composed.

One of the most pleasant things about writing, indeed, is that spontaneity is corrigible: something that seems like a good idea on the spur of the moment, as one’s fingers are banging out a paragraph, can be quietly got rid of in the sober tranquillity of revision, when it becomes clear that it’s rubbish. To elevate spontaneity to a central literary virtue is as anti-intellectual as its diagnosis is whimsically subjective.

 

The invitation to citizens to luxuriate in a pleasurable absence of deliberation perhaps connects, too, the rhetorical fashion for spontaneity with the sudden promotion of “mindfulness” by corporate and state interests. A parliamentary working group was even set up this spring to explore the potential for mindfulness in health, education and the criminal justice system. Breath-centred mindfulness meditation is no doubt beneficial for many individuals, sharing as it does certain aspects with similar practices such as yoga and qigong. But it is tempting to suspect that official attempts to impose it on employees or schoolchildren have as one unspoken motivation the desire to create a more pliant individual. The more able you become to concentrate blissfully in the moment, the less troubled you will be by intrusive negative thoughts about your employer or government policy. And so mindfulness can become a counsel of passivity, as well as a mental medication to distract our attention from underlying problems. An institutional population may be offered the anti-stress benefits of mindfulness rather than the removal of the stressors that have made it stressed in the first place.

Mindfulness and spontaneity are both, as psychic ideals, opposed to worry and effort, which we can easily think are what daily life actually requires of us. They could thus be understood alternatively, in an emancipatory way. Perhaps there is a secular version available of the kind of evangelical Protestantism that embraces an ecstatic approach to life, a kind of Dionysian spontaneity that trusts in God’s will. Edward Slingerland’s interesting recent book Trying Not to Try: the Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity, for example, contrasts the overscheduled busywork of a modern productivity freak with what he calls “body thinking”, defined essentially in the same way as the System 1 brain: “tacit, fast and semi-automatic behaviour that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference”. This is certainly desirable for a tennis player facing a 130mph serve, or a martial artist, or an improvising musician, but Slingerland wants to argue that social action can become just as virtuously “spontaneous” as well-drilled athletic or artistic action. In support of this thesis, he cites the opinions of several classical Chinese thinkers (including Confucius) on the traditional virtue of “wu-wei” – the principle of non-action. Slingerland characterises it as “the dynamic, effortless and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective”.

It turns out, as you might guess, that in the opinion of all the tradition’s eminences, such grace can be achieved only through rationally deliberate practice. The true and valuable kind of spontaneity for which Slingerland argues must, paradoxically, be the result of long, conscious training. This is as true of graceful behaviour as it is of mastery in tennis or jazz – no musician becomes a brilliantly “spontaneous” improviser without spending thousands of unobserved hours running through scales. (After an early humiliation when he had the confidence but not the chops to sit with a pro band, Charlie Parker locked himself away to practise for years before he ventured on stage again.) In the matter of respectable behaviour, more­over, the result – desirable though it surely is – is not really “spontaneity” at all but good character, formed through habitual virtuous action, as Aristotle was arguing in another ancient philosophical culture altogether. “The Way of Heaven”, according to one Chinese sage, even excels in “planning for the future, though it is always relaxed”. It doesn’t sound very spontaneous, does it? Wu-wei leads to gracefully appropriate action, but not thoughtlessly random action.

We do seem to have the idea that authentic virtue is spontaneous – being “spontaneously” kind is considered more real than being kind after conscious reflection, though it is hard to see why. Conversely, one may spontaneously offer a hurtful insult or a violent assault. Spontaneity cannot be a good in itself, yet we feel that it somehow makes a good action better. The obvious explanation for this would be to say that an action performed this way implies a history of doing similar things, which is how it became spontaneous in the first place. This is not, however, the point Slingerland emphasises. Instead he wants to praise spontaneous action precisely because it is allegedly unfiltered by the nasty conscious mind.

“We have a very strong intuition,” he writes, “increasingly confirmed by work in cognitive science, that the conscious, verbal mind is often a sneaky, conniving liar, whereas spontaneous, unselfconscious gestures are reliable indicators of what’s really going on inside another person.”

Well, sometimes, perhaps. But of course the conscious, verbal mind can often write interesting books about how one can consciously and verbally achieve the state of social elegance they recommend to their readers, who must similarly absorb such information consciously and verbally, and then act on it. Indeed, since the kind of trained spontaneity Slingerland values is achieved through rational practice, it seems inconsistent to attempt to valorise the one by means of denigrating the other.

The dream of spontaneity is one of escape, but the truth might be that the more time we spend in a self-built cage, the better we can escape. Other work in psychology reported at the premium end of the self-help spectrum seems to indicate, indeed, that pursuing spontaneity at all costs ensures we will be less happy. As Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, has written, the problem with a devotion to spontaneity is that we are all subject to “decision fatigue”, the existential lethargy that sets in quickly when we are forced to make too many trivial choices. The antidote might be, then, to stick even more closely to a timetable. “It’s ironic that people resist schedules because they want to be spontaneous and savour the moment,” Burkeman writes, “given that your average Zen monk – whose whole job, to simplify somewhat, is to savour the moment – abides by a rigorous schedule”.

Freed from the self-imposed pressure to do an awesome thing spontaneously, so this argument goes, we will actually experience more pleasure. “Stop worrying about living spontaneously,” Burkeman advises, “and you might start having more fun.”

But if more fun is our goal, the lure of spontaneity might creep back in. Is our overvaluation of spontaneity not, after all, born of a deep-seated fear – the fear of missing out? If we commit to one social plan for the whole evening, we might be missing out on something cooler happening just around the corner. So the mediated-spontaneity tools of the smartphone comfort us with the idea that it is always possible to bail out in favour of something better. And this is pleasant, too, for the hipster entrepreneurs who have just launched the nearby pop-up absinthe bar or dude-food smokehouse. As Jacob Burak reports in a recent essay, the fear of missing out “occurs mostly in people with unfulfilled psychological needs in realms such as love, respect, autonomy and security”. Too overwhelming a fear of missing out – a generalised attitude of always looking over the shoulder of the person you’re talking to in case there is someone more interesting or attractive at the party – can rob the victim of the ability to take pleasure in anything.

And so it might be that those dedicated to the spontaneous lifestyle will continue to be frazzled and unhappy, however many bikini razors and pairs of Brazilian flip-flops they own – while their masters, whose plans are anything but spontaneous, look on with dark satisfaction.

Steven Poole’s most recent book is “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” (Sceptre, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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The Great Huckster: Boris Johnson’s reckless distortions of history

As a scholar of Churchill, Boris Johnson could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe. Instead, he wilfully manipulates and distorts the historical record.

This month, 76 years ago, the defeated British Expeditionary Force was making for the Channel ports. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then that they would return to Europe to finish the job.

Their forefathers had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember. From Shakespeare’s Henry V through to Elizabeth’s support for the Dutch revolt, the Second Hundred Years War against Louis XIV, the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, London had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the “liberties of Europe” and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did. It was part of what they were.

In early June 1944 – on D-Day – the British, Americans and Canadians hurled themselves into northern France as their ancestors had done since the late Middle Ages. At least one British officer tried to inspire his men that morning as the landing craft approached the strongly defended beaches by reading out Henry V’s speech before Harfleur, in which Shakespeare has him exhort the men, “once more unto the breach”. The film version of the play was released that same year, dedicated to the “commando and airborne troops of Great Britain”. In the popular mind, these Englishmen and their North American descendants were part of the continuity of a European story that went back to the medieval English empire in France.

Some of those liberating Europe thought that they could not simply return to “business as usual” after the war. One of them was the later Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, the man who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. He first defended Liverpool as an anti-aircraft gunner and then took the fight to Hitler as an artillery man during the campaign in north-west Europe. Over the course of the next 11 months, Heath and his comrades fought their way across the traditional battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries, including the Walcheren swamps in which their ancestors had been mired in Napoleonic times; and through western Germany into the centre of the Reich. They were to stay there, at the heart of Europe, for some 60 years. They created a stable European order, based on Nato and what was to become the European Union, which remains with us to this day.

Now the Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that it was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

Far from supporting European political unity, Hitler was violently and explicitly opposed to the idea. This was partly because it was proposed by his opponents on the “left” of the Nazi Party, such as the Strasser brothers. They belonged to the “anti-imperialist” wing of the Nazi Party, which wanted a pan-European front against the Jews and the British empire. Hitler’s hostility to the European project was also in part due to a racial antipathy to the half-Japanese Richard, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the author of the widely discussed book Pan-Europa (1923). One way or the other, Hitler condemned the Pan-Europa movement as “a fantastical, historically impossible childishness”, which would be no more than a “Jewish protectorate”.

Nor did he hold back with his alternative view of what the continent should look like. “The solution,” he wrote, “cannot be Pan-Europa, but rather a Europe of free and independent national states, whose spheres of interest are separate and clearly delineated.” Comparisons involving Hitler are usually odious but if one is going to draw parallels, his view of European integration then was much closer to that of the Brexiters today than that of the advocates of the European Union.

Moreover, the European project did not originate in the Nazis’ attempt to mobilise the continent on their behalf but rather in the resistance movement against Hitler. Take Sicco Mansholt, who hid Dutch resisters on his farm during the war, at great personal risk. He subsequently became the Dutch minister for agriculture and one of the fathers of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Take Altiero Spinelli, the Italian anti-fascist who spent ten years in Mussolini’s prisons. It was there, in June 1941, at the height of Hitler’s power, that he secretly wrote his draft manifesto For a Free and United Europe.

Take Paul-Henri Spaak, later prime minister of Belgium, first president of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – and secretary-general of Nato. He was forced to make a daring escape from wartime Europe in the false bottom of a lorry in order to carry on the struggle against Hitler in exile. Indeed, across Europe there were thousands of men and women who fought, died, were imprisoned or tortured because they believed in a free and united Europe. To suggest that they were trying to achieve the same thing as Hitler by different methods is an outrageous slur on their memory. If Johnson ever makes it to the top of the Conservative Party, and thence to No 10, he will have a lot of explaining and apologising to do in Europe.

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As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

In May 1930, the president of the Pan-Europa Union, the former French prime minister Aristide Briand, made a formal proposal for a “European federal union” based on a “European conference” with an executive to co-ordinate economic and military co-operation. The British government of the time rejected the surrender of sovereignty involved but many were sympathetic to the idea of continental European union under liberal auspices. The arch-imperialist Leo Amery, secretary of state for the colonies and later a powerful critic of appeasement, was a strong admirer of Coudenhove and his projects, which he regarded as the extension of Anglo-Saxon principles to the continent.

Likewise, Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, told parliament in June 1925 that he hoped that one could “weave Gaul and Teuton so closely together economically, socially and morally as to prevent the occasion of new quarrels and make old antagonisms die in the realisation of mutual prosperity and interdependence”. Then, he continued, “Europe could rise again”. Churchill did not believe, however, that Britain should be part of any continental political union. “We are with Europe, but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”

In mid-June 1940, however, as western Europe buckled under the Nazi onslaught, Churchill went a step further. He made an unsuccessful offer of union with France – involving joint citizenship and a common government – designed to lock the French into the war effort against Germany or, failing that, to secure their fleet. The Nazi threat was so existential, in other words, that it justified the surrender, or at least the pooling, of British sovereignty.

When the threat of invasion passed, Churchill returned to the theme of continental European integration. In October 1942, he “look[ed] forward to a United States of Europe in which barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised. He “hope[d] to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole”, and the establishment of a council of “ten units, including the former Great Powers [and thus presumably Britain], with several confederations – Scandinavian, Danubian, Balkan, etc, which would possess an international police and be charged with keeping Prussia disarmed”.

Churchill returned to the subject immediately after the war, as the Soviet threat menaced Europe. In a speech at Zurich University in September 1946, he urged the continent to “unite”, with Britain supporting the project from the outside. Once again, including the Germans was central to his conception. Churchill urged no less than the full political union of the continent in a “kind of United States of Europe” under the “principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter”. He again praised the work of Hitler’s bugbear, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-European Union”.

Churchill demanded an “act of faith”, beginning with “a partnership between France and Germany”, assembling around them the states of Europe “who will and . . . can” join such a union. Its purpose was clear, namely “to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”

Moreover, Churchill argued, “The ancient states and principalities of Germany, freely joined together for mutual convenience in a federal system, might each take their individual place among the United States of Europe.” In short, the new polity was designed to solve not merely the European question but the German problem, the two being one and the same. Once again, Churchill conceived of this United States of Europe alongside but not including the United Kingdom and the British “Commonwealth of Nations”, that is, the empire. Instead, he believed that Britain should be one of the “sponsors of the new Europe”.

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

Far from being intended to promote German power, the European Union was designed to contain it, or at least to channel it in the right direction. Contrary to what Johnson suggests, the euro was not planned by Germany to subjugate Italian industry or any other European economy. It was insisted on by the French to decommission the deutschmark, which they described as Germany’s “nuclear weapon”. Likewise, the Germans are not incarcerating the Greeks in their European prison: Greeks are desperate not to be released back into the “freedom” of the drachma and the corrupt national politics that they joined “Europe” to escape. If there is one thing worse than being dominated by Germany in the European Union, evidently, it is not being in the EU at all.

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it. The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation.

The shame of it is that there is a perfectly plausible Eurosceptic argument on its own merits. It was well stated by Michael Gove at the start of the campaign. It insists on the historical distinctiveness of the United Kingdom, whose history does indeed set it apart from the rest of the continent. It makes the case for a reform of the EU. It rejects the scaremongering of “Project Fear”, on the cogent grounds that the United Kingdom has the political, economic and military weight to prevail even without the stabilisers of the EU. It scorns President Obama’s impertinent warning that Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue” for a trade deal after Brexit, with a reminder that Britain and her empire defied Nazi Germany for two years before the Americans joined the fray, when Hitler declared war on them (not vice versa). One does not have to accept every detail of this discourse to feel its force. Uniquely among the democratic European powers, the United Kingdom can “stand alone” if it must or wants to.

The Achilles heel of the Brexit campaign, however, is that it has no viable vision for continental Europe. Even Gove falls down here, as his idea of a British departure unleashing a “democratic liberation” of the continent is pure fantasy. It seems odd to have to explain this to Brexiters but Britain really is special. Casting off the bonds of Brussels will not emancipate mainland Europe but let loose the nationalist and xenophobic demons tamed by the integration project. This is clear when we look at the rise of radical anti-European parties in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and many other parts of Europe as the European project fragments. These developments should not surprise anyone who knows the history of mainland Europe before the mid-20th century and to a considerable sense beyond.

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Most of continental Europe had failed before 1945 and even now the European Union is only failing better. Unlike virtually every other European state, which has at some point or other been occupied and dismembered, often repeatedly, England and the United Kingdom have largely – with very brief exceptions – been subjects of European politics, never merely objects. In this sense, too, she is exceptional. Yet this should not be an occasion for British triumphalism. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June, the European Union is not an enemy of the United Kingdom. It should best be understood as a modern version of the old Holy Roman Empire; hapless and officious, perhaps, but not malign. It needs help. The failure of the European project and the collapse of the current continental order would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be
directly exposed to the resulting disorder, as it always has been.

In short, the Brexit camp in general and Boris Johnson in particular are missing a great opportunity in Europe. A student and partisan of Winston Churchill, the former mayor of London was qualified to articulate a constructive vision for Britain and the continent. He has failed to understand that the only safe way that Britain can exit from the European Union is not through Brexit – whose consequences for mainland Europe would be dire – but through Euroexit; that is, a Churchillian political union of the continent in close co-operation with the UK.

Instead, in addition to their distortion of the historical record, Johnson and the Brexit camp are committing the cardinal sin of making a decision before they need to. The European Union is not, sadly, a United States of Europe, even though it needs to become one to survive, and is becoming less like one every day. If and when it musters the strength for full political union, there will be plenty of time to leave. Meanwhile, the EU needs all the support that Britain can give it from within.

In 1940, the British forces had been defeated and retreat was the only option. The situation could not be more different today. This is no time to head for the beaches in what will be a legislative Dunkirk of epic proportions, with incalculable consequences not so much for Britain as for the rest of the continent. Unlike in 1940, the United Kingdom is not being forced out of Europe. It has hardly begun to fight there, unless shooting oneself in the foot through Brexit counts as combat. The battle in Britain today is a distraction from the great struggle on the mainland. There is much work to be done in Europe. It is time the British stop tearing themselves apart and return unto the breach once more.

Brendan Simms is a NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane). He is president of the Project for Democratic Union

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster