If you live on continental Europe, as I do, certain things stand out when you visit Britain. Many are the times that I have only remembered on arrival that its plug sockets are three-pronged (my drawer of hastily purchased European-to-UK adaptors speaks to that). Britain’s currency is also different. British cars drive on the left-hand side of the road over distances measured in miles rather than kilometres. The cities are dominated by low-rise houses with gardens rather than mid-rise blocks of flats. Other curiosities strike the visitor more gradually. Privacy is sacred but people accept a remarkable degree of surveillance. The ragged condition of the public sphere suggests it is a second-order priority, but the NHS and the BBC indicate a society with a collectivist streak. Class differences somehow live on in this otherwise informal and comfortably diverse country.
The looming general election seems to confirm Britain’s strangeness. Continentals tend to regret Brexit as an act of national self-mutilation, but also as a product of Britain’s distinctive character. That its majoritarian electoral system is pushing its two main parties towards percentile results in the late-30s to early-40s, while the old big-tent parties on the continent are struggling in the 20s or below, counts as further proof of that. And if the result is a hung parliament prompting another constitutional crisis, that too will only reinforce Britain’s exoticism in European eyes.
In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes that something as mundane as a Dutch airport sign – with the “double A of Aankomst”, its use of English subtitles, its practical modernist font – can be exotic. Such is the charm of Britain for continental visitors. The country’s exoticism comes from the fact that its strangeness is set somewhere that is otherwise so European. British cities may be distinctive but they are also ultimately recognisable: often with dense pre-modern warrens at their cores and postwar housing estates on their outskirts. The country watches football, consumes alcohol and lingers in public places in a broadly European fashion (hell, we even watch Eurovision). Its political priorities ultimately conform to a European order of priorities: suspicious of the collectivist style dominant in much of Asia but also baffled by the US’s unfeeling individualism.
Is the UK different, or is it European? The answer, of course, is neither and both. This tension between the “exceptionalist” and “continental-conformist” threads of British politics might be considered the fundamental split at its heart. It cuts along the country’s history, across its political divides and even through the election campaign. It remains unresolved and, possibly, irresolvable.
One can trace the divide back as far as one cares to. The British Isles were always a liminal zone between different parts of Europe: Roman and non-Roman; Anglo-Saxon and Viking; Latin cultures to the south, Germanic ones to the east and Celtic ones to the west. That set them apart from the start of the Christian era onwards. Many centuries later Henry VIII’s England broke with Rome and helped to make the ambiguity doctrinal: splitting from the Catholic church, and with it much of the mainland, but with little ideological fervour. Like most European countries, England had a revolution, but unlike many it ended up with a peculiar fudge of parliament and monarchy. That helped open the way for the English and Scottish Enlightenments, which combined continental rationality with a seafaring pragmatism to produce the empirical tradition and the British preference for gradual “muddling through” on a case-by-case basis, rather than deferring to fixed codes or radical ruptures. Britain then obtained an empire, like many European states, but the British empire became bigger and more powerful than the others, leaving deeper and fresher traces in the national mentality. Always European, in other words, and yet always somehow different.
The Second World War also left an ambiguous legacy to the tension between exceptionalism and continental-conformity. As the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole has written, the lesson of the conflict was either that Britain was better off alone or that it had a big stake in Europe. Winston Churchill stoked the uncertainty: “We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not comprised.” In This Blessed Plot the journalist Hugo Young wrote that: “Churchill was called the father of Europe… but he was also the father of misunderstandings about Britain’s part in this Europe. He encouraged Europe to misunderstand Britain, and Britain to misunderstand herself.”
The ensuing postwar era was a contest between the two sides of the ambiguity bequeathed by Churchill and the war. Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair were prime ministers who believed that the country could be simultaneously exceptionalist and continental-conformist. The original exceptionalist was Charles de Gaulle, who argued against Macmillan’s bid for EEC membership on the grounds that “the nature [and] the structure [of Britain] differ profoundly from those of the continentals”. But that mantle was ultimately taken up by Margaret Thatcher, who started as a best-of-both prime minister, but ended up as a pure exceptionalist, as the firmest believer for decades in the idea that Britain was unlike its neighbours.
From her conversion followed the exceptionalist takeover of the Tory party that roiled through the decades and culminated in the referendum of 2016. The campaign to Leave and the vote in favour of that outcome might be seen, above all, as the long-term triumph of the exceptionalist tendency in British politics over the continental-conformist.
Which brings us to the election campaign. Curiously the three also-ran parties are the most continental-conformist. The Liberal Democrats are classic European liberals. In fact, they are becoming more and not less like their European counterparts. Flagging in their Celtic strongholds (always a British curiosity compared with the electoral strongholds of continental liberals), they have their best chances in prosperous, pro-European metropolitan places – just like Germany’s liberal FDP or the Dutch liberal VVD. The SNP slots neatly into a European political landscape replete with vaguely leftish regionalists; Catalonia is just one of many examples. And most European of all, oddly enough, is the Brexit Party, which, as Nigel Farage’s many appearances alongside likes of the AfD and France’s National Rally show, fits seamlessly into the European trend of nationalist parties combining strongman leadership, minority scapegoating and hints of economic redistributionism.
The big parties, the Conservatives and Labour, are the only ones that straddle the divide between an exceptionalist Britain and a continental-conformist Britain. Take the Tories. On the surface, and particularly in their commitment to a hard Brexit, they are straightforwardly loyal to the thesis that Britain is different from the rest of Europe and most naturally aligned with an “Anglosphere” of countries. In Boris Johnson they have a leader who exudes otherness: his priapic poshness is proof to myriad foreign observers that Britain is weird and different.
Yet peek beneath the surface, and Johnson belongs to a continental trend of right-wing leaders who have fused the populist and nationalist right with mainstream conservative politics. That tradition arguably began with Silvio Berlusconi but today takes in Austria’s Sebastian Kurz and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, both examples of the centre right gobbling up the far right. So forget the claim that Britain is the only European country to escape strongman, right-wing populism. That politics lives, alive and well, in today’s Conservative Party.
Labour, too, is motivated by older dreams of British otherness, albeit as an independent socialist commonwealth. Jeremy Corbyn is inspired less by Swedish social democracy than by Palestinian and Latin-American freedom movements. His style is not that of most European social democratic parties, which tend not to be not afflicted by endemic anti-Semitism and, unlike Labour’s leadership, tend straightforwardly to back membership of the EU in the interests of taking on global capital.
In that respect Labour is exceptionalist. Yet the party also adheres in many ways to the continental-conformist tradition. Its much-attacked spending plans would inflate the state only to something close to the European average. And Corbyn has bridged the populist hard left and the established centre left in a fashion that evokes the emerging Socialist-Podemos government in Spain, Portugal’s left-of-centre coalition and the leftwards tilt of Germany’s Social Democrats in their leadership election earlier this month. The parallels are not perfect – Britain’s first-past-the-post system gives Corbyn an advantage that his continental counterparts lack – but not irrelevant either.
So Britain goes to the polls with its smaller parties conforming to European trends and its two big parties, buoyed by an unfair electoral system, caught between national exceptionalism and continental-conformism. What next? A Tory, pro-Brexit win would seem like a big win for the exceptionalist tendency but could spur a continental-conformist revival when the little-contemplated realities of Johnson’s trade deals become clear. When it comes to chlorinated chicken, Brits will prove as European as their neighbours. And in the event of a hung parliament or a Labour majority, the ensuing battles over Brexit and Labour’s spending plans will pit the ideal of European Britain against that of a different sort of Britain time and again.
It is unlikely this election will produce any sort of settlement of the exceptionalist versus continental-conformist battle in British politics. And Britain will go on being a somewhat European, somewhat un-European country. As I put it to my continental friends: always bring an adaptor.
This article appears in the 04 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want