I hope I will be excused for framing my response to David Cameron’s referendum speech with a personal note, even though I have neither struggled for European liberty in the Blitz, nor was I born with the image of the English Channel forever carved into my DNA. My childhood memories of the demolition of the Berlin Wall on German TV are mashed up with those of the drilling of the Channel Tunnel. Nonetheless, Cameron’s mythical view of Britain’s greatness – a small island with a big role – instantly brought to memory the rhetoric of that other declining imperial power with which I am familiar, late and post-Soviet Russia. In fact, my place of birth was, as I learned in first grade, ‘the biggest country in the world’, which reached, at the time, from the Pacific to the Carpathian mountains, and from the Black Sea to the Baltic. Aside from being a repressive state behind whose curtains, as Cameron indicated, many human lives were ‘wasted’, this curtain – jointly drawn by Lord Curzon and by Josef Stalin – also covered a very large common market, with a great deal of internal ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘flexibility’.
In this common market, only some – albeit, a majority – existed as subjects of a centrally planned culture and economy. Others – and some of them now live in London – were able partially to transcend this cage by discovering various kinds of loopholes, or by actively resisting the ‘system’, or a mixture of both. Of this minority, some ammassed great personal fortunes, and others were active in intellectual and cultural associations. Both groups, the ‘oligarchs’ and the ‘intellectuals’, were ready to launch their capital – financial and cultural – onto the global market in the 1990s. As someone descending from the latter group, who benefited from historical luck, the European Union in general, and from German political reforms in particular, I feel it is my duty to draw on my personal experience and some knowledge in responding to his speech. Born in the Soviet Union, I attended schools in Russia and Germany, before taking up an offer from Cambridge to read History.
As I see it, Britain is now a community of citizens publicly defined by English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish heritage, but with notable influences from other European cultures, as well as those from the Indian Subcontinent, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. Together, the citizens and temporary residents of Britain produce not only financial, but also human capital for a world market of both culture and goods. If I want to express my disappointment at the recent turn of events in British public life, it is not only as a now professional historian working at UCL’s Centre for Transnational History and a long-time resident in this country, but also as a partial member of its civic community, someone who is entitled to vote in local and in European elections. I remain also an active citizen in both Germany and Russia, and am analysing the way these three states have interacted historically. I have these specific points to make about Britain as it appears to me and as Cameron’s speech presented it.
1.On Britain’s greatness and Europe. Cameron’s seemingly pro-European opening casts Britain in the old role of a great leader of European civilisation, a hero of liberty. In so doing, like another waning empire familiar to me, Russia, Cameron’s Britain risks drifting into a nostalgic postmemory of greatness tinted with the myth of World War II: a partial memory of historical events that is a poor model for the future. Instead, what strikes me about Britain today is a fascinating and growing public discourse on historical complicity in both liberty and slavery, a form of Vergangenheitsbewältigung not unlike its German precedent. This, and not the Blitz, is a promising foundation for a post-ethnic, multinational Europe that is not fixated on its own past. Russia’s government vampires can suck at their people’s oil and gas resources (exported to Britain and Europe) when the blood of World War II mythology runs out; but what is Britain’s future government elite going to drink? By the looks of it, certainly not EU-funded solar power.
2. On ‘In and Out’. Cameron’s Britain is a ‘she’ when it comes to her greatness, but a ‘he’ when it comes to ‘pulling out’ of a failing, passive union of which it has grown ‘weary’. Does Britain want to be ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the EU, he asks? To decide this, Cameron suggests, we need to know first what the EU is, and once this has been ascertained, the British people can go ahead with the referendum. This leaves the elephant in the room – is it so clear what Britain is? While the Scottish debates go on, we may at least surmise concerning the nature of recent manifestations of popular will. What, then, does the ‘British people’ will? Aside from the results of elections, the other indication of collective manifestations of power the people as a mass had expressed has very little to do with criticising the EU, and a lot to do with Britain as seen by the British government: whether it is mass protests against Tony Blair’s Britain joining George Bush’s US in the Iraq war, urban riots, or mass protests against David Cameron’s Britain excluding its own population from affordable education, all these expressions of ‘will’ have been systematically ignored. The EU discussion is a symbolic distraction from the real conflicts between ‘people’ and ‘government’. As for the students – the possible future of seeing this young population of a future island nation excluded from their equal rights to study at other EU universities, as non-Schengen students are from British universities today, is only an extension of this policy.
3. On Patriotism and the Market. The main line which Cameron and Boris Johnson have been promoting is that of Britain’s desire to be part of a great market, but without the burdens of human and labour rights. The great market, they say, is global, but rights are national. This is a truthful, if bleak, picture of Britain’s selective openness. Yes, British courts are open for use by Russian tycoons, who became stupendously rich by appropriating whole segments of the national economy in the 1990s and now have residence in the UK, to settle their disputes; at the same time, both Russian and British students seeking to study at UK universities face increasingly absurd visa regimes in the one case and a badly thought out financial provision in the other. Polish workers are welcome to work on constructing images of Britain, such as the Olympic stadium, but only if they remain unprotected by EU law. Now, just as during the Cold War, those who can use the loopholes of public systems – whether it is the Soviet, the British, or the EU market, is not important – continue to use them to their advantage. Please explain the logic to me why it is in Britain’s national interest that its – or her, why not? – football teams and press are bought by citizens of Russia, a country that is not a member of NATO, let alone the EU, and why, at the same time, it is not in her interest that British universities and labour market ensure equal rights for British and European students and employees.
In short: Cameron’s Britain is a great market for those who can afford it, and a great nation for those who cannot. His speech highlighted the worst of European traditions in self-definition, throwing out of the window the best. Echoing Churchill, he remembered Europe as it appears in the Daily Mails of the world: a ‘Noble Continent’, as Churchill once put it, a civilisation. Criticising ‘transport metaphors’ as a discourse of normative modernization, Cameron opted for a far more dangerous, gendered metaphor of Britain, the ‘she-man’, whose potence is asserted against a declining and amorphous female power of unions, federations, and rights. And yet should not wonderful writers in English like J.M.Coetzee have shown us who the civil administrator of a neo-imperial policy really is: a weary man who is ‘waiting for the barbarians’, but has forgotten to look in the mirror? Europe is also a Continent that failed to live up to its own image, as a recent volume to which I contributed, Europe in Crisis, eds. Mark Hewitson and Matthew d’ Auria (Berghahn, 2012), suggests.
If ‘repatriating powers’, a favourite phrase of the current government, means rooting rights in fatherlands, I would urge everyone to think twice about how dubious the powers of fatherlands have been in Europe’s own history. Instead, I would suggest turning to a memory of the other Europe, one of which emigres, exiles, and expats living in London between empire and Cold War were only too aware: as a continent that is quite capable of producing the greatest markets and the greatest atrocities all in one package. Is it not this Europe which demands a return to the language of human, and not just national rights? Whether the ‘continental’ authority of a European court of justice assumes stewardship of such a set of rights because it is European, or because it is a court of justice, is another matter.
Dr Dina Gusejnova