Saturday, 23 April 2016

Obama bursts Britain’s post-imperial hubris

The crux of the Brexiters' argument is an anglosphere alliance. Yesterday the US president told them it’s not going to happen.

That sound you heard yesterday across the United Kingdom was the collective wince of a nation finally made to accept an uncomfortable truth – he’s just not that into you.

Americans are largely unaware of what’s happening with the Brexit debate, but whether they know it or not they are central to the case for the UK seceding from the European Union. They are also largely unaware that they are in a “special relationship” with the UK, a term which, as I’ve written before, is obsessed over in the UK but unknown in the US.

For years US politicians have indulged the British in their fantasies of a two-way relationship between equal partners. But in light of the severe risk a Brexit presents, Barack Obama had no choice but to fly to the UK and finally break the bad news to the Brits.

‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ he told them. The US is interested in forging relationships with big powers, and the UK on it’s own would not be one. In a newspaper op-ed and yesterday more forcefully in an appearance at 10 Downing Street, standing next to British Prime Minister David Cameron who is desperately trying to stop the Brexit nightmare from becoming reality, he told the British the hard truth. He has said it in less strident terms for years, but it was time to deliver some brutal honesty.

He referenced the Brexiter’s argument that the EU is holding back the UK from building tighter trading relationships with its former colonies. He said the idea that the US would quickly agree a free trade deal with the UK alone was folly. “Our focus is going to be on getting a trade agreement with a big bloc - the European Union. And the UK is going to be at the back of the queue".

‘The back of the queue’ – those are the words that are going to sting the most. Do you make someone with whom you’re in a ‘special relationship’ get in the back of the queue? I think not.

Unhinged reaction

Cue the absolute fury of the leave camp. Their childlike, Trump-esque reaction, even abusing the US president with racially-charged taunts, shows the degree to which this debate is not really about the EU at all. It is about the UK and it’s place in the world. Or, more specifically, the inability of many people in Britain to accept their country’s place in the 21st century.

The Brexiters, who have made alliance with the US one of the cores of their argument, suddenly said the US is irrelevant in this debate and Obama should but out. But Obama sensibly observed, since they are offering “an opinion about what the US is going to do, I thought you might want to hear an opinion from the president of the United States on what the US is going to do”.

What followed has been a national embarrassment. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and the most prominent political backer of Brexit, wrote an editorial attacking Obama and saying that the “half-Kenyan” US president has an “ancestral” dislike for the UK that is clouding his judgement.

Others took it even further, launching into a tirade not only against Obama himself but against the US as a whole, like a jilted lover who flips on a dime from sycophantic admiration to passionate hatred. UKIP MEP Mike Hookem said the US has been trying to undermine Britain ever since World War II, and that America only entered the war to “smash the UK’s influence in the world” (!).

This from the same people who have talked about the US in semi-devotional tones for the past two decades. This was the moment they lost the plot, where their hatred for the EU bubbled over to hatred of the US, and now makes them look like isolationist grumps who hate everybody.

Perhaps the most bizarre reaction has been from the Brexiters saying it is hypocritical for the US to tell the UK to stay in the EU, because Obama would never enter the US into such a union. This exposes the deluded conceit held in the mind of so many English people - that the UK is equal in size and heft to the United States. The US wouldn't enter into such an arrangement because it does not need to. The UK does. As The Guardian put it yesterday, "Britain is strong and rich, but it is also a relatively small country adjacent to a continent. The US virtually is a continent."

Can Obama fix the English?

I’ve banged on for years about how the UK needs to confront this post-imperial trauma. What is encouraging is that this week, Obama seemed to start them on that path. The reaction in the British media has been spot-on. They are taking a sober look in the mirror for the first time that I’ve ever seen.

The Guardian wrote that “It took Obama to crush the Brexit fantasy”. The Financial Times wrote that “Brexiters are nostalgics in search of a lost empire”. It’s the first time I’ve seen the Brexit debate called out for what it really is in the British media.
“Many in the Conservative party, which is overwhelmingly English, are drawn to the idea of a revived Anglosphere, a union of sorts between the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which might provide a congenial substitute for the EU…But the impracticality of Anglosphere ideas is not the point. They illustrate the passion among Brexiters for a liberated, Britain/England operating again on a world stage.”
So will Obama’s intervention be enough to stave off Brexit, or is the post-imperial trauma in much of the British public's minds too strong to undo in just a few weeks time? I suppose we will know by 23 June. 

However the referendum goes, 22 April will be remembered as the day that the UK was forced to confront its place in the modern world. People will now know that if they were to turn their back on Europe, they will truly be going it alone in the world. Are there enough British people who think that promises a bright future.

Obama was right, and brave, to at least try to make these people understand reality.

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