One of the primary motivations behind the United Kingdom’s divisive Brexit referendum of 2016 was the widely shared sense of victimhood filling the minds of British voters in the years leading up to the plebiscite. Throughout the campaign and in the decades previous to it, the country’s Eurosceptic lobby had crafted the legend of a Great Britain brought low through the machinations of bean-counting bureaucrats and greasy-palmed politicians in Europe. Raised on the imperial myth of British exceptionalism, a majority of the electorate found itself susceptible to the resentment-filled rhetoric of the Brexiteers, harking to the claim that the continental nations had succeeded where Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany had failed, snatching away the freedom and independence of the British (or rather, the English) people through emasculating treaties and agreements.
Only by unshackling itself from the European Union, so went the logic, could the UK return to its rightful place on the global stage, a morally uplifting superpower at the centre of a commercial and cultural imperium. Remarkably, this fantastical tale worked, convincing a sizeable portion of the electorate that the route to the magical land of Britannia could be found through the Brexit wardrobe, shutting the doors firmly behind them.
That same toxic rhetoric of a prestige country being unfairly bullied and hectored by its envious upstart neighbours, continues to influence the thinking of the minority Conservative Party government in London, exacerbated by a parliamentary alliance with the irredeemably xenophobic Democratic Unionist Party. It is also the opinion of a significant swathe of the right-leaning British press. Take this piece of plaintive whining from the Spectator on the recent transition deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union, which it views as an act of “capitulation” to the international bloc:
“Michel Barnier has been criticised for his obstinacy and his lack of imagination in solving issues such as the Irish border. It is true that his constant stonewalling of suggestions put forward by Britain shows the EU in bad light and is a reminder of the freedoms we might enjoy outside the bloc. His tone has been needlessly caustic… But his stubbornness is working: putting Britain on the back foot, forever struggling to defend itself.
The EU can get away with this because the government is in no position to walk away from the negotiating table, or even to threaten to do so. EU negotiators can see this, and have been able to behave as if a trade deal were a one-way concession to Britain, rather than an agreement of mutual interest.
Also, the member states’ power over the European Commission is waning. In Britain, the EU is often thought about as a single entity — and one that in the end will do whatever Germany says. But Angela Merkel is struggling to exert control over her own government, let alone the continent. Juncker and Barnier see an EU that does not take its orders from member states, but draws (or claims to draw) its own democratic legitimacy from the European Parliament. The EU member states have an interest in a good deal with Britain. But the European Commission — the apparatus in Brussels — has an interest in Britain being seen to be worse off after leaving the EU.”
The establishment media in Britain, like many of its fellow-travellers in Westminster, struggles to understand that the EU is attempting to act as one body in order to meet the best interests of all its component parts. Instead, the Brexiteers find it easier to see themselves as the innocent, wide-eyed victims of internal power struggles and conspiracies at the highest levels of power in Brussels, Berlin and Paris. As the plucky solitary Brits facing up to the homogenising continental monolith, the champions of individual liberty on behalf of European peoples who have foolishly or unknowingly succumbed to a centralising tyranny. It is the myth of World War II writ small.
Of course, a roughly similar narrative of victimisation played out in Donald Trump’s successful election to the presidency of the United States of America in 2016. Though in this case the victims were White- or European-Americans, abandoned by Washington and the coastal elites in favour of “non-white” minority communities and immigrants. The buffoonish New York real estate tycoon and the wayward, hard-right scions of the former Tea Party movement became their champions, bankrolled by a coterie of publicity-shy millionaires and billionaires. In much the same way as the affluent financier Nigel Farage and his fractious followers in UKIP, allied to various upper class toffs in the Conservative Party, took the Brexit campaign to victory with the exorbitant backing of various “dark money” donors while posing as the leaders of the White Van Man.
Unsurprisingly, one can see this effect closer to home with the reaction of mainstream unionism to the socio-political changes taking place in the British legacy territory in the north-east of the country. It’s not just the growing evidence of demographic movement, as the northern nationalist electorate reaches parity with its pro-union equivalent, a predicted outcome formerly dismissed by many politicians and commentators as a republican chimera. Society more generally in the Six Counties has undergone a decade of remarkable growth and development, as liberal attitudes have gained a foothold in a once implacably conservative region. While this has impacted both communities, nationalists seem to have internalised the changes more readily, expressing continuity of thought with the new-found liberalism of the majority population or polity on the island.
Unionists on the other hand have tended to view such developments as a mortal threat, a herd of Trojan Horses undermining ethno-national homogeneity and cultural supremacism. Consequently it’s not just a reunited Ireland that some pro-union figures fear but modernity itself. And like Trump during and after the presidency of Barack Obama, they have adopted the argument that if northern nationalists in the Six Counties – or Black- and Latino-Americans in the US – were willing to forget the past, to conform with the language and culture, the norms and traditions of the existing majority, then all would be well. For to do otherwise is to victimise that majority and encourage artificial divisions.