Unconscious folk history influences cultural choices over centuries. Even after so long in the US, Hawaii’s left-democratic politics reflect the influence of ancient Polynesian values, while Iceland’s return after seven centuries of Christianity to its egalitarian and pagan roots shows how a people’s integrity of spirit can long survive underground. Similarly, and shedding light on the Brexit referendum in 2016, the governance history of Europe has two main traditions, one inherited from the Ancient Roman Empire (ARE) and the other from the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), with Britain buffeted by both.
The ARE was a mafia state that radiated the glamour of conquest, imperium, ownership, and law, and lasted so long that its subjects accepted remote, god-like rule as the natural order of things. This model was replicated in many successor states and institutions, including the Catholic Church and Russia. But outside Roman influence, the HRE developed in eastern parts of the Frankish empire founded by Charlemagne in 800 AD. It was invented by the German peoples, and was run as an area of trading standards and human rights protections under the supervision of an emperor elected by lords and bishops based in different cities. These ‘electors’ were local rulers, so the peoples of the eastern Frankish lands had a millennium of experience with standard-setting but locally-empowering governance that eventually gave rise to the Federal Republic of Germany, and then the EU.
The world wars shattered nationalist dreams and scattered a kind of ‘fairy dust’ to create an HRE-like system across most of Europe, but this settled only weakly on England and Russia. England held onto its 1688 constitution, a compromise that suspended a bloody 150-year struggle between the two heritages, until Brexit reignited it 330 years later. Brexit is the work of hard-right politicians, with shady domestic and foreign backers, who have engineered the breakdown of an obsolete constitution to create chaos. This is not the first time. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote of 1914 in The Age of Empire: “What made the British political situation dangerous on the eve of war was not the rebellion of the workers, but the division within the ranks of the rulers, a constitutional crisis …”, with Ireland having a key role as ever.
Part of the problem is misunderstanding of what the EU actually is. Thus, where Germans see the European Commission as an HRE-style emperor freely-chosen by ‘electors’ (i.e. member governments), many English people see the institution as a despotic ARE-style emperor and ‘freedom from Rome’ as an eternal national goal. The conspirators have thus been able to manufacture polarisation, and threaten with an angry mob those who oppose them. Their strategy is to paralyse and frighten, while normality is first eroded and then shattered by a hard Brexit, and forces favourable to the plotters are assembled.
This is Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’ in action, haunting a country that is vulnerable because it never moved on from its class-based entitlement myths. ‘It can never happen in England’ people say, but they are wrong. It’s happening before our eyes, as Parliamentarians entrench themselves in positions that benefit no one but the conspirators. Our poor European allies, especially those like Germany that have learned from the past, must be watching in dismay, wondering what English fascism will look like, and how aggressive it will be. Russia, meanwhile, kept faith with its ARE heritage, making it plausible that its policy is to oppose vestiges of the HRE, including the EU. Since an HRE-like system is the only plausible way to organise a free and sustainable world, much is at stake in this struggle.
© Julian Caldecott