Fintan O'Toole: The Paranoid Fantasy Behind Brexit: "In the dark imagination of English reactionaries, Britain is always a defeated nation–and the EU is the imaginary invader...

...This idea of a treacherous elite would later ferment into a heady and intoxicating brew of suspicion that the Brexiteers would both dispense to the masses and consume themselves.... The other crucial idea here is the vertiginous fall from “heart of Empire” to “occupied colony”.... In the English reactionary imagination, dystopian fantasy was and is indistinguishable from reality. Rhetorically, it was commonplace among British anti-Europeans that the EU was a continuation in another, more insidious form, of previous attempts at domination from the continent.... Kenneth Minogue of the London School of Economics... “the European institutions were attempting to create a European Union, in the tradition of the mediaeval popes, Charlemagne, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Adolf Hitler”. The sleight of hand was not subtle: Hitler tried to unite Europe, so does the EU, therefore the EU is a Hitlerian project. But the lack of subtlety did not stop the trope from being used in the Brexit campaign....

Europe’s role in this weird psychodrama is entirely pre-scripted. It does not greatly matter what the European Union is or what it is doing–its function in the plot is to be a more insidious form of nazism. This is important to grasp, because one of the key arguments in mainstream pro-Brexit political and journalistic discourse would be that Britain had to leave because the Europe it had joined was not the Europe it found itself part of.... As Boris Johnson put it in September 2017, the “post-imperial future” was “sold to the people purely as a common market, a way of maximising trade”. But “then came the gradual realisation that this was a very different agenda, an attempt not just at economic but political integration of a kind that the British people had never bargained for.” In itself, this is no more than usually mendacious–the truth being that “ever closer union” was always an explicit part of what the British signed up to in 1973 and voted for in 1975.

What matters, though, is the way it misses the point. The idea of Europe as a soft-Nazi superstate was vividly present in 1975, even when the still-emerging EU had a much weaker, less evolved and less intrusive form. The imaginary existential struggle between the gallant English Resistance and the Euroreich was already being played out....

Yet what brings these disparate modes together is the lure of self-pity, the weird need to dream England into a state of awful oppression. If we return to Nicholas Ridley’s rant, the striking thing is the way it wishes Britain back into wartime: “I’d rather have the shelters and the chance to fight back.” This suggests that what Britain was experiencing in the 1990s at the hands of the EU was actually worse than the war of 1939–45 in which it triumphed.... Ridley’s... suggestion is that a physical invasion by the Nazis would have been preferable to the membership of the EU which achieved the same ends by more cunning and dishonourable means. At least the Nazis could have been, in Churchill’s great and galvanic rhetoric, fought on the beaches, hills, fields and streets. They offered the “chance to fight back”....


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