Withering the EU

The single currency really is a very exciting and important question.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics
  • A disease of the mind

It’s a shame that the suffocatingly dull Brown-Blair ‘feud’ has overshadowed the issue of the European single currency, because ‘Wither the EU?’ really is a very exciting and important question.

Not to most people, admittedly. In truth, the matter only seems to arouse the less appealing sections of society. On one hand, you have retrograde socialists, swivel-eyed backbench Tories and people with tattoos denouncing it as a menace to ‘good old-fashioned British socialism’ or ‘our precious national sovereignty’. On the other, there are the neophiliacs and dreary internationalists, sermonising about the need to ‘bring down boundaries’ and ‘put away petty nationalisms’ so that we can build a bright, shiny future fit for ‘the kids’.

Although there is something to be admired in the latter aspiration, it is a little bit fanciful. Every obedient student of the humanities today knows that nationalism is fundamentally bogus. It is, according to Anthony D Smith, an invention. After Benedict Anderson, it is imagined. Or as Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger have written, it tries to mask its novelty with references to a golden age – many of Britain’s apparently ‘ancient’ traditions are actually nineteenth-century fabrications.

Because the nation is not timeless, it is not immortal. And the sooner we deconstruct it the better: without these petty differences, say the europhiles, we will be free from wars and settle down to a harmonious existence worthy of a Benetton advert.

Yet simply dismissing nationalism as ‘stupid’ and ‘imagined’ is the equivalent of rubbishing religion for being superstitious mumbo-jumbo. It’s the fact that enormous chunks of humanity believe it to be true and self-evident that matters. As with religion, people will die and kill for their nation. And there is a possibility that further European integration will heighten, rather than erase, petty nationalisms. This may be caused precisely by the single currency and single interest rate that comes with it.

The experience of Britain in the 1980s illustrates the power of nationalism. In that decade, the need to dampen inflation in the south through high interest rates led to mass unemployment in the north. When the north-south gap widened, people from Newcastle and Sheffield might have become resentful at the richer south, but not collectively antagonistic of southerners.

There has since been no popular political party demanding self-determination for Yorkshire or Durham. There’s no Mancunian Braveheart, glorifying in the gory dismemberment of Kentish men, no Trainspotting with Scousers whining about being colonised by effete Cockney wankers. In Scotland, however, this did happen. Because the Scots could utilise national feeling and a feeling of substantial difference.

At present, the flat interest rate across Europe is too low for Ireland and too high for Germany. This results in inflation concerns in the former and high unemployment in the latter. And there’s nothing either country can do about it. Because the two nations are separated by a cultural chasm, there will be no substantial population movement to ameliorate it either.

Unlike the USA, the EU shares no common language or culture. If things are getting a bit rocky in Boston, then you can always move to Seattle or Texas, and feel barely any culture shock. But Germans are not moving en masse to low-unemployment Ireland because, well, it’s like a foreign country to them. If things continue in this manner we will end up with entire countries being pockets of poverty and resentment towards other nations.

It’s all very well comparing nationalism to a disease of the mind, but diseases need to be taken seriously. You don’t cure them by hoping that they are simply going to go away.

  • Just because you’re losing

It’s good and proper that a primary school in Sutton Coldfield has been attacked for abolishing its ‘competitive’ sports day, for fear that children who lose on the field might be traumatised as a consequence. With the return of Channel 4’s Big Brother, however, it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s not much to admire either in our present culture of schadenfreude.

The chief appeal of Big Brother, as with the likes of The Weakest Link, Pop Idol and so on, seems to be laughing at losers. Everyone takes delight in seeing who is going to be evicted from ‘the household’, waiting for them to burst into tears as they are paraded past a snarling mob. We enjoy Anne Robinson mocking her contestants before, with a contemptuous wave of the hand, telling them to be on their way. We tune in to Pop Idol to see how many budding singers Simon Cowell can reduce to tears.

No doubt, many of the imbeciles who volunteer for these shows get what they deserve. It’s just that the malicious attitude towards them betrays the British public’s own lack of ambition and resentment at its sorry lot in life. To take glee in other people’s misfortunes is not too dissimilar from our aversion to competitiveness. It is the state of mind of bitter folk who don’t know how to deal with setbacks in a mature and constructive fashion.

  • Paranoid androids

What have the Matrix films got in common with Minority Report, The Truman Show, Blade Runner and Total Recall? In all these successful movies, identity is questioned and reality itself is in doubt. They are ultra-sceptical works that feast on our paranoia. They suggest not so much that society has merely become atomised and individualistic, but positively solipsistic.

People who have seen Matrix Reloaded say that the plot is incomprehensible nonsense. I reckon that the Wachowski brothers have missed a trick. They should have insisted that the reality Neo his crew escaped to in the first outing was itself just another reality fabricated by computers, and demand that they had to escape from that. This would have nicely screwed up an already screwed-up audience.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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