That the final visit to British shores of President Obama as leader of ‘the free world’ should fall on a weekend when our nation marks the 400th anniversary of its greatest writer’s passing is one of those neat strokes of fate, coming at a moment when the country is perched perilously on the crossroads between alleged integration and alleged isolation. Obama’s unsurprising pro-EU stance, whether his sentiments were given a canny nudge by Dave or not, have proved to be a sly stroke on the part of the Remain camp; regardless of his fairly unremarkable record in his day-job, Obama is a popular figure here, and no amount of crying foul play by the Brexit bunch will really alter that.
Neither Boris nor Farage have issued anything beyond petulant retorts to Obama’s veiled threat as to America’s position should the UK vote ‘no’. There is a certain irony, however, that such a professional patriot as Nigel should possess a frankly flimsy grasp of history. Accusing the incumbent President of being the most anti-British tenant of the White House is somewhat curious considering that just over 200 years ago one of his predecessors – James Madison – declared war on the US’s former colonial overlord. The War of 1812 may now be regarded as a footnote to the far greater Napoleonic conflicts by European historians, but it surely represents a bleaker low point in the Special Relationship than Obama indicating Britain will be shoved to the back of the trading queue if she chooses to retreat from the brotherhood of her nearest neighbours.
I at least expected a myriad of quotes from ‘Henry V’ to constitute the Brexit response to Obama this weekend. Regularly plucked from the text to provoke patriotism at best and jingoism at worst, the words the Bard placed in the mouth of the victor of Agincourt have become a default mechanism for the nation when it perceives itself as being under threat. And there is, of course, a case of the pot calling the kettle black in America preaching European harmony and anti-isolationism when it has spent so much of its existence masquerading as a country breaking with traditional Old World aggression by avoiding excessive participation in world affairs – on the surface, at least. A cursory glance at an enlightening article which appeared online a year ago reveals the US has enjoyed a mere total of 21 years of peace since 1776. In fact, America has never lasted so much as a solitary decade without being involved in some military conflict or another from the moment when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.
‘And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain, and I hate the idle pleasure of these days’; so said Richard III in the hands of Shakespeare’s quill. While the gung-ho war-cry of Henry V may well be evoked to galvanise those who feel Britain’s precious sovereignty is forever in peril from some Brussels directive whilst we remain chained to treaties signed in the 80s and 90s, one could argue a withdrawal from the continent places us back in the role of detached observer on European activities, cast in the role of villain, mistrusted anew by the advocates of the great European project and consequently reinforcing our geographical separation from the mainland. This wasn’t a problem back in the days of the Empire, and we still have a network of connections to our ex-imperial possessions in the Far East, Africa and the Indian Subcontinent that, historically, should have precedence over the neighbours we’ve spent most of our lifetime fighting. After all, we only have a land border with just one country – the Republic of Ireland – which is itself further from Europe than even we are in terms of miles.
The perceived importance of a European Economic Community, not to mention a military one, was passionately promoted by Churchill even before such institutions came into being, but it was Sir Winston’s misfortune to be born too early to participate in the construction of the initial incarnation of the operation. The historical and sentimental ties with the Commonwealth somewhat got in the way of Europe’s post-war destination from Britain’s point of view, leaving the French and the Germans to take control and relegate us to a permanent periphery, even when Ted Heath achieved his long-term ambition of gaining us a place at the table in 1972. Lest we forget, the formation of the Common Market (along with NATO) took place while Europe remained divided between East and West, but the fall of the Berlin Wall, pushing back the borders of democratic Europe to the edges of Russia, changed the makeup of the EU, and the Referendum of June 23 this year will decide our role in an organisation that is a radically different animal to the one it was in 1975.
The Brexit camp contains those who recognise the differences between the modern-day EU and the old EEC as well as those who have always been opposed to any integration with Europe, while even the Remain gang recognise something has to change in order for our continued membership to be something worth fighting for. President Obama’s sentiments are obviously influenced by American interests, but his intervention probably hasn’t helped make the minds up of any don’t knows out there. As with a General Election, notions of doing something in the country’s best interests will largely be supplanted by individual concerns. As someone whose shopping is mostly done online, I would begrudge the addition of import tax on buying overseas goods that EU countries are currently exempt from if we leave, whilst a friend has already decided she will vote ‘out’ due to EU interference in the e-cigarette issue. I suspect this will be a pattern we will all follow come June, and Obama’s opinion will count for little when we visit our nearest polling station.
© The Editor