Old King Knut

If Theresa May’s Brexit settlement gets through, says Boris Johnson, it will mean that ‘for the first time in a thousand years this place, this Parliament, will not have a say over the means to govern this country’. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaZnEpgNJpA; 1 minute 34 secs in).

What a poor historian he is! In the first place, the British parliament hasn’t existed for anything like ‘a thousand years’. (A thousand years ago, in fact, most of England was ruled from Denmark.) Secondly, if this is going to be ‘the first time’, it follows logically that the British Parliament has  had a say over the last forty-odd years of EU membership. Wriggle out of that, Boris. (He’s an experienced wriggler.)

And thirdly: there’s this whole question of ‘control’. That’s what the Brexiteers are always banging on about. ‘We want to regain control of our own laws and practices.’ – But what a thousand years of our history do tell us is that ‘control’ isn’t a simple matter of who has the formal reins of government in his or her (or even their) hands. Every polity is buffeted by external influences, and the smaller that polity is the less it can do about them. Freedom from the European Union will not return any meaningful agency to Britain or her rulers. Indeed, we may be even more tightly constrained than we presently are by Brussels: for example by conditions demanded by countries we wish to trade with (chlorinated chicken), or by the raw impersonal imperative of late-stage global capitalism. Old imperial historians like me recognise this as what we call ‘informal imperialism’. The only way of defending our national interests against this sort of thing – American or Chinese informal imperialism, say, or the international and impersonal capitalist behemoth – is in combination with other countries.

Which is why the Brexiteers’ cry of ‘national independence’ is so foolish; as the Danish King Knut demonstrated (in a way) all those years ago, at Bosham in West Sussex, when he set his throne down on the beach and commanded the tide to go back. The point he was making to his courtiers then, of course, which many quoters of the myth miss, is that even a King had no such power. Maybe if he had managed to line up a few more thrones beside him he might have managed to withstand the sea. OK, not the best of metaphors, I admit; but it’s the main reason – the hope of combining to resist the informal imperialism of others – why I voted to remain in the EU. (The Danes are still there, after all.)

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