Hornblower’s Brexit

I found the English of a piece I wrote for Dagens Nyheter last summer when Johnson resigned from Theresa May’s cabinet, in which I argued that the only way to reach Brexit Fantasy Island was by letting Admiral Hornblower steer the ship, I’ve put it here to see how well it stands up fourteen months later

After the cabinet resignations and outbreak of open civil war in the Conservative party it’s clear now that the future has narrowed down to two sorts of Brexit.

First is the kind of Brexit that nobody wants. This is the one Theresa May is trying to organise. Not even she herself wants or believes in it, and the EU certainly doesn’t, but it’s the logical outcome of her commitment to deliver the impossible outcome of a Brexist that changes everything in the imagination and nothing much in reality.

The second sort is the “clean break” or “hard” Brexit that only about a third of the Conservative party MPs, and a much smaller proportion of the country, wants and that everyone else, including most of the MPs and cabinet, understands will be a catastrophe. The problem is that this is the desire of a great majority of Conservative grass roots members, and they want it for reasons that are almost entirely mythical.

There is also the Brexit that is averted at the very last moment, which would be the choice of a small, but clear and growing majority of the British people. But that would require both a second referendum, a general election, and the patient forbearance of our European partners while our politics went into complete meltdown.

My guess is that we will end up with the Brexit that everyone pretends didn’t happen, where the “transition” arrangements drag on for decades, and all that the referendum result has accomplished is a complete and irreversible transfer of power to Brussels.

If this happens, it will be both the result that any sane observer would have predicted at the outset of the process, and the result which hard brexiteers were most afraid of and which they were acting – they thought – to avert.

So how did they drag the rest of us there? In particular, what produced the ludicrous and self-defeating fantasy of a “global Britain”, which could somehow cast itself off from Europe and reposition itself anywhere it chose in the world? To answer this question, you must delve into the mythical version of British history they were brought up to believe.

You won’t find the answer in politics. It emerges from the subculture of the British upper classes, and the sort of people who become Conservative MPs. It may not have been taught in classrooms, but it was much more powerful for that. It wasn’t something that needed to be taught or believed explicitly: it was just one of those things that everybody knows.
One of the best ways to understand it is to reread a series of historical novels which sold wonderfully well in the Forties and Fifties, about a Royal Naval commander in the Napoleonic Wars.

The Hornblower novels of C.S. Forester track the progress from midshipman to Admiral of and English hero, Horatio Hornblower. They have much less subtlety of character than the later novels of Patrick O’Brien, which deal with the same period but they are huge fun to read. The action is vivid. There are storms, mutinies, battles on land and in everything that floats from a rowing boat to a ship of the line. By the end of the books the reader feels confident that he (I doubt she) could serve competently on a ship of the line.

Hornblower himself is the perfect Englishman: honourable, brave, resourceful in ways that no foreigner could approach. Nothing frightens him except failure — or the expression of any emotion.

As the series progresses, and he is successively promoted, he is rewarded by a marriage with the Duke of Wellington’s (imaginary) sister, a perfect fantasy figure: “Her stoic English upbringing had schooled her into distrusting emotion and into contempt for any exhibition of emotion … But she could only trust herself to say a single word. ‘Orders?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ answered Hornblower, and then gave vent to some of the powerful mixed emotions within him. ‘Yes, dear.’”

These bloodthirsty wooden sailors play their parts set against a particular geopolitical background and this is what is still influential in the Tory imagination. Europe is under the rule of “the Corsican Tyrant”. Britain alone stands for freedom, even though its freedom is guaranteed by ships manned by kidnapping men off the streets of port cities and flogging them into obedience. But the point is that the British navy, and the British command of the seas, enables Britain to defeat the most powerful land army the world had ever seen. Hornblower, as a young man reflects on what it meant to have command of the sea:

“the fleets of her enemies [were] cooped up in port, blockaded by vigilant squadrons eager to come to grips with them …The Renown could sail the seas in utter confidence that she had nothing to fear. She could flout the hostile coasts; with the enemy blockaded and helpless she could bring her ponderous might to bear in a blow struck wherever she might choose.”

This was in fact true as long as the empire lasted and it stayed long after that in the institutional memory of the governing classes. In 1963, when I was first shipped off to boarding school, aged eight, my housemaster was a former naval captain and the dormitories were named after battleships and aircraft carriers – Ark Royal, Illustrious, and Hood.

In the real world, the last kick of this dying tradition was the Falklands War, when the Navy once again projected British force around the world. In most British schools children today learn nothing of the history of the Empire as we were taught it: a set of glorious battles fought on foreign soil and made possible by the heroics of the Royal Navy. We don’t have the ships to fight another Falklands War today, even if we could secure the necessary American permission to do so.

But the belief that Britain could be anywhere in the world it wanted to be, because Britannia rules the waves lurks in the imagination of anyone over sixty who was privately educated – and these people are the core membership of the Conservative Party and they can’t see that anything has changed. It is as if there were a powerful lobby in Swedish politics arguing that the country’s geopolitical future lay in re-establishing the union with Finland, and reconquering the Baltic states.

This goes much deeper that the obvious British nostalgia for the second world war, important though that it. The generation who fought in that war was also the one which led us into the EU. They were realists. But Mrs May, as she faces her party, is fighting with spirits (vålnad). It is not just Michel Barnier she must negotiate with: it is the angry ghost of Admiral Hornblower and all his great, departed, ships.

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