In the debate about Brexit, both Labour and Tory members have harkened back to our part in ‘winning’ the Second World War. Vociferous and conservative factions on both sides see leaving the EU as an oportunity to revisit the two great issues of that time. The first was whether and how to create the socialist dream of state control and intervention in the economy. The second was Britain’s place in the world. Was it to be founded on our already fading Imperialism? Alternatively, were we to cast off that mantle and start anew by abandoning any pretensions to Imperial ‘glory’ and accommodating ourselves to the “real mediocrity of our circumstances” which Adam Smith had recommended two centuries earlier as the best means of securing real prosperity? The traditionalists in the Labour Party won out and we saw the beginning of our flirtation with economic socialism, which lasted until the 1980s when the affair ended in disaster and we found ourselves going cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund to bail out our failed economy. As to our place in the world, the progressives in the Tory party won out. We shed our Empire and eventually our post-Imperial pretensions by joining our fate to the rest of Europe in what is now the EU.
The abandonment of any pretensions to economic socialism in the 1980s, when Mrs Thatcher came to power, and to any post-Imperial ‘glory’, when we joined the EU, left behind a seething rump of ‘conservatives’ in both the Labour and Tory parties. One was convinced that the only problem with post war socialism was that it had not gone far enough in controlling the economy. The other was convinced that Britain’s place should still be that of an independent ‘big-hitter’ on the world stage founded around our relations with the old Empire, including the now independent and united colonies in the USA. Those conservatives, both right and left, see Brexit as a chance to reset history.
The Corbynite left want to throw off the constraints of the EU, which they still regard as a “capitalist conspiracy”, and get back to state intervention big time. The ERG right want to cut lose from our EU moorings, rekindle our relationships with our former colonies (many of whom shed blood to be rid of us last time round) and head out into international waters as the freebooting adventurers that they believe once made Britain Great.
One of the very few up-sides of the Brexit debacle and the UK’s and EU’s inability to escape each other may prove to be the long awaited triumpth of mediocrity and the over-due extinction of the post-War dinosaurs.