Article Published August 27th, 2020

The Abbot(t)’s tale

The Prime Minister, demonstrating an extraordinary vote of no confidence in Britain’s reserves of domestic talent, and perhaps an even more extraordinary insouciance towards the extremely technical nature of contemporary international commercial accords, reportedly intends to appoint the former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to lead Britain’s post Brexit trade negotiations.

Mr Abbott is something of a soul-mate of Mr Johnson. He is a former journalist, who became his party’s and his country’s leader on the basis of a populist personal appeal, which swiftly subsided in office, and led to his removal after two years by an internal coup. More immediately relevant for Mr Johnson however is Mr Abbott’s clear commitment to Brexit. He is on record as saying that “No country on earth should be more capable of standing on its own two feet than Britain.” Obviously, he does not see his own appointment as a contradiction of this. He has also repeatedly described concerns over climate change as “crap”. Which might prove a handicap given recent studies by the World Trade Organisation, the European Union, and even the United States Department of Commerce, estimating that such concerns will constitute a “dominant”, “key”, or “significant” factor in determining the shape, scope and substance of future trade negotiations.

But it is Mr Abbott’s attitude towards the historic significance of Brexit which is most in tune with Mr Johnson’s own sentiments, recently rehearsed in his excoriation of the BBC’s alleged desire to excise “Rule Britannia” from the repertoire of the Last Night of the Proms. His conviction that “Britain must learn again to take pride in her history” is central to his “Churchill in 1940”, as Mr Abbott has described it, perception of Brexit. In the same interview, Mr Abbott went on to say that as the UK was “the country which has seen off the Spanish Armada, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the German Kaiser and Hitler” it “did not need Europe, it saved Europe.” He concluded with the bombastic assertion that if Britain reversed Brexit it would be “the greatest national humiliation since the Norman Conquest”.

All of which reveals the central contradiction of Brexit, that the concept of “Global Britain” only has any meaning precisely in a European context for Britain’s identity. Britain has “global” qualities, only because of its central place in creating and sustaining “European” civilisation.

For even if Britain (or England) “did not need Europe” against Philip II (forgetting the Dutch, French and German Protestants) or Louis XIV (forgetting the Dutch and the Austrians) or Napoleon (forgetting the Spanish and the Russians) or the Kaiser (forgetting the French, Italians and Americans) or Hitler (forgetting the Russians and the Americans). Or even if Europe never “saved” Britain (forgetting the Dutch invasion of 1688, which rescued us from falling into the orbit of Catholic Absolutism, or, despite Mr Abbott’s clear sympathies for the Saxon aboriginals, the Norman invasion of 1066 (incidentally supported by some leading representatives of earlier British aboriginals, the Bretons) which rescued us from falling into the orbit of Scandinavian semi-pagan barbarism. All these developments were part of, and only earn their distinction by the measure in which they have contributed positively to, European civilisation. In short, Britain has indeed “saved Europe” on several occasions and in several ways, intellectually, technically and commercially (for example as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution) far more in fact than merely militarily. “Saving Europe” is what makes us Europeans.

Our history should indeed therefore be “something we should be proud of” as it should be celebrated in some degree, by all who share and value European culture. However, it means little or nothing to those who do not share and value European culture. Indeed, as we are beginning to recognise, where some of that British and European history does have meaning for those who do not share and value European culture, it is highly negative, a litany of oppression which the West is increasingly being pressured to acknowledge and atone for. And there can be little doubt that a failure to do so, where fully justified, diminishes European culture, every bit as much, if not more, than does the denial and dismissal of the extraordinary horrors which Europeans have inflicted upon each other (such as the Holocaust).

These are not abstract academic questions. They are the underlying tinder of a new culture war, in the United States, and in Australia, a new culture war that Brexit is also bringing to Britain. Mr Johnson and Mr Abbott believe the clear path for both Britain and Australia is to cleave as closely as possible to the lead of the United States rather than Europe. But the outcome of the protracted, newly amplified, internal American debate over identity (which has already long since toppled the traditional WASP ascendency) is far from clear, and could well, (for example through the growing weight of the Hispanic community) lead to a more overt cultural Europeanisation. The European heritage of Australians is also no longer just British.

In any event, a renewed emphasis on British and Australian links with the United States, because of the challenge of China, will certainly lead to a significant curtailing of current and future commercial connections not just with that powerful economy, but also with other rising non-Western economies, notably in Africa. This is not a “global” strategy, it is a new Cold War division of the world. But crucially one in which American preponderance, economically, and through the impact of the new culture war, also perhaps morally, is likely to diminish significantly. That can only mean a re-assertion of European civilisation, and so places US-EU co-operation at the core of the “Western” effort. How does all this fit into the Johnson-Abbott vision for Britain?

So Mr Abbott’s appointment certainly provokes the question: how many of those who promoted, let alone voted for, Brexit, really identify with an “American” rather than a “European” Britain? And what does the answer mean for the future of British society, for the future of Brexit and, above all, for our future capability to actually make history of which we will be proud, not just sing about it?