Guest Article: George Michael and Brexit A View from the Thames Valley

By Prof. Beatrice Heuser

Overnight, during the Christmas news doldrums, our village became the focus of world attention. For a month ago, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, better known as George Michael, born in London to a British mother and a Cypriot father, ended his life in his country house on the Thames in the idyllic village of Goring. Following the example of the new ritual of mass mourning which Britain invented at the death of Princess Diana, the access to his house is now strewn with bouquets of flowers in their white plastic wrappers and many very odd donations from balloons and a guitar to T-shirts inscribed “Choose Life”, the motto of an anti-suicide campaign he sponsored. Even now, a month later, fans make their pilgrimage to Goring to pay homage. One wonders whether they cared or even knew as much about the decision they took in the “Brexit” Referendum on 23 June 2016 as about the life of George Michael.

Seven months after the Brexit vote, some of us are still rattled. The outcome is proof that Europeans in different countries have always thought of the European Union in different ways. In Spain and Greece, membership of the EU is seen as a way of escaping the great divides within the country itself, with the Union at the highest, not at the lowest common denominator. Countries that were in Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire – above all France and Germany – had (but do young generations still have?) some emotional identification with this historic heritage that preceded nationalism and frontiers. A (declining?) majority within those countries embrace the narrative that nationalism had bad effects, leading to the creation of barriers and the wars of many centuries. Most continental peoples associate the EU with human rights and a larger, liberating identity, and with a peaceful, civilised way to settle problems.

In Britain, by contrast, most people have never seen European integration in that light. Before or after membership of the European Economic Community (EEC, the forerunner of the EU), they could travel; they still prefer taking the ferry to taking the time-saving Channel Tunnel, and therefore their passage experience is still one of Britain being separate, and passports being controlled, as it has always been. They only identified the “Common Market” with free trade (good) and otherwise see the EU as an alien empire dictating rules and regulations (bad, like the Roman Empire, and unsuccessful attempts to subject England by the Catholic Church through the agency of Philip II of Spain with his Inquisition and the Armada, of Napoleon and Hitler). Against this, England/Britain defended its Freedom – a nice flexible catch-all that throughout European history has expressed anything and everything, and now stands for poorly paid jobs with little social security, and a romance of Britain as part of a seafaring Anglosphere but not of the European Continent.

As an unemployed blue-collar worker in his late 50s said on BBC Radio in early September 2016, he had no hope of finding employment again, and could not afford to pay the medicines for his wife, and had voted for Brexit to “make Britain great again”. Unpack those assumptions: i.e. Britain was great before it joined the EEC in 1973, he would have been employed, and the National Health Service would have paid for all health needs. None of this would have been true. Labour minister Aneurin Bevan already resigned in 1951 when the young NHS was so overstretched that it could not pay for dentures any longer, and Britain joined the EEC because it was economically at rock bottom with high unemployment, labour unrest, and much poverty. But clearly, if this man is anything to go by – and a recent study suggests he is, see – there is a myth prevalent among the British white lower classes of a golden age that was lost when Britain joined “Europe” (never mind geographic and historical facts).

In short, The whole narrative of the Pax Romana and Charlemagne and how the Holy Roman Empire managed most internal conflicts peacefully (until the religious wars) and co-ordinated external defence, and finally settled for religious tolerance, is never taught in British schools, nor all the wonderful things that EU does for ethnic minorities. (For a provocative book written by another fan of the Pax Romana, read Ian Morris’s bestseller War: What is it good for.)

What is incomprehensible unless it is lighting finding the only available conductor is the anti-Polish actions and other displays of xenophobia against EU citizens immediately after Brexit. Back in the early 1980s, with Solidarność and Lech Wałesa, the Poles were every Briton’s darlings. Even in the 1990s, people supported EU and NATO extension because, having guaranteed Poland in 1939, the British and the French felt rather sheepish about their inability to stop the Wehrmacht, and then the Red Army, from overrunning Poland. Everybody talked about the gallant contribution the Poles had made to the RAF and to decrypting Enigma.

The bêtise of the angry white Americans who voted Trump into office seems akin to that characterising the unemployed man quoted above. Some patterns are reminiscent of the 1930s, when nationalism was rampant, and nationalist authoritarian leaders such as Piłsudski admired Hitler and Mussolini, and when Piłsudski’s successors thought they were being clever when they joined in the carving up of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938. How do people not understand that a nationalist government of another country is by definition an adversary in a zero-sum game, and that any alliance with it can only be temporary? While democracies upholding human rights should logically co-operate (which the British found so difficult to understand vis-à-vis France in the 1920s and 1930s), nationalist countries by definition are each other’s enemies. What’s so difficult about that?

Any student of the history of European security and the construction of the fragile architecture that gave the Continentals the reassurance that they were covered by nuclear deterrence (to which Britain’s contribution was pivotal, and based on the unconditional mutual guarantee of the Brussels Treaty, now subsumed into the Lisbon Treaty of the EU), without further nuclear proliferation in Europe (!) should be terrified by the possible consequences of withdrawing the British pivot through Brexit. And while so far Putin “only” wants to rebuild the “Union” (so what about the Baltic states, members of NATO and the EU?), l’appetit vient en mangeant. Baltes and Poles are likely to dream about nukes – and probably want a very strong fence or wall. Call in the Israelis or the Chinese.

So when Trump thinks he can “do business with Herr Putin”, to paraphrase Chamberlain in 1938, and when Nigel Farrage and François Fillon and Marine Le Pen and the AfD in Germany and many other European leaders admire Putin (and Erdoğan? Probably…), history is clearly not taught properly to the masses.

In short, things are not looking good for human progress. Another Age of Enlightenment is coming to an end. George Michael did not “Choose Life”, the British did not choose to “Remain” in the EU. The former, a personal tragedy. The latter may become one for the stability of Europe, perhaps for the rest of the world.


Beatrice Heuser, who holds the Chair of International Relations at the University of Reading, is the author of (inter alia) Evolution of Strategy (2010), Nuclear Mentalities? (1998), and Western Containment Policies in the Cold War: the Yugoslav Case (1989). Her next publication will be Strategy before Clausewitz (2017).