Saturday, 8 December 2018

Turning the key


There were always two types of empire. There were those like the British and the French that spread overseas. British and French people would move to Delhi or Saigon and pretend they were living at home only it was rather hotter. These empires were always fragile. The other type of empire spread from a small centre, but did not, for the most part, spread overseas. The Russian Empire and the Chinese Empire are still largely intact because where they spread was contiguous. The same, dare I say it, might be said for the American Empire moving from a coastal strip to embrace most of a continent by means of colonisation.


A feature of both the Russian/Soviet and the Chinese Empires under communism was that there was always a pretence that they were democratic and that their various parts were autonomous or even independent. Both the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic held seats in the UN in 1945. So too did the countries that would later make up the Warsaw Pact. But the Polish October and Hungarian Revolution in 1956 ably demonstrated that these places had neither sovereignty nor any real freedom. But this had already been made clear in 1953 when the German Democratic Republic, with the help of Soviet tanks crushing demonstrators, had shown its name to involve a contradiction.

The citizens of these empires could either pretend along with their rulers that they lived in free democratic societies, taking part in elections, campaigning for this or that or even trying themselves to become part of the ruling elite, or they could just ignore as best they could the whole thing.  Just as the various parts of the Soviet Empire pretended that they were free and democratic, so the people, for the most part, pretended to take part. This was the only sensible way to live. There was no point battering your head against a door that wouldn’t open. Rather the key to existence was to retreat into private life, say what needed to be said, play the game and keep your real thoughts to yourself.

Eventually patience was rewarded. While the Russian Empire did not completely collapse, it turned out that by some miracle it was possible for Warsaw Pact countries to once more become sovereign nation states and even more miraculously it was possible for parts of the Soviet Union to leave. It would have been utterly pointless for Latvians and Estonians to have attempted to leave the Soviet Union in 1971. To have even suggested it would have been unwise. My guess is that if the Soviet Union had been able to hold itself together until Mr Putin reached power then it would have been impossible for the Soviet Republics to have asserted their sovereignty. But there was a window of opportunity between 1991 and 2000 when the Russian Empire for the first time in its history was willing to lose territory without a fight.

It was something of a leap into the dark for the Soviet Republics. They had to give up their currency (the Soviet rouble) and the trading relationship they would have with the other members of the Soviet Union including Russia was suddenly very uncertain. There were also conflicts and border disputes some of which are still continuing. These have led to the deaths of nearly 200,000 people. But countries could leave the USSR. They were allowed to.

But while the Russian Empire reached its peak in1945 and went into decline in 1991 another empire has been rising out of the ashes of its threefold defeat in 1806, 1918 and 1945. While Russia since the fall of Constantinople has been the successor to the eastern half of the Roman Empire, the EU is its successor in the West.

While Latvia was able to leave the USSR in 1991 by 2004 it was already a part of the EU. It had so to speak voluntarily entered into a prison put its own key in the lock and then chucked it out of the window.

It must have seemed to the Latvians and all the other citizens of the EU Empire that they were free and that they had free and fair elections which might really change things, but just like in the Soviet Union these were all illusions.
We face momentous events, but it is becoming boring. If it turns out that we really can’t leave the EU, then it is a subject that is no more worth studying or writing about than Marxism/Leninism.

If politics in Britain is constrained within carefully defined limits, then it rapidly becomes clear that certain debates are pointless. If Britain can’t leave the EU then self-evidently Scotland cannot properly leave the UK. If the one can be prevented, so too can the other with rather more ease. I doubt very much that a radical Labour Government would be allowed to be quite as radical as it thinks it might be. So too I don’t think a truly conservative, low tax, low public spending, free market Conservative Party would be allowed. We are left then with the mush that extends from the Labour moderates to the Conservative moderates. They each believe more or less the same. It isn’t worth arguing about.

We may still break free. Nothing we would have to face would be anything like what the former members of the Soviet Union had to go through in order to gain their freedom. A few traffic jams must be a price worth paying for the cause that we are supposed to hold higher than any other: freedom and democracy. But has this cause always just been a pretence? An opium to get the masses to enlist.

Too much already has been written about the EU. Let us await events. If it turns out that we are trapped, take comfort from the fact that there will be other chances. There is no need to wear yellow vests. Our present politics will not survive the failure completely to leave the EU in 2019, nor indeed, I suspect, will the EU. If Britain can’t leave the EU, then no-one can. EU citizens will then retreat into private life just like Soviet citizens before them, but we will wait for the moment when the walls begin to crumble. I don’t think we will wait that long.


8 comments:

  1. Effie's parallel of the Res Publica Romana and the European Union is ingenious, to say the least: let us therefore accord praise where such is due. It is also a clear demonstration of Euclid's dictum that parallel lines, even when produced to infinity, will never meet. Back to the drawing room on this one!

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    1. It might, on reflection, have been wiser for Effie, should she wish to compare the EU and the USSR, to have consulted persons, such as Dr. Radosław Sikorski or Mr. Vytenis Andriukaitis, with experience of both.

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    2. Mea culpa - back to the drawing *board*!

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  2. The origins of the EU dream stemmed from a faulty premise, namely that the northern countries in Europe could converge economically with those in the southern, Mediterranean regions.

    This expectation has proved to be unfounded for a variety of reasons. Politicians seem unable to grasp the fact that there are good reasons for countries to retain their sovereignty and integrity, whilst forging strong trading partnerships with their neighbours.

    Italy and her deep financial plight is racing to its next level in 2019.

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  3. Interesting perspective. Whilst I fervently hope we somehow manage to get out on WTO terms at this attempt, your basic point,that events will eventually conspire to present another route, is a good one. Yellow vests would be fun though to show the current incumbents who their actual boss is.

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    1. For your fervent hope to be realized without deleterious consequences for all except the ridiculously opulent, it would be necessary for the British Government to have treated certain other WTO members with less disdain.


      Mind you, your idea of Hi-Viz jackets as an emblem for the increasing majority eager to defend our children's and grandchildren's future is very appealing.

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  4. As to the passage 'If politics ... more ease", it would be easier to evaluate were it accompanied by any evidence.

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  5. There certainly are dangers to the European Union, but Brexit is not one of them. They include: the representative deficit which denies Parliament adequate oversight powers; the flawed architecture of the common currency; the resurgence of racist authoritarianism in former Warsaw Pact countries, Italy, and the Spanish State; the policies of the Russian Government; and severe climatic events.

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