Our involuntary responses know us better than we know ourselves. As I left King Charles Street in Whitehall last week and passed under the archway into the great court of the Foreign Office — and before I knew where it came from or why — an old and familiar feeling inhabited me. Dejection. This is where I started my working life as an administrative trainee, and those two years were a wretched time: a gradual understanding stealing upon me that I had no talent for this job. This courtyard was the opening scene of my every working day. It struck misery into my soul then, and 45 years later it still does.
I blame myself, however, not our Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I still feel the pride in our history on the world stage, in the way we helped shape the modern world, and in the underlying if sometimes stumbling pursuit of peace, order and civilisation that our country has seemed to me to represent during my own post-second world war lifetime. Britain’s goals have never lacked a certain loftiness, and the splendour of George Gilbert Scott’s 1868 muscular but rich architecture offers some echo of that. He designed this building, he said, as ‘a kind of national palace or drawing room for the nation’.
And it was for such a room that I was headed last week. I’d arranged for a chat with a contact there — a fairly senior person — and as it turned out we were to meet for a cup of tea in exactly the sort of grand drawing room that Gilbert Scott had envisaged. It was hard not to lift one’s eyes from the teacups and marvel at the high-Victorian magnificence.
We fell to talking about possible ways out of the Brexit impasse. Perhaps playing devil’s advocate, my contact asked me about Theresa May’s deal, and the Swiss-style arrangements we might come to, giving Britain the access we need to European markets in exchange for a good measure of compliance with EU rules. ‘What’s wrong with Switzerland?’ my questioner asked. ‘Why would you turn your nose up at occupying a place in the world like that occupied by Switzerland — surely a pretty estimable country? It’s not as if the Swiss are of no account.’
I responded by instinct rather than in a considered way. My eyes roved the high ceiling, the carved oak, the heavy furniture, the extravagant wallpaper, the oil paintings: scenes from Britain’s past grandeur; the statesmen, pomp and circumstance. I suppose (to be honest) that there was a hint of imperial nostalgia in the sweep of my thoughts. And that we should end up like Switzerland? Really?
‘We’re better than that,’ I said.
He made no reply. But the moment I’d said it, the obvious reply hit me. I was talking like a hardline Leaver! I was talking like Boris Johnson. This was the language of British exceptionalism: the idea that we deserved a respect, and had an influence to offer, beyond that of a secondary European power. This was the language of a Briton who did not want to see our country subsumed into a sort of satellite status, in orbit around a European bloc.
And the next thing that struck me was this: hardline Remainers like myself are quite close to meeting hardline Leavers somewhere round the back of a circle. A hardline Leaver chafes at the power of Brussels, dreams of a Britain that holds its head up in the world, wants to ‘make Britain great again’. Such a person sees a half-in, half-out Brexit deal with the EU as a kind of vassalage: a humiliation.
A hardline Remainer, on the other hand, sees Britain as a leading European power, punching our considerable weight in a community of nations most of which are smaller, less powerful or less successful than ourselves, helping map out a positive future for our continent as we did when we led the way in the creation of the single market; using our diplomatic skills to advance our continent’s interests in the world, and vetoing directions we think ill-advised. So it follows that we Remainers, too, chafe at what (I recall from my FCO days) one of our pun-loving ambassadors described as ‘a Swiss role in Europe’. We too saw Mrs May’s deal as a kind of vassalage. We can’t be persuaded that it was anything other than a relegation of our global status.
Those like me who think we should stay, and stay at the centre of things, and those like (I assume) Mr Johnson who think we must show the EU a clean pair of heels, have more in common than we think. We should plead guilty to a certain measure of what may be post-imperial delusion. But we should think hard before accusing the other side of any failure of ambition or national pride.
Are the compromisers, the May-dealers, the vassalage merchants, perhaps then the realists in all this? Is it they who refuse to be sentimental about Britain’s place in the world? Is it they who understand that if, as that slender majority back in 2016 instructed, we are to leave the EU, then we should accept as inevitable the modest relegation of our status that a Brexit-in-name-only will demand?
At the same time as suspecting that the answer to that question may be yes, I can’t but think that if you add the post–imperial dreamers who are Leavers to the post–imperial dreamers who are Remainers — if, in other words, you assemble all those citizens for whom the idea of ‘vassalage’ sticks in the craw, then you have a pretty hefty majority of the population. To whichever side — ‘punch our weight in Europe’ or ‘turn our back on Europe’ — your post-imperial dreaming drives you, you will never be content with a Swiss role in Europe.
I may be wrong, but I have a nagging suspicion that we will finally end up with the kind of deal (whether pre-Brexit or post-Brexit) that requires the swallowing of a big dollop of pride. It will not sit easily with us. National peace of mind remains a long, long way off.