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Reflections on Brexit and Wokery

This essay was prompted by a discussion about two articles in the Spectator of 19 December 2020. Professor Robert Tombs wrote about Brexit, commenting that it was "the manifestation of a pan-European disillusionment with the European project" and that the Brits were in that sense not alone. Rod Liddle was recalling 2020 as the Year of Epic Derangement with what he called "the cringing, self-flagellating lunacy" of wokeness.

I’ve re-read the two articles (Robert Tombs and Rod Liddle) in the Christmas 2020 bumper edition of the Spectator. They do indeed both prompt thoughts.

Not sure I have much to add to Prof Tombs. I see, incidentally, that he’s a Cambridge man, Professor of French History, so he knows what he’s talking about. He’s also married to a French lady, with whom he’s written a book about our historic relationship with the French.

Basically, I was fascinated by his statistics. We Brits are certainly no more hostile to the EU (and in some cases less) than most of the other countries in the EU. The difference is that we had the choice. For France to do a Frexit would presumably be a disaster because of the Euro. But even so, no politician would dare give them a referendum. They might give the wrong answer, like they did the last time they were asked an EU-related question. (I remember seeing Frexit posters in the Beaumes de Venise car park!)

Actually, being a regular at the Café du Siècle in Beaumes de Venise, I’m slightly less surprised than I might otherwise be. Although never engaging in political debate with the local boozers, I’ve never sensed any enthusiasm for Brussels among anyone in the locality.

Actually, the article by Rod Liddle, that great philosopher of our times, prompts more thoughts. Brexit has happened, so the in/out side of the issue is mercifully history. I liked the Prof’s last words: we will no longer be in “a state of festering but impotent discontent”. Quite so.

Rod’s piece made me think of something I think I mentioned on the phone: the “St George in Retirement Syndrome”. This is a phrase invented by the late Australian political philosopher Kenneth Minogue, but referred to in a book by Douglas Murray called The Madness of Crowds. The idea is that St George fought the dragon and then found himself looking around vainly for more dragons to slaughter. Today, we in western countries have slaughtered a lot of dragons: homophobia, slavery, racism, denying women’s rights, etc. On each of these issues, things are now, if not perfect, definitely much improved. What now do idealistic people fight for? They have to invent other causes and, in doing so, latch on to yet more ludicrous issues: Rod is the greatest living exposer of what these issues are.

The worrying side of this, of course, is that normal people, those who are not particularly struggling to find dragons to fight, seem to feel the need to support the movements concerned. A very telling example is given by Douglas Murray in his book: he says that a decade ago almost nobody was supportive of gay marriage (civil partnership having been invented). Apparently this included gay rights groups like Stonewall. {Murray himself is gay.) Then, only a very few years later, gay marriage became what he calls a “fundamental value of modern liberalism”. You had to support it. To fail to do so put you beyond the pale. David Cameron, always keen on this kind of thing, pushed through the necessary legislation. I don’t think there was much opposition. I have a memory that Matthew Parris wrote a piece arguing against it, back in the day. I haven’t noticed him repeating that view recently. No, such is the perceived power of the woke community that everyone feels the need to toe the line.

An amazing example is given by Rod: the authorities at Cornell deciding that black people don’t need to follow the rule about getting a covid jab. Why not? Because of what was done to their ancestors in the historic past. You couldn’t make it up!

When I see people behaving in a ludicrous way, or even just acting illogically, I find myself asking, WHY? What drives them?

The only answer I can come up with derives from what I note about the various causes - causes ranging from those that are arguably sensible through to those identified by Rod Liddle as being ridiculous. They have one thing in common. They each have some kind of idealistic backing. We shouldn’t mistreat gays; ditto black people, and indeed other racial minorities; women must have proper rights and opportunities; and trans-gender people should be respected.

My thought is that people, particularly the young, are idealistic. We want to feel good about ourselves. We want to feel that our lives are worth while. For most of human history, these instincts have been catered for by religion. It’s only relatively recently that this has broken down. Our idealists tend not to flock into the churches. Where can they go instead? - They can follow Greta Thunberg. They can take the knee. They can support trans-gender rights. Whatever.

As G K Chesterton said, when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.

In the face of this idealism, reality - even logic - doesn’t stand much of a chance. Rather like with religion in times gone by. Galileo had the same problem. Explaining what he saw in his telescope didn’t do him much good. These idealistic, often frankly ridiculous, causes represent the new religion. And very powerful it is.

4 January 2021

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