Question: Where has the EU succeeded when Britain failed? Answer: Ireland.
Oh, I’m not talking about the Peace Process here – the EU has had nothing to do with that. What I mean is that the EU has so far successfully bribed, bullied and threatened the Irish into remaining within its fold, whereas Irish nationalism proved too strong for the much mightier British Empire of a century past to contain. And the interesting thing with reference to the current referendum campaign in Britain is that Ireland in the 19th Century also had its Remainers, or “West Britons”, as they were called, who were strikingly similar to the British Europhiles of our own day. Centred on a prosperous Dublin metropolitan elite that flaunted its sophistication, they felt at home in the bright lights of London, and disdained the petty parochialism of the struggling proletarian and agricultural masses.
There are differences between the two cases, of course. The population of Ireland was tiny compared to that of England, let alone the Empire, yet made a vastly disproportionate contribution to British armed forces and colonial administration, as well as Anglophone scholarship and literature. Ireland was economically negligible, with everything to gain from continued membership of by far the most powerful and dynamic trading bloc the world had ever seen, and was justly fearful of a British military response to rebellion. In other words, the nationalist movement was a philosophical one that had little going for it in terms of practical advantage, and yet the West Britons were a remote and despised minority who were ultimately overtaken by the force of popular sentiment.
This makes it all the more strange that now, when Britain is holding a referendum on its continued membership of the EU, its own privileged and remote Remainers seem to exercise such influence on the voting population – indeed until recently it looked like a dead cert that they would carry the day. For Britain is neither tiny nor economically negligible, it has no significant penetration in the administration of the EU or standing in its political culture; and the EU is sclerotic, not dynamic, and is merrily digging the whole continent into a recessionary hole from which we would do well to free ourselves. And it does not, at least not yet, have the means or command the loyalty to meet our secession with armed force. Compared to Irish nationalism against the Empire, Brexit is unanswerable in practical terms and a doddle into the bargain.
But all the sneering bistro-bores in the Remain camp seem to care about is clinging to the tribalism of the skin-deep sophisticate, lest someone spot the mark of the bicycle-clip on their Armani chinos. They don’t care that the EU is dragging their country into the mire with a long view to its effective abolition, because they know a great little restaurant in Siena that working-class Brits will never find, and wouldn’t like if they did. It’s all about them, not the freedom of their less privileged compatriots, let alone their country. And they do have one positive reason to love the EU, which is that it, like them, fears and despises popular democracy.