Small Island?

Small Island?
Gazi reflects on Exceptionalism & Brexit

At its peak the British Empire stretched so far across the globe that the sun never set upon it. Other countries such as France and Spain had empires but arguably none have left their mark as indelibly, with English the most widely spoken language in the world if you include second tongues.

During WW2, after Germany’s invasion and defeat of Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France, it turned it’s sight on Britain. Hitler’s hope was to defeat Britain with air power and then invade. America refused to join the war in Europe and Italy allied with Germany, it seemed Britain stood alone.

Britain is governed by a triumvirate of Parliament, the Crown and the Judiciary. Parliament is supreme among the three. The Queen can advise, encourage and reward. The Supreme Court and those below it can interpret the law. Only Parliament can make the law. A majority vote in Parliament is sufficient to lead us to war, increase taxes or remove us from the European Union. There is no one rulebook or constitution that tells us this. England’s constitution is famously unwritten - instead there is 800 years of incremental laws, conventions and expectations.

Taken together, Empire, the successful repulsion of invasions dating back to the Roman Empire, and an unwritten constitution underpin the concept of British Exceptionalism; that Britain is a nation unlike any other. And where you sit on the scale between those who wholeheartedly believe in this exceptionalism to those who don’t, is another lens through which Leavers and Remainers can be identified.

My mother voted to leave. She grew up in a village in Nigeria, lived as a child of the British Empire, learnt English, survived a civil war, travelled to England, got married and raised five children. At least two or three times a year, she sends money back to Nigeria to support siblings and their children, whether it is for school fees, or, most recently, to buy a cooker for her retired elder sister. She places such value on the British passport that she refuses to get a Nigerian one. She voted leave so that more Africans can come to Britain and share the opportunities she has had.

I voted to remain. I grew up in Manchester. My father bought our home before our mother arrived from Nigeria but after their separation, we grew up in a council house. I went to a Catholic Comprehensive and received a good education in a group of second generation Irish and Jamaican friends. I went to University in London, got married, had children, worked in the City and bought a house, not all in the correct order.

The status quo blessed me. It provided sufficient space, capital and infrastructure to allow me to become socially mobile. In London I work with ambitious, bright people from France, Brazil, South Africa, Bulgaria, China, India, nearly all of whom speak better English than me and who cite opportunity and the rule of law as key attractions.

We are successful and grateful for it, but also aware that Britain’s peculiar expression of race, class and patriarchy means many of us may never reach the pinnacle of our industries. London, Manchester, Bristol, and Leicester are already international, which is why the slogan ‘Global Britain’ sounds suspiciously hollow.

It may be that EU membership and the political convulsions of leaving will one day simply be incremental footnotes in Britain’s unwritten constitution. No other country has done it or is likely to want to do it any time soon, so maybe it is  proof that Britain is exceptional. Alternatively, with the children of the victims and victors of Empire still negotiating a complicated dance of power, race and class at the heart of its society and institutions, walking away from influence and access at the high table of Europe may be proof that Britain is becoming a small island.