While the British wanted to turn their backs...

Empire Of The Deep and Brexit

I am currently reading Empire of the Deep, The Rise and Fall of The British Navy and to read it within the context of Brexit is interesting. We already know that the British gave up on the Catholic Church because Henry the Viii wanted to change wives and the Pope said no. (I am oversimplifying it, for the sake of this blog post.) While reading Empire of the Deep I see that the English have a very long history of being at conflict with Europe.

Two or three years ago I heard about a talk that would be given to the U3A somewhere in Spain about the English and piracy and I didn’t think much of it at the time because my knowledge was limited to what I had seen in films and cartoons. Through reading the book mentioned above I see that piracy was an important part of what English ships did centuries ago. They would attack and loot the Spanish, attack the French, try to undermine the Netherlands and their empire, Portugal and more.

At the same time as the British tried did all these things they changed alliances and allegiances according to their goals. What is interesting, and I’m being very broad, is that whilst the Monarchy wanted close ties with Europe Parliament and the Tories, especially wanted war and distance, rather than collaboration with Europe.

As a person who studied 20th century Europe I looked at Brexit from that perspective, so I thought that it was absurd and old-fashioned for England to want to be separate from Europe. I also look at this topic from the perspective of someone living in Switzerland, who sees the limitations that Switzerland frequently faces. If new content is made available via Netflix, Amazon or others then Switzerland usually has to wait an extra two or three years to get the same content. Another example is roaming. Switzerland took an additional two or three years before roaming between Switzerland and Europe was simplified.

The story of our navy is nothing less than the story of Britain, our culture and our empire. Much more than a parade of admirals and their battles, this is the story of how an insignificant island nation conquered the world’s oceans to become its greatest trading empire. Few other nations have fallen so deeply in love with a branch of the armed forces as the British did with its Navy. Yet, as Ben Wilson shows, there was nothing inevitable about this rise to maritime domination, nor was it ever an easy path. For much of our history Britain was a third-rate maritime power on the periphery of Europe. EMPIRE OF THE DEEP also reveals how our naval history has shaped us in more subtle and surprising ways – our language, culture, politics and national character all owe a great debt to this conquest of the seas. This is a gripping, fresh take on our national story.

Source: Goodreads page for the book.
While the British wanted to turn their backs...
While the British wanted to turn their backs…

There are a few parallels to what is happening now.

The quote above looks familiar, but this is a view that was expressed between 1713-1744. It is in chapter 26 – “Heaven’s Command”.

As a person who studied 20th century history I always saw the European Union as a good thing, in order to keep people united, rather than split them up. I saw it as valuable for the preservation of peace, but also because Europe, through the dismantling of borders, gave us an enormous amount of freedom to travel, work and more. It also provided us with a broader, more inclusive cultural identity.

Back in 2000 or so I was struck by two things. The first was that it was impossible to get international news from English news sources. You needed to read Swiss, French or other news sources to get international news. One of the biggest cultural shocks, when I lived in England the first time is that I was labelled, both as French, and as a foreigner, despite having a British passport. I came from International Geneva, where we’re called Internationals, rather than foreigners. We’re also in the habit of learning someone’s nationality and using that as an identifier. It’s a matter of interest and curiousity, rather than a derogatory term.

When I lived in the South West I learned that you knew where someone was from in England by their accent because of the differences in how words are pronounced. When I lived in London I saw something else. When you hear of Geneva being multicultural you see that all nationalities mix all the time. In London, when I saw that there were communities of one nationality living in one part and those of another in another part I began to call London poly cultural, rather than multicultural. I make the distinction because for me multiculturalism is about everyone mixing all the time. Polyculturalism is where cultures live side by side, but they do not mix once they go back to the area where they live.

Europe is in a unique situation because it is 27 countries, with a variety of languages, cultures and traditions that have amalgamated, and where borders are administrative, rather than hard. We can cycle from Switzerland to France, by accident, and we can ski from Switzerland to France, to Italy without difficulty. We can drive from Portugal to the other side of Europe without showing a passport. In England, you cannot have this experience because you’d have to swim across.

By reading the book above I am seeing England’s attitude to “overseas” from a different perspective. I see that England has a history of wanting to be outside of Europe, of differentiating itself. It also has a history of trying to control trade, either through piracy, convoys and more. Now I understand why England holds on to Gibraltar, and why English people live and holiday around Alicante.

I recommend reading the book, I’m only thirty-five percent in. I am learning from it. My contextual understanding of English attitudes is being complemented by the reading of this book.


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