Nations are raised to greatness through the virtues of great men, as Edmund Burke observed, and Britain could once call on the likes of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher when the hour of greatest peril arrived. But now, alas, peril is at hand and there’s no one to answer the call for greatness. Maybe not here on this side of the Atlantic, either, or anywhere else. Greatness is a virtue that may have come and gone, unmourned and hardly remembered.
Theresa May wants to throw Britain on the mercy of the unelected little men of Brussels, where the bureaucrats apply the dead hand of the European Union and submit the race of kings to “regulation without representation.”
Clear-eyed appraisal of what is at stake is scarce on Shakespeare’s “scepter’d isle,” and the descendants of Britons of an earlier time — or some of them, anyway — seem resigned to take whatever Brussels gives them. The little men of Brussels, many of whom arrived there from little countries the size of postage stamps, have been waiting for the opportunity to cut down to size the likes of what Britain was.
“Brussels considers it its duty to punish Britain for trying to leave the EU,” observes Andrew Roberts, a professor of history at King’s College London, writing in The Wall Street Journal. “If we are seen to thrive outside it, other nations that have been similarly ill-used by it — such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, which have been almost beggared by the euro — might also want to escape.”
The EU’s chief negotiator gives himself considerable airs, demanding that Britain hold a general election, a demand which even the queen would know better than to make, or to hold a second referendum on whether to stay or leave, counting on the race of kings to tug at their forelocks and get in line.
Prime Minister May was never a fan of leaving the Brussels cartel, and the bullies in Brussels took advantage of her lack of passion for the job of restoring the sovereignty of London. “The most memorable quote of this process,” writes Professor Roberts, “has been Mrs. May’s phrase ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ which has the unusual capacity of being both meaningless and untrue. The reason the Remainers — who refused from the beginning to accept the democratic vote of the majority — believe that it is acceptable to ignore the verdict of 17,410,742 people because, as they often and volubly state, they are cleverer and better people than the Leavers, who are denounced as nativists, racists, rubes and idiots.”
The reaction of the elites in Britain in June 2016, as if they had just been hit in the face by a cream pie, is remarkably similar to what followed five months later, when the elites in America were hit with a splash of sour cream applied by the “deplorables,” from which the elites have never recovered. How dare the unwashed and uneducated peasants think for themselves?
“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, while thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak chew their cud and are silent,” Burke wrote, “pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”
This is what has happened along the coasts of North America. Certain politicians and their handmaidens of the media have persuaded themselves that the whine of grasshoppers is the mighty voice of the people, demanding the head of the duly elected president.
The leaden voices of the elites who predicted that disaster and wanton waste would follow a British vote to leave Europe preceded eerily similar predictions that the election of Donald Trump would plunge the land into depression, bark would be stripped from the trees, mobs would gather in the streets, locusts would devour crops and little children would thrust begging bowls with tiny emaciated hands to those who would have no sustenance to give. Woe was us.
Britons were told that unemployment would scourge the land, the economy would collapse, there would be no medicine to assuage the pain of disease, fresh food would disappear from grocery shelves, and neither fish nor chips would survive a vote to leave Europe. In the event, Britain soon enjoyed the highest employment in nearly 50 years, the economy grew even faster than in Germany, the strongest economy on the planet. All against the scorn of the little men in Brussels.
A similar prophecy was almost exactly what was foretold if Donald Trump was elected in America, with similar result. Now Britain is looking for new leadership, for optimists, not pessimists. Perhaps someone in a new generation will be raised to greatness. It may seem unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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