The whirlpools of the Brexit debate that will come to its climax in the 23 June referendum are not for monks to be dipping anything more than their toes into, and even then only with the loins securely tethered to the shoreline. There are significant arguments in both directions, and significant appeals to sentiment.
The real annoyance for me is the Leave campaign’s constant decrying of Remain supporters’ warnings as part of a campaign of fear. My reaction is invariably, “Yes. And?” It strikes me that it is a duty of those who wish to alter the status quo to demonstrate that there is nothing to fear from change and everything, or at least a lot, to gain from it. In other words, they need to show that, on balance, things would be better for Britain if we were to leave the EU. If there is something to fear, and there are lots of different interest groups who feel that there is, then those fears need to be addressed and not just shouted down.
One fear for me is that the fears being raised about Brexit might in fact turn out to have been justified. Then in hindsight the fear campaign will look to have had remarkable foresight.
So let’s dip into the somewhat less turbulent waters of Australian colonial history for a moment. These too are subject to occasional storms, but on this occasion they shall be calm enough.
A lady who regularly attends morning Mass in the abbey church recently lent me a book, Select Documents in Australian History, 1788–1850 (1950) edited by Professor Manning Clark. My eye alighted on one small passage. It is the product of handwritten notes of Captain Arthur Philip RN, who led the First Fleet that brought English settlement to the Australian continent in 1788, and who became the colony’s first governor. These notes date from 1787 and capture on paper his thoughts on how he would erect this new and far-flung colony of the British Empire the following year.
The final paragraph is striking:
The laws of this country [ie the United Kingdom] will, of course, be introduced in (New) South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment his Majesty’s forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves. [#12, p.42]
The context is all. The American colonies had recently rebelled and cut themselves off from Britain. They had always been colonies of free settlers, but also where foreigners had been forcibly imported to provide a workforce of slave labourers. So to an indignant British son of empire, that this country, founded originally by those who who sought freedom of worship and where political and fiscal freedom was still essential to their national identity, should keep slaves was as good as hypocrisy. Philip and his milieu, of course, would have had no especial love for the African negroes, just as they would show no especial concern for the Australian aboriginal inhabitants.
But on slavery had been built wealth, and from this wealth came the ability to cast off the British mantle. It would not be so in this new colony. New Holland, as it was first known, would not be allowed to become another United States of America. Though the majority of its first settlers would be, ironically, convicts, for Philip this was not to remain a penal colony but a new and loyal outpost of British imperial power and civilisation.
His resolution was kept by himself and by those who followed him. There were never slaves in Australia, and even the aboriginal people were never enslaved, though they were often persecuted and more often grossly neglected. Australia developed a larrikin, even at times rebellious, spirit but it never rebelled, and Australia was always first to join Britain in her wars. Though it shares a frontier spirit with the USA, it is far from being an America Down Under.
In hindsight we can allow that Governor Philip showed remarkable foresight.
Lest I be seen to be too rosy about him there is, however, something in this same set of notes that shows him less prescient:
As I would not wish convicts to lay the foundations of an empire, I think they should ever remain separated from the garrison, and other settlers that may come from Europe, and not be allowed to mix with them, even after the 7 or 14 years for which they are transported may be expired. [ibid.]
A whole world away from Britain, at the uttermost ends of the earth, with more and more convicts transported to Australia, and in numbers that for a long time made them a significant social element in the colony, it was never realistic that a form of apartheid between free settler and convict could last. Agriculture and construction both relied overwhelmingly on convict labour, and one of Australia’s greatest architects was sent there as a convict. Convicts who behaved well were given their ticket of leave early, and granted landholdings which they were expected to develop into productive farms. They did. And given that in Britain at that time the ownership of land was the measure of social standing and the basis of the right to vote (for men that is!), this made Australia markedly different from the mother country. Indeed this quickly-prosperous land was built on foundations laid by convicts. Philip was not a little inconsistent, to the point of self-contradiction.
So what of relevance is this little foray into Australian history, and one painted in such broad and sweeping strokes? As much or as little as you wish to make of it. But as we in Britain approach the referendum on membership of the EU, we would do well to look at history’s lessons and try to learn from them, lest hindsight reveal us to be boobies with a dire lack of foresight. Remember, too, that the clearest voices are not always the loudest.
Is Britain broken by its membership in Europe? If not, don’t fix it. If it is, then how best do we fix it? Is Brexit the ideal, or even adequate, fix?
If you can answer these questions to your own, honest, satisfaction, then you will know which way to vote.
For those outside Britain, sorry for this local political detour. Then again, no matter where we might be, there is nothing to be lost from a little honest national self-assessment.
Rule Britannia! If you can…