Anglosphere: Dissolving the people

By JAMES C. BENNETT  |  May 18, 2002 at 5:19 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 18 (UPI) -- In 1953, the East German regime announced that, as the result of the insurrection against it by the workers of East Berlin, the government had lost confidence in the people. Writer Bertold Brecht sarcastically remarked that the government had decided to dissolve the people and elect another.

Fast forward to today: European Commissioner Chris Patten writes in the current Spectator how the British people can get over their resentment at the European Union's increasing control over minute details of Britain's economy and daily life. In effect, the former British secretary of state for the environment advises they dissolve themselves as British and reinvent themselves as Europeans.

In fact, much of his analysis leading up to this conclusion is quite insightful. It is his conclusion that is problematic.

A united Europe, he suggests, will never be brought under anything like democratic scrutiny and accountability unless and until its inhabitants come to see themselves as citizens of Europe rather than of their constituent nations. He sees the emotional reinvention of the British people as the key to this process: "A healthy European democracy will develop only when people begin to feel an emotional commitment to their European identity," he wrote.

Of course, the most obvious glue is what I have referred to as Euro-Lepenism, and Patten doesn't hesitate to beat that drum. Resentment of the United States is the emotional foundation he reaches for first: "Shared indignation at U.S. steel protectionism" is to him a hopeful sign, like the first robin of spring.

The British are not as given to envy and schadenfruede as are some of their neighbors, so this proferred glue may not be sufficient to generate the required Euro-emotions. Another part of the program is the promotion of regional loyalties, which are already quite strong in parts of Europe. Some maps published by the European Union no longer show the national boundaries, but instead show Europe only as a mosaic of regional boundaries: Bavaria, Catalonia, and Provence.

In Britain, the New Labor government has just proposed doing its bit to make Britain just another part of the Euro-mosaic. It has offered a scheme to divide England up into a handful of regions, each with their own assembly, which would have not quite as much power as an American county council. As these regions came into being, the system of counties, over a thousand years old, would be abolished.

At first glance, an American, Canadian, or Australian might say "makes sense to me." By the standard of any of these nations, Britain is absurdly overcentralized, with county and city governments having almost no authority, ability to raise revenues, or ability to take decisions that affect peoples' lives. With a population of around 60 million people, Britain is one of the largest centralized democracies in the world. Federalism could be a reasonable approach for Britain.

However, American federalism is built on a genuine basis of local responsibility and control, with power being sent upward in increasingly limited amounts. Despite a century of rampant centralizing tendencies and two big wars, the American federal government still has many areas of civic life in which it has little or no say. Much of this is due to the fact that American states, cities and counties have developed their own identities and traditions over time.

The British government over the past several decades has chopped up the traditional counties into smaller units more like French departments; now they say the units are too small, and propose to abolish them altogether. This in itself demonstrates the nature of American federalism. Washington does not have the power to lop a bit off Colorado and give it to New Mexico, or to divide the Dakotas vertically and create an East Dakota, and lump in part of Minnesota.

A more reasonable approach to decentralizing England would be to restore the traditional county boundaries and return more power to them. Although Britain never had a federal nature, much of the aggrandizement of central power and diminution of city and country authority happened only in the 20th century, and fairly late in that.

Americans tend to think of counties as small units, but in fact England's traditional counties would be considered large enough for self-government anywhere else in the Anglosphere. All but four of England's counties and independent cities are larger in population than the state of Wyoming; the Australian state of Tasmania is smaller than England's third-smallest county, Cumbria, and Canada's Prince Edward Island, a well-run province, is smaller than any English county.

Why don't England's conservatives just counter with a proposal that any traditional county could, by petition, hold a referendum to establish a local assembly with the same powers as Scotland's recently established legislature? If people felt the need for stronger local government, they could establish it without becoming part of a synthetic region such as "South-East England." Simple, well-understood and effective.

While Blair fiddles with English local identity, and Patten plays the anti-American card to build his Euro-nationalism, the underlying sense of common identity of the Anglosphere just keeps rolling along, rather like the Mississippi.

Just after I had finished Patten's billet-doux, a reader of this column sent me the link to an extraordinary Web site (http://outside.co.nz/new_york/index.html), that described "Letters to New York and America -- From New Zealand With Love," a book in which New Zealanders from all walks of life expressed their solidarity with New York and all America in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. One in particular, written by teacher John Hamilton, struck me. In it he said:

"We are different you and I, yours and mine. -- A good difference, a difference of friends intrigued by each other, yet enjoying the bond of a common language, shared values and a century or so of getting to know one another. -- This New Zealander despaired at the TV images, feeling powerless to help. He wanted to stand and shout. -- This New Zealander wanted to breathe the dust, cut his hands and knees attacking the rubble beside his friends in their need, rescuing together. -- This New Zealander speaks for many."

Patten speaks of a mechanism to build common feelings in Europe by invoking resentment against America. Perhaps the Eurocrats can eventually succeed in building a European superstate by eradicating enough authentic local and national identities and by scapegoating outsiders. Meanwhile the basis for a real and free collaboration of those nations enjoying "a good difference," "common language," and "shared values" already exists. Solidarity inward, rather than resentment outward, is the true basis of cooperation.

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