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There’s a reason to be optimistic about Britain. The nation is completing a seven-year therapy treatment that worked. True, it’s been an expensive exercise in wrecking relationships. But at last, the UK knows what it is: a small country that needs immigrants, high taxes and European allies. Perhaps 60 per cent of Britons now share this view — not a consensus, but a majority.
The UK entered therapy afflicted by delusions. A paper by Louise Isham, an Oxford psychology professor, and others defines these as “unfounded beliefs that one has special powers, wealth, mission, or identity”. These “delusions of exceptionality” are “arguably the most neglected psychotic experience in research,” they write. Examples of delusions are “believing one is invincible and stepping into traffic, or believing one is Jesus and will therefore be crucified”. The Brexiter version was believing that one is a global power that should “go it alone”.
The Brexiter economist Andrew Lilico expressed this notion poignantly. Britain, he tweeted in 2019, was “different” from other countries. “When I looked out of the window — in Chester, or Oxford, or London or wherever — there was . . . something there. It mattered.” British history, he continued, “mattered. It brought us here.” “Politics mattered. If we screwed up, we could cost history & the future of the world something precious, that destiny or God had gifted to us.” But, Lilico concluded: “This afternoon . . . I saw things differently — as I suppose Remainers or certain lefties must see things all the time. I just saw my car. Some trees. Radlett . . . The place I saw didn’t disappoint me or the world or God or history, because nothing was expected of it. It wasn’t special.”
He was right that few Remainers believe Britain has a special destiny. Fond though I am of the place, I see it as just another ex-superpower, along with Portugal, Spain, Turkey or France. Over the past seven disappointing years, most Britons have ditched grandiosity too. Going around the world shouting “Do you know who I was?” hasn’t worked. There’s growing acceptance of the verity attributed to Paul-Henri Spaak, a Belgian father of European unity: “There are only two types of states in Europe: small states, and small states that have not yet realised they are small.”
The UK now realises it is small, too small to interest the US or China in trade deals. It can’t check European goods at customs, fund a satellite system to replace the EU’s Galileo or stop refugee boats. Liz Truss showed that little Britain couldn’t buck the bond market. British universities depend on the EU’s research programme, Horizon. Britain’s shrinking military is effective only in coalition; the UK’s €6.6bn in aid to Ukraine merely tops up US and German funding.
We’ve learnt that Britain’s parliament lacks capacity, too. Influence has shifted from “unelected Brussels bureaucrats” to suspected Chinese spies, Russian and Saudi newspaper barons and London-based plutocrats making record political donations. That’s what happens in an underfunded polity with a few super-rich postcodes.
The government lags behind ordinary people in absorbing this self-knowledge. Last week, I attended a British diplomatic reception under the embarrassing slogan “Great”. One day that will be “Pretty Good”. But the Tories are learning. Successive prime ministers have tacitly accepted Labour’s view that Britain needs high taxes. This is the logic of a national economy that is effectively New York City bolted on to southern Italy. Taxing rich Londoners subsidises poor regions. The Conservatives’ underfunded “levelling-up” rhetoric couldn’t reduce this imbalance. If they want to spread high-skilled workers nationwide, they could try encouraging remote work.
London — an incongruous global city in a midsized country — will remain a British asset. The government has quietly decided to keep feeding it immigrants. A record 1.1 million entered the UK to work or study last year. “Global Britain” is a reality not in terms of international might, but in population.
The UK’s self-knowledge doesn’t suffice to rejoin the EU. Brussels will only consider readmitting Britain once both main parties are on board. And the Conservatives, after their looming election defeat, will probably complete their transformation into a minoritarian far-right party, setting up offshore punishment centres for migrants, decrying human rights, devising empty policy proclamations to provoke liberals, and making attacks on lawyers that are really attacks on law. A Kemi Badenoch-led party would be more radical than sister parties such as France’s Rassemblement National or the Fratelli d’Italia in that it rejects EU membership.
Still, recovery starts with knowing yourself. Most Britons now do.
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