I could almost subtitle this “why the Brexit debate turned nasty”, although the problem is far older and deeper than anything it directly deals with. It is something I never realised, possibly because I am not British by birth, until I realised that people who vehemently disagreed with each other shared a common, mistaken, assumption.
The assumption is this. That the UK is a small and unimportant country. You hear this from people opposing immigration because Britain is a “small over-crowded island”, and you hear it from people who advocate remaining in the EU because they regard the UK as too small to be viable.
By any objective measure this is false:. It has the 22nd largest population in a world with over 200 countries and territories. More importantly, the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy. The UK is not in the same league as the US economically, or a handful of huge countries by population, but it is comparable to just about anywhere else.
I have never heard a Sri Lankan complain their country is over-crowded (a smaller and poorer country with a higher population density). Singapore seems to have done quite nicely as a small country. Australians seem to feel no great need seek to be part of a political union. Of course many countries form military alliances or trade treaties, but very few seek political union.
I have never heard anyone in the UK refer to other countries with a similar population as small, only their own country. Neither have I heard anyone outside the UK refer to it as a small and unimportant country. If it was, would the impact of Brexit on the EU be such a problem?
I can think of two hypotheses to explanation this. The first, and I think the more likely, is that the British psyche has never adjusted to being just another country, rather than part of the world’s largest political union. The other is that the UK is so dominated by the US view of the world, that simply being smaller and less powerful than the US is unacceptable.
This explains both the attraction of the EU, and the dislike of it. It explains the UK’s poodle role with regard to the US. Some people are not content with not playing a leading role in the EU, as in the empire. Others seek to be an adjunct to the most successful new empire (the US).
Then consider the EU. It is in many ways an imperial project, forming a political union covering many nations and cultures and melding them into one: the most ambitious such project since the Roman Empire. Looked at this way, the EU, however dysfunctional, is a comfort blanket for those who feel unsafe outside an empire.