Brexit and Culture

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The vote to leave the European Union has exposed deep cultural fault lines in British society: between North and South, between Scotland and England, between ‘Puritans’ and ‘Cavaliers’, between classes, between young and old.

The final result, however, could be interpreted as a predictable outcome of the cultural divide between British pragmatism and continental idealism. As a nation we tend to mistrust Utopias. Although ‘Utopia’ was written by a Brit, Sir Thomas More, he was Catholic and rejected the Reformation – itself a rejection of European papal rule.

The Irish have always leaned intellectually more towards Continental Europe and idealism. ‘They order, said I, this matter better in France..’ as Laurence Sterne began his Sentimental Journey. And remember Oscar Wilde’s ‘a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at…’

By contrast, British preference of the concrete over the ideal is well-illustrated in Dr. Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkeley, the Irish philosopher.

57. Refutation of Bishop Berkeley
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”
Boswell: Life

Whatever our view of the result – assuming the UK actually does go ahead and leave, which is still not 100% certain – British companies, and our Foreign Office, will have to build far stronger ties outside Europe. We cannot afford to be defeatist and must – whichever way we voted – deal with Brexit as an opportunity.

Liam Halligan, the economics journalist, wrote in The Telegraph on 26 June:

Brexit gives us the chance to spread our trading wings way beyond Europe, rediscovering –almost a half century since we last cut a bilateral trade deal – the UK’s inherent genius for buying and selling.

For all our mercantile heritage, we currently trade less with the big four emerging markets – Brazil, India, Russia and China – than with Belgium. This is ridiculous. The UK desperately needs to turn far more diplomatic and commercial attention to the world’s fast-growing markets.

To succeed, British companies and diplomats will need much improved cross-cultural and negotiation skills. ‘Know culture for better business’ has never rung more true.

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