Are Canadians to Americans as the Irish are to the English? It feels that way to me. The English retain an obvious colonial attitude toward the Irish, when they think of them at all. The Americans tend to see Canada as a mere market segment and most are clueless about our culture.
I can understand how the Irish might despise the English, given the brutal colonial history of the British Isles. Cultural stereotypes thrive, in both directions. We Canadians aren’t quite there yet with the Americans, but they’re taking us in that direction.
It’s the inevitable result of “America First,” which really means “everyone else last,” even traditional allies sharing a continent.
Some of this is a product of the toxic populism that preoccupies politics and society in both the U.S. and the U.K. The campaign to get Britain out of the European Union and Donald Trump’s presidency might be passing events. But they have focused the attitudes of people in both those countries inward.
America and Great Britain, as it was once called without a hint of irony, were traditionally among the most tolerant and progressive countries in the world. But they’re now so busy navel-gazing that they’ve lost perspective. It’s collective narcissism; all that matters is what happens to them.
Rejecting Europe because it somehow blurred England’s brilliance is not that different from the myth of “making America great again” propagated by Trump. Europe didn’t dominate Britain any more than America needed restoration to some bygone fantasy state when people were thought to be more purely American.
Breaking off from the great European experiment in democracy and trust suggests the British think they have some elevated moral position compared with their neighbours. That’s what the Brexit leaders told them. It’s like the pompous notion of American democracy being a light to the world.
Last week in the New York Times, Irish writer Megan Nolan set out her frustration with how casually the British, really the English, have stumbled into the Brexit fiasco with hardly a thought to how it will affect their neighbours.
Brexit means re-erecting the border walls between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, which is remaining in the EU. It will disrupt trade and commerce, complicate security arrangements and make it harder for Irish and British people to work and do business in each other’s countries.
Nolan argues that the U.K. is going backward in time to the old system of borders and passports that Brexit’s backers claim will restore Britain to its former glory. As if isolation in itself could make Britain great again.
American isolationists, most significantly Trump himself, say the same thing about the U.S. By shunning its former allies and partners and ignoring their interests, the argument seems to be that America will somehow become greater than it already is.
As to the effects of this erratic new “national policy” on neighbours and allies, that barely comes up in Washington. When it does, as it has lately in continental trade talks, the Americans seem shocked that we don’t just meekly follow along with whatever they want.
The Americans want to thicken the border, supposedly to keep out illegal and irregular migrants. The British are talking about bringing back border security checks of the kind used during “the Troubles,” intrusive measures that were loathed by the Irish.
“I once laughed at their cluelessness,” Nolan writes of the British. “But I don’t find it funny anymore, how they think of us — or often, how they don’t bother to think of us at all.”
Those sentences could easily have been written by a Canadian to describe Americans in 2018. Under Trump, they’re forgetting the rest of the world exists.
Maybe it won’t last. Populism isn’t even that popular. Polls suggest only a minority of Britons now support leaving Europe. Trump’s disapproval rating is more than half the population. The issue now is to limit the damage from these political fantasies.