Gaius Julius Caesar was a quite amazing man. (This is definitely an odd start to a political blog; but stay with it – it does become relevant.) As perhaps the most famous political figure of the last years of the Roman Republic, his name is still well known today. He was genuinely quite brilliant: a great speaker, writer, general, lawmaker – a man of the people and a patrician at the same time. Able to turn his hand to virtually anything, he repeatedly outmaneuvered his opponents and was loved by his soldiers and the general population.
Now, don’t get me wrong, he was far from perfect (and he became increasingly arrogant as he got older); but he achieved more by the time of his death at 55 than most of us will in our lifetimes. But achieving so much and addressing so many of the problems of Ancient Rome created many enemies who thought he was out to usurp the republic and all its traditions. Eventually a group of Senators calling themselves “the Liberators” assassinated him on the Ides of March 44 BC. (For those interested in Republican history and in particular the life of Caesar, I would recommend Collen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series – these are novels but which are incredibly well researched and bring the period to life quite brilliantly)
The trap that his opponents consistently fell into throughout his career is that they didn’t or couldn’t understand him. They themselves were unable to achieve so much, win such support, or beat so many enemies – so Caesar must have cheated. They were greedy men after increased wealth and power – so Caesar must be looking to do the same. The idea that perhaps he cared more about reforming the republic and Rome than personal gain or power was beyond their comprehension – and this is the trap!
We all naturally judge the world around us by our own standards and our own experiences – it’s what we have as a point of reference after all – but the world is much more varied than being full of simple copies of ourselves. Many are able to recognise this – even if they don’t necessarily understand or feel that way. For example, I am not gay and don’t find men the least bit attractive; but I appreciate that others do. It’s beyond me; but I recognise that it exists and that others have a different mindset to me.
Without that appreciation of those differences we can make some pretty embarrassing and condescending conclusions. To say that because I don’t find men attractive how can any man? is clearly ridiculous; but many people still fall into the same trap as those Roman senators. If I can’t do that; but he has, he must have cheated.
Most of us would say we understand that others have skills and abilities we don’t have (not many of us would claim to be able to beat Usain Bolt for example – though it’s amazing how many people kid themselves that they could have been world-class football players if they had just got that chance) and can broadly respect that. In the modern world, the trap really shows when we talk about how we view things. Our perspectives on the world and the lack of respect for, or even understanding of, the way others can view the world differently.
The Trap in Action
As you might have expected, it was several personal experiences that prompted me to write this and I want to share them now as this happens day in – day out. I want to raise the issue because most people fall into this trap quite innocently and are far from being malicious. Often, the people I’ve been talking to or reading are honest, sincere and passionate. Their views are logical and reasoned; but fundamentally wrong because they have fallen into the trap without realising it.
It will come as no surprise that this came up while discussing the European Union; and some of you may have had similar experiences. If you have, I believe it’s important to understand the other side and respect their sincerity whilst trying to explain what they have done. They are mostly decent people, after all.
Many of the Brexiteers I have encountered – and there may be some reading this – are nationalists. I use that term to mean those who believe the nation is all. I’m British and proud of that but that doesn’t make me a nationalist as I believe the important thing about political power is that it is restricted, controlled and at an appropriate and efficient level: be that national, regional, local or European – whichever is more suitable. For example, deciding on investment in the local park is probably best done by the local council whereas environmental rules are best done at the widest level possible. And so, given the huge economic advantage of the Single Market, regulations to do with that make sense at the European level; which is why I’m for it.
Nationalists, however, believe that it has to be at a national level and nothing else. I disagree with that as I believe it’s unnecessarily narrow; but that’s not the trap. The trap is sprung because, for many nationalists, the nation is everything. The only political structure possible is that of a nation. Therefore, if you are pro-European you are pro a European nation; and thus anti the British one.
To many Remain supporters, this may seem bizarre; but it’s the mindset that some are stuck in. Nations are everything, therefore the only alternative to Britain is Europe – as a nation! They don’t put it like this, of course; I’m not even convinced they’re aware of what they are doing; but when they talk of a European army or a European government they envisage it replacing the British government, not working with it. Push them as to what they see happening and they’ll talk about a single unitary European state where Britain is reduced to bland Euro-provinces with no voice and no nationality. There are even some videos out there (a quick search of YouTube will bring up a huge choice) of very earnest and sincere people showing how the British nation is going to be absorbed as a Euro-province.
It’s nonsense, of course, but when you believe the nation is the only legitimate form of political structure, it becomes impossible to comprehend a political structure that is not linked to a nation. So the European Union becomes a nation that wants to absorb us. And that’s the trap. The inability to recognise that there is a completely different way of looking at the world leads some to just think in their own terms – and thus make very poor judgements.
Impact of the Trap
In arguing for the European Union, I have been called:
- A Traitor – how can you betray your nation?
- A Euro-nationalist – a believer in the grand euro-nation.
- A Regionalist – a new one on me but apparently it means thinking of myself as belonging to my region of the world rather than my nation. So basically a Euro-nationalist by another name
- A Globalist – I had to ask for clarification on that one as I had no idea. I’ve found it’s used to describe people who want a single world government which will replace nations. Often used by people who think any international agreements – such as the Paris Accord on global warming – are the start of world government.
All of which show the limitations of those who make these accusations.
It is possible to support Britain and Europe and be proud of both. It is possible to believe things can be done at European, global, national and local level and not be committed exclusively to any one of them. And suggesting alternatives to the national level doesn’t make me any less British.
I just wish more people would realise this.
The European Union is a union of nations. It always has been and it always will be. But if you fall into the trap of thinking only in terms of nations, it’s not possible to think of Britain sharing in a partnership. Instead, it has to be us against them – a competitive conflict where none exists.
The Caesar Trap is always there, ready to trip us up whenever we deal with others. The only defence is to be aware of it and to recognise the impact of our own beliefs on our thinking and to respect differences. Being a nationalist is fine; but to then fall into the trap and assume the EU must be a nation in the making – because that’s what any political structure must be – is simply wrong.
Postscript: Some of the comments and feedback I’ve received have highlighted that this piece could be considered divisive and, perhaps, a little patronising towards Leave voters. That was certainly not the intention and so my apologies if it has come out that way. My goal was to highlight the thinking behind some Leavers because – to many – it did not make sense. I wanted to highlight the trap that they appear to have fallen into and the concerns they have (concerns I would share if they were true) so that it might be easier to build bridges between the two sides. I hope we can still do that and so value and celebrate our nation without falling prey to nationalism.
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