James Millar: Britain could end up like Venice if Brexiteers get their way
Venice is a historical curiosity, but insignificant in global affairs. Is that what will happen to the UK?
Conventional wisdom has it that politicians have dispersed to the beaches of the world over the last few weeks to get away from Westminster and the weighty issues that await when parliament returns in a couple of weeks. But the nature of MPs and peers is that after a couple of days away from their desk their minds will turn to policies, and plots.
If those that travelled east of Italy looked around them they’d have seen sights that may provide pointers on Britain’s post-Brexit fate. Holiday makers to Italy, Croatia, Greece, Crete, Turkey and Cyprus – and even those more intrepid types who tried Albania, a destination notably favoured by Tony Blair’s former terrier Alastair Campbell – will have seen the remnants of Venice’s once mighty empire.
Yes, Venice once had an empire. The chocolate box city on the sea most famous for having canals instead of roads was once a global power. And it left behind footprints in all the places it once controlled.
Tourists flying into Crete can look out the aeroplane window and wonder at the cavernous constructions that were once Venetian shipyards. A dander down the docks in almost any Croatian coastal town will involve a stroll along a Venetian harbour. Look hard enough and you’ll find the winged lion of St Mark carved into walls crumbling Cypriot walls.
Like Venice itself these relics are invariably easy on the eye. But this isn’t a travel guide, like the spectre of Jacob Marley those ghosts of the Venetian empire are warning us about our own political future. For the Venetian empire was built on naval power and trade with a sprinkling of religion plus some motivation to glory the motherland.
A few centuries after the Venetian empire dwindled the British empire rose using the same blueprint. And now Brexiteers revere it.
There’s no shortage of punters towards the right of British politics talking up some sort of re-animation of the British empire, the civil service have dubbed it ‘Empire 2.0’. There’s even those that have coined the term ‘Canzuk’ for a bloc comprising Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. (Notice anything that those countries have in common compared to other Commonwealth partners like say Nigeria, South Africa and India?) Nevermind that the total population, and therefore potential market, of Canada, New Zealand and Australia combined is only roughly equal to that of the UK. A replacement for the EU Canzuk is not.
Perhaps instead of dreaming of the British empire those same people should be studying the Venetian empire. It was once mighty and it used its naval power to enforce favourable trade. It dwindled. It was swallowed up by a European super-state when Napoleon ruled the continent. It got out of that as the UK is to shake off EU rule, albeit Venice’s fate was decided a few miles down the road from Brussels in Waterloo.
And now? Venice is a historical curiosity. It’s insignificant in global affairs, people flock there only to marvel at it because it is different, because of what it once was.
Britain, like Venice will always have its history. But that’s all that Venice has now. And ultimately Venice was swallowed up by something bigger anyway when Italy was unified and it had no choice but to leave a mini-renaissance as an independent state behind.
Is that what will happen to the UK? After some years of moderate success will it ultimately have to bow to the EU project on terms dictated by Brussels leaving it as a historic anomaly on the edge of Europe?
The parallels between the two fallen empires of Venice and Great Britain are there. When Britain’s politicians looked up from their beach books at the remnants of the Venetian empire (and some will, I once found myself sharing a plane to the Peloponnese with Baroness Jay and spotted Caroline Dineage on the return flight) they’ll be looking at lessons from history. The question is whether they will learn them.