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Britain’s Phoney War

One of my favourite episodes in my favourite novel involves an encounter with a flock of sheep. Don Quixote, a middle aged madman who has gone forth as a knight errant with his credulous neighbour, Sancho Panza, comes across a thick cloud of dust. He takes this cloud to conceal “a vast army, composed of innumerable and diverse peoples, which is marching towards us.” Sancho responds by saying “if that’s the case, there must be two, because over in the opposite direction there’s another cloud of dust just like it.” Turning to look, Don Quixote is ‘overjoyed, thinking, no doubt, that these were two armies coming to attack and fight each other in the middle of a broad plain.’

What the dust clouds actually conceal are two flocks of sheep moving towards each other. He rides into the clouds, galloping at the sheep with his lance ‘as fearlessly and courageously as if he really were attacking his mortal enemies.’

Quixotic responses never seem far away from the UK’s political dealings in Europe. In the build-up to last weekend’s summit, during which David Cameron’s used ‘the ultimate weapon in European summitry‘ – the veto – to block a new EU-wide treaty, ‘one Tory MP said that a failure to secure “cast-iron” guarantees would see Mr Cameron return home like Neville Chamberlain after the Munich Agreement.’ (Telegraph)

As the Guardian’s editorial indicated earlier this week, ‘it doesn’t take much to get the British press to refight the second world war,’ even after seventy years. ‘So, when David Cameron walked away from the table in Brussels last week, he triggered a predictable torrent of wartime rhetoric and headlines.’ The editorial goes on to say that David Miliband, when confronted with such rhetoric by John Humphrys on the Today programme described it, rightly, as ‘delusional’.

Although Downing Street described the Neville Chamberlain remark as ‘ridiculous’, it seems that, so often, so many of us prefer the reassuring presence of a familiar enemy to the terror of uncertainty or lack of control. Is our creation of an enemy in this situation really any different to the delusions of a deranged vagrant playing out past imperial glories that are no longer real – if they ever were?

I confess that I have always had a problematic relationship to identity. I come from a mixed afro-European background and have always been suspicious of group-think and the scapegoating that goes with it. Rather, I should say that identity was a particular problem for me until I started practising wholeheartedly as a Buddhist. What changed? One way of talking about it is using the central Dharmic principle of ‘sunyata‘. This is often translated as ‘voidness’, the principle that nothing – from our mental to our nation states – has any inherent existence.

Buddhist writer and academic Robert Thurman is instructive here: his translation, in the extraordinary Vimalakirti Nirdesa, of sunyata as ’emptiness with respect to personal and phenomenal selves, or with respect to identity…’ is so relevant here. We identify ourselves as fixed and separate selves, but this is an illusion. And our national identity is no different – it is simply a state of mind, a deeply held and cherished collective story that can help us in some situations, but which can also get us into a whole lot of trouble.

And it is a particularly dangerous story when things are shaky, as they so clearly are at present. We get a glimpse that things are not quite as firm, stable and secure as we’d like them to be – we see, in short, the existential reality of our situation. It is so easy, through fear, to retreat into familiar narratives whilst simultaneusly advancing on our supposed enemies as a means of trying to regain control. This only exacerbates the problem. To use the language of trade economics, the risk is of “retraction, rising protectionism and isolation”, which, as IMF chief Christine Lagarde indicates, is exactly what happened in the 1930s, with all that followed.

What to do in the face of such uncertainty? Celebrate and act from those views and values that will truly help us – rely, in short, as fully as we can on the Dharma. In Britain’s case this means rejoicing in, and acting from, openness, fairness and tolerance. It means relying on our incredible resiliance, resourcefulness, courage and community-spiritedness in the face of change. As Will Hutton points out, “the last time Britain endured such an extended period of depression and falling living standards – the 1870s and 1880s – saw the mushrooming of the co-operative movement and the emergence of the Labour party as the more moderate expressions of anger that wanted to challenge the very basis of capitalism.” To support and export these and other human, rather than national, values – instead of acting like sheep, or seeing our enemies in clouds of dust – would be to show true leadership, both personal and political, at a time when it is most needed.

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One Response to “Britain’s Phoney War”

  1. Jnanavaca says:

    Sadhu Manjusiha!

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