LONDON — Outside Parliament, I met a man who said he had come there “to blow my shofar for the nation.” A shofar is typically a ram’s horn, used since antiquity in Jewish religious services and, in modern times, by certain Christian sects. You can sometimes hear a shofar blown during pro-life marches in the United States; I didn’t expect to encounter one at a British political demonstration.
And indeed the man turned out to be a charismatic Christian, who spoke of having had a message from God three years ago that “Esau has sold his birthright for a mess of pottage” — meaning, I took it, that Britain, by joining the European Union in 1973, had abandoned its glorious imperial and Christian history for the cold solace of secular liberal internationalism.
That message had set him on a crusade that eventually led him to the street in front of Parliament, where Leavers and Remainers were doing their best to outshout each other. Religion aside, he was in many ways a typical British Leaver, with a broad Midlands accent and a broad distaste for the globalist-yet-Eurocentric outlook that dominates Europe, and London. He spoke unashamedly and at great length about the glories of the British Empire. Britain needed, he said, to reclaim its historical birthright as a stand-alone great power.
His name was Vinoo Bhai Patel.
I’d just come from viewing one of Britain’s historical glories: the House of Lords, where I’d gone to have tea with a peer. She was kind enough to give me a tour, which I took with no little awe. Britain’s great public buildings are a physical symbol of an intangible that Americans find difficult to grasp: centuries building upon centuries, wealth upon wealth, grandeur compounding into greatness.
Parliament is, in a way that American public buildings rarely are, quite specific; it bears little resemblance to anything except itself. I can understand why the Leavers are so loath to see its historic powers slipping across the channel to the modern buildings in Strasbourg, where the European Parliament meets.
Too, the extraordinary beauty of Britain’s Parliament building reminds us that Britain already has a long experience with being part of a powerful trading zone, one so vast that within its borders, the sun never set. Britain was reaping gains from cross-border aggregation long before the rest of Europe got into the act.
The difference, of course, is that the E.U. accomplished this feat with tedious bureaucracy, while Britain accomplished it with the sword. From an American perspective, the European way is preferable, if less romantic. But if your nation was the one with the sword, and your Parliament the seat of all that power, you can see how the E.U. version might feel intolerably second-rate.
So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that Patel was so fiercely attached to the old, singular Britain, though I confess I was. I was even more surprised to find that the Leave demonstrator next to him was an Irishman, though a resident in England for some 30 years, who said he would surrender his passport and apply for British citizenship if Brexit went through.
That was my error, not theirs. An error that many have made, over and over. Since the twin upheavals of 2016, when Britain voted to leave the E.U. and the United States elected Donald Trump, both countries have seemed neatly divided into just two camps, each perceived to have a unified set of ideas and goals.
But the process of actually leaving the E.U. has been so fraught precisely because there were so many different people who wanted to divorce Europe for so many different reasons: leftists who felt that E.U. governance would interfere with their project of renationalizing everything; free-marketers who wanted to open borders with the rest of the world rather than participating in a limited trading bloc; “Little Englanders” who hate the loss of sovereignty … they all agreed on getting shut of Europe, but precious little else. Which is why on Friday, for the third time, Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s compromise Brexit deal, this one a stripped-down version.
Patel’s presence in front of Parliament earlier in the week provided a striking reminder of the storied past to which so many Leavers are so attached. But he also reminds us that ancestry is not culture, and that the world cannot be neatly divided into Leave and Remain. Like his Parliament, Patel is singular, and his reasons for leaving are his own.