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Britain’s new Gaullists

The Brexit bunch would shudder to admit it—but they are following a decidedly French script

The schisms within the burgeoning ranks of British nationalists can be baffling for outsiders. Earlier in the summer, however, two flag-waving factions went into open confrontation over the unlikely question of chlorinated chicken. In the distant event of a British trade deal with the United States, Britain would have to submit to a new regulation for treating the meat, which may result in chlorination. Liam Fox—a reflexive, US-good-Brussels-bad Thatcherite of the old school—insisted that this would be necessary. Another, Michael Gove, a nationalist of an altogether more reflective and romantic stripe, insisted that it would not. Gove is reliably eloquent, but I suspect it is Fox who has the sounder grasp of how power and sovereignty will actually work after Brexit. You can tell yourself you are voting for freedom, sovereignty and independence, but you can’t even bank on taking back control of your own dead chickens.

The argument about Britain’s role in Europe has always been conducted in terms of splendid superiority, but now that the vote to leave has been achieved, it is time to survey the new national story. That last word really is the mot juste, because the leading advocates and chief architects of Britain’s departure from the EU_Gove, Boris Johnson, David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Daniel Hannan—between them are drawing on a conception of the nation in which the dormant spirit of liberty is being reborn. This is not the chauvinistic nationalism of the BNP or the less appetising parts of Ukip. This is a nostalgic yearning for a Britain of recovered glory. It is British Gaullism.

The British memory of Charles de Gaulle’s nationalism is dominated by the defiant wartime broadcasts that allowed him to claim the leadership of a Free France that was, at the time, more of a hope than a reality. But France eventually recovered, and de Gaulle’s patriotism was no small part of the reason why. Gaullism in France was a state of defiance for which a good historical defence can be mounted, given the times and the egregious nature of the enemies. It is true that de Gaulle sulked his way through the Fourth Republic but his reason for doing so was essentially patriotic: he believed its architects had sold the country short. He then rewrote the French constitution at the peak of the Algerian crisis but then, again justified by pragmatic patriotism, let Algeria go. In the name of the same conception of la gloire, de Gaulle drove his partners in the European Economic Community (EEC) to distraction.

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In Prospect’s October issue: Andrew Adonis, Steve Richards, Gaby Hinsliff, Rachel Sylvester and Jennifer Williams look at the idea that leadership is the only thing that matters when it comes to elections. Adonis leads the cover package arguing exactly that point and outlining his ratings of the leaders who have competed every election in the UK and the United States since 1944—Richards offers a rebuttal. Hinsliff, Sylvester and Williams profile three potential leaders in waiting—Amber Rudd, Jo Swinson and Angela Rayner. Elsewhere in the issue we map out the potential road the UK might travel down to stay in the European Union and explore the relationship between UN Secretary General António Guterres and Donald Trump as the two prepare to meet at the UN. Also in this issue: Philip Collins on the similarities between Britain’s Brexiteers and the Gaullists of yesteryear, John Bercow explains how parliament could function better and our “View from” comes from Nairobi, where the recent election result has been annulled.