In 1965’s Lament for a Nation, Canadian philosopher George Grant asserted that Canada had functionally lost its independence. Though politically sovereign, it had been swallowed as a “branch-plant economy” of the United States. It was capable of dissent, like any other state of the union, but its domestic identity had been sunk not by malice or treason, but the small-l liberalism of Canada’s elite capitalist and intellectual classes focused on economic growth and individualism. Canada, perhaps unavoidably, became a dependency of its larger, dominant neighbour.
He explicitly did not judge anyone’s intentions. The point was not that William Lyon Mackenzie King or Lester Pearson were anti-Canadian or unnecessarily pro-American. He did not say the Americans were wicked, wasn’t sure the process could be stopped, didn’t even know if it was actually bad. He was sufficiently extreme in asserting that it had, already, happened. The government of John Diefenbaker had represented English Canada’s last chance to save itself, but it had been destroyed by the Conservatives’ own mistakes and the national Establishment in coalition, whose gains would be limited by the sort of old-time conservative nationalism that would have made independence possible1.
Grant wrote in anger, and the past fifty years have not proven him entirely right. Anti-Americanism remains Canada’s national vice, among Liberals as much as anybody. However, that anti-Americanism is often tinted in partisan colours; the NDP making “American-style” a slur while the Republicans are in office then campaigning for Bernie Sanders, that sort of thing. Being anti-American when the Americans don’t vote their way gives them something in common with a lot of American Republicans and Democrats. We stayed out of Iraq, American military adventure though it was, but under both Chrétien and Harper were at pains to “make up for it” in Afghanistan. In short, Grant’s thesis held up for the big stuff2.
Everybody shares the faith in technological (perhaps technocratic) progress which Grant considers automatically homogenizing. The pro-business consensus of the Conservatives and most Liberals has been good for our economy but makes us more culturally and economically dependent on the United States every day. Internationalism, the obsession with so-called progress, and the “emancipation of passions” remain guiding lights of left Liberals and New Democrats, opposing globalized business not with Canadian business but with pious proclamations from no fixed address. The no-hoper hardcore socialists of the Leap Manifesto aren’t the strict cultural and economic Castroist comptroller Grant suggests might have defended the nation, but a fully globalist philosophy exemplifying what Grant called “a doctrine [. . .] too flaccid to provide any basis for independence.”
Under the Grant thesis, Canada’s book has closed, and nothing in half a century has re-opened it. There is not much hope for us, but there may be some for the United Kingdom.
Next week the British vote on whether to remain in the European Union. Very nearly the full Establishment backs the EU. This includes the Prime Minister, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the leader of the third party in the House of Commons, the leader of the joint fourth party in the House of Commons, the vast majority of the Cabinet, the vast majority of the House, the President of the United States (ah!), the President of China (ah again!), every newspaper representing the British “smart set,” and a list of businesses and international organizations long enough to wrap around the German border. In favour of leaving is bloke Nigel Farage, coked Boris Johnson, joke Michael Gove, some tabloids, and, incidentally, approximately half the British public. There was less unanimity from the Establishment to fight Hitler and if “Leave” somehow wins it will be the upset of the century3.
The essential argument of the Leave movement should sound familiar to readers of Grant: that, having joined Europe for economic reasons, the United Kingdom has forfeited much of its sovereignty. The immediate consequences of this loss differ between 1960s Canada and 2010s Britain, but the principle is identical and the only surprise is that, despite the collapse of British conservative nationalism since the First World War, there is still enough fight left in the Union Jack for this to happen.
In the Grant tradition, the great homogenizers of Remain produce propaganda proving that the British economy would be hurt by leaving the European Union. Investors have grown more nervous with every pro-Leave polling twitch. Barack Obama threatened that the United States would not automatically be interested in free trade with an independent United Kingdom. These arguments aren’t without force, for the original reason for joining the European Common Market (as it was once called) was economic. For the most part, pro-Leave commentators have tried to dispute that conclusion but there aren’t many grounds to do so.
For if Grant was right then it is that economic interdependence which ultimately forfeited Britain’s nationhood. Surely you cannot call the City of London, among the world’s financial centres, part of a “branch-plant economy” like Canada. However, though the buildings may be in Britain, the world of international commerce amounts to foreign billionaires funding foreign projects, bringing Beemers to British accountants and lawyers but actually making as much in the country as any ’50s branch plant while tying the country’s elite all the more closely to the internationalist mega-economy. Of the Sunday Times Rich List’s top 20, thirteen are non-British4 and, as Grant said in the case of Quebec, English blood is irrelevant if it’s in their interest to obviate Englishness. Britain boasts a far richer culture in 2016 than Canada on its best day but it mirrors conditions more than it drives them. The BBC moved from a voice of authority to a bastion of knee-jerk internationalism and liberalism just as the rest of society’s elites did. Indeed, for Canada Grant’s book hardly treated such concerns in more than passing.
The alternatives Grant recognized were not beds of roses. He listed only two: a program of Castroist socialism, impossible in Canada and intolerable anywhere, and Charles de Gaulle’s “third way,” “to harness the nationalist spirit to technological planning and insist internationally that there are limits to the western ‘alliance.'” As Grant predicted, the Gaullist approach is passé even in France, now facing the same threat to its nationality as Britain. The French economy and quality of life fell behind its immense potential as de Gaulle and his heirs expended effort and treasure to preserve the nation as a real thing, while more straightforwardly global-capitalist regimes enjoyed relative prosperity. It was a trade-off for France, and they paid for it, and in the long run it may not have worked. But it was an attempt to preserve the country, and French national spirit remains a weakened but living force.
The United Kingdom Conservative Party is forever the party of the City and a sort of laissez-faire, not that this translates into any degree of financial responsibility, any independent policy beyond reflexive and meaningless brushbacks against Washington and Brussels, any sort of useful national defense, any moral principles at all, any meaning to the formerly prominent word “Unionist,” or basically anything that the word “conservative” once meant. New Labour was the same, more so in some categories and less so in others, and fond though I am of a party campaigning on what it wants to do Corbynite Labour is the NDP in one of its dilettantist phases.
The Grant equation fits the United Kingdom, right down to Remain forces insisting that the British have not lost their nation at all. Complaints about Europe are universal but actual opposition is portrayed as parochial at best and the work of evil old doctrine at worst. The Scottish independence movement bears a close relation to that of Quebec in the decades after Grant’s tract, and neither Diefenbaker’s Tories nor Farage’s UKIP could work productively with their nation-within-a-nation despite very similar homogenizing pressure.
The final question Grant asked of 1965 Canada was: is this good? The British economy remains competitive. The root cause of the immigration crisis that exercises many Brits is that the United Kingdom is a desirable place to live. And maybe any form of nationalism is, in the twenty-first century, obsolete when it did such great harm to Europe in the twentieth. Grant couldn’t answer the question, but he began the last paragraph of Lament for a Nation thus:
My lament is not based on philosophy but on tradition. If one cannot be sure about the answer to the most important questions, then tradition is the best basis for the practical life. Those who loved the older traditions of Canada may be allowed to lament what has been lost, even though they do not know whether or not that loss will lead to some greater political good. But lamentation falls easily into the vice of self-pity. To live with courage is a virtue, whatever one may think of the dominant assumptions of one’s age. Multitudes of human beings through the course of history have had to live when their only political allegiance was irretrievably lost.
That seems apt for Britain as well.