Britain is resounding at the moment with “Solemn and strange music,” to borrow one of Shakespeare’s stage directions. The referendum on whether the country is to stay in the European Union or on the contrary leave has brought this about. In a major key, the good and the great, for instance Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama, and Mrs. Angela Merkel, fill the air with threats that leaving means no more cakes and ale for everybody — Shakespeare to the rescue again. The European president, one Jean-Claude Juncker, sees himself as Charlemagne and promises condign punishment awaits a Britain that rejects him. Economic disaster, mass unemployment, no trade, isolation — Cameron even feels it right to assure his listeners that they will actually survive. It’s all hot air and smoke. If the threats were realistic and practicable, Cameron should never have offered the referendum in the first place.
All sorts of people in countries that have historically resented and even fought Great Britain are now beseeching it to stay in the EU, no matter what the cost or the general will. What would Napoleon or Charles de Gaulle have to say about President François Hollande’s flirting with France’s sweet enemy? This mood music comes in a minor key, to be sure, and there’s a splendid example of it in the issue dated June 3 of the Times Literary Supplement, a weekly that positions itself as the oracle of literature. All the way from Dario Alessi (Italian) to Krzysztof Zanussi (Poland), several hundred men and women self-described as “people who have distinguished themselves in all sorts of different activities” have signed a round-robin letter to the TLS claiming to have bonds of admiration and affection for Britain, and accordingly pleading for a vote to stay in the EU. This music could hardly be more strange. The British are actually in the process of deciding whether or not to govern themselves. What negative bearing could British self-government have on genuine bonds of admiration and affection in foreign well-wishers? Or could it be that these worthy Europeans sense, consciously or not, that the failure of the EU is unavoidable, and the idea of the British breaking free is intolerable?