From May to August in the early afternoon, the grounds of Glyndebourne, a country house nestled in the folds of the South Downs east of Brighton, are occupied by groups of people in black tie and formal frocks. Some will be strolling to admire the gardens or view the lake. Others will be setting up picnic tables. More than a few will be drinking champagne. It is a quintessentially English scene.
They are there for the opera. Each season six productions of the highest quality will be staged in the 1200 seat theatre adjacent to the house; and despite the current national obsession with Brexit, talk will be of Wagner, Rossini or Mozart, or the reviews of the performances that have been published, or of the international cast performing that night.
There is a dinner interval of an hour and a half with restaurants available (international wines served, some of them English), for those who are daunted by the rigours of carrying their picnics to and from the car park. Glyndebourne exemplifies the best of English culture: it is cosmopolitan and European.
This will be familiar to heritage enthusiasts who visit historic houses that bear witness to the wealth of the young aristocrats, prototypical shopaholics, who undertook the 18th century Grand Tour, ransacking Europe for art and artifacts with which to furnish their rural palaces. And from these seats of fading splendour their descendants now affect disdain for the shopaholic habits of the nouveaux riches.
Whether in or out of the European Union, the country’s cultural heritage will not be materially impacted but its future direction most certainly will be. In 1962, Dean Acheson, a former US Secretary of State made a speech in which he remarked that ‘Great Britain has lost an Empire and not has not yet found a role’. It caused a huge fuss at the time because, of course, he was right.
Since then the UK has nurtured the Commonwealth, to which the Queen, if nobody else, is said to be deeply attached, the European Free Trade Association subsequently abandoned by two of its founding members, the UK and Denmark, to join what is now the European Union, and perennially the ‘special relationship’ with the United States.
If Brexiteers have their way the UK will on 24 June have jumped ship from its second European association, despite urging from US leaders not to do so. One concedes that a Trump presidency would take a different view but he obviously regards the UK as a large theme park with golf courses attached, a special relationship of an altogether different kind.
Some may argue that England (one writes England as there is a possibility that we could lose Scotland somewhere along the way; and who knows what the Welsh may do) can survive in splendid isolation. This is doubtful.
The insistence of many Brexiteers that a wealth of bilateral trade relationships would materialize to sustain the economy, some even suggesting a continuing tariff-free option with the EU, underlines their extreme nervousness about isolation.
If the vote on 23 June were to leave, our about-to-be former partners in Brussels would be compelled to impose tariffs. Failing to do so would put the entire EU at risk as other members sought to cherry pick the advantages of membership without payment of dues. And the UK’s vaunted ability diplomatically to ‘punch above its weight’ would be seriously undermined by a vote to leave the EU. Protracted discussions, likely to last from two to four years, to complete the separation of the UK would be negotiated from a position of weakness.
Further, sovereignty is not all its cracked up to be. Sovereignty is not the free and easy exercise of national power. Just ask the Ukraine, or those nations in South East Asia who are struggling to resist Chinese claims in the South China Sea, claims that they perceive as encroaching on their territorial waters.
England, possibly deprived of Scotland, could find itself in want of allies and partners.
Brexiteers nonetheless exist who believe that even the prospect of EU tariffs is worth the price of freedom. Instead of French or German cars they can buy British-built Japanese models, while the Japanese debate the value of future investment in factories on the wrong side of a tariff barrier.
And rather than support European economies with foreign holidays, English patriots can help revive traditional British resorts, such as Blackpool, Scarborough, Torquay or the many towns along the reassuringly English Channel.
Above all, labeling will no longer be an issue. Is it the United Kingdom in which they live? Or is it Britain, the Great having disappeared somewhere long the way? No, it will be for ever England, splendid, isolated and immigrant free.