Little England sometimes confirms its metaphorical as well is its geographic insularity. The latest instance came in the manner in which three political stories from France were reported in England over the weekend. We suggest that the treatment of the stories indicates how matters of social identity have a strong influence on the actions and statements of political leaders
The unreported stories
The first story, the Presidential nomination of Nicholas Sarcozy, hardly reached the UK public through the popular papers. This although there were wide implications for future elections of the use of web-based interaction with voters to shape policy and even to vote for candidates.
The second story, also mostly ignored, was the formation of a new right-wing group within the EU. After its recent expansion, members from Bulgaria and Romania have been able to link with other right-wing MEPs to form the ITP party (Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty party). Its numbers were just about adequate to qualify the ITP for EU funding to promote its policies at future European elections.
The headline news: France wanted to become part of the Commonwealth
A third story made far more headlines in England. It seems that fifty years ago, a French politician raised the possibility of much closer ties between the two countries. One option was to admit France into the British Commonwealth. The idea was, according to French political historians, utterly unrealistic. That did little to dampen enthusiasm for the story this weekend.
The context to the story
The story becomesmore that footnote to French modern history, but a comforting indication today of the status that England enjoyed in a once-glorious era.
In 1956 the French Prime Minister Guy Mollet held talks in London with the English premier Anthony Eden. It is now clear that the two leaders did touch on the possibility of closer political links between the two countries.
At the time, France and England had common cause in Egypt over President Nassar’s nationalization of the Suez canal. Nassar was, furthermore supporting resistance in Algeria over France’s hegemony.
However, there was also the possibility of France and England becoming involved on opposing sides of a border dispute between Israel (supported by England) and Jordon (supported by France).
These were factors which encouraged Mollet to explore possibilities of closer political links between France and England. The socialist Mollet had been impressed by the social changes implemented by the Attlee government after the war. He considered that Britain was moving to a socialist system (regardless of the fact that he was dealing with the Conservatives with Anthony Eden as PM.
In his zeal to address immediate and longer-term challenges enges he even raised the possibility that France in the future might be favourably disposed to becoming a member of the commonwealth, accepting the role of the Queen and monarch as its head.
The talks were to have significant military consequences. They were followed by an ill-fated joint military action by England and France in the seizure of the Suez canal.
Hoever, the political joint venture was always a non-starter. In a BBC programme the recently available papers were revealed to a French historian:
‘Henri Soutou, professor of contemporary history at Paris’s Sorbonne University almost fell off his chair. Stammering repeatedly he said: “Really I am stuttering because this idea is so preposterous. The idea of joining the Commonwealth and accepting the headship of Her Majesty would not have gone down well. If this had been suggested more recently, Mollet might have found himself in court.” ‘
‘What do elephants think of England?’
There is an old joke about national attitudes. Given a brief to write a story about Elephants, a French journalist might muse on the philosophic essence of the social behaviour of the elephant herd. An English journalist might ask the question ‘how do Elephants adapt to the English weather?
The contrasting cultures indicate problems of taking the entente cordiale beyond the comforting utterances between leading figures on State occasions. The joke indicates why the fifty year old story was of more general interest in England than were the political events of the day from across the channel.
Leadership and social identity?
A theme may be detected in way these stories were reported on this side of the Channel. It is hinted at in the elephant joke. There is considerable interest in England in matters of identity. Indeed, the interest is more widespread. We noted that Gordon Brown had made the matter of a ‘threat to the Union’ the thrust of a recent communication. Again, the new (and unreported) ITP party is itself concerned about matters of identity.
Politicians and their advisors assess the issues which are judged most critical in interesting key groups of voters directly or through indirect opinion-shapers. Political vision has to be communicated so as to deal with the concerns of voters and other interest groups. The result is that the leader’s vision has to be couched in culturally acceptable terms. Attempts to transform cultural values have to work within them.