Will the Rolling English Drunkard Decide Brexit?

rolling road
He’s not registered to vote. He’s not even a real person. But on June 23, the deciding vote on “Brexit”—the referendum on whether Britain will remain within or exit the EC—may well be cast by an anonymous chap known only as the Rolling English Drunkard.

The Rolling English Drunkard is a character created by the writer G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) in a poem called, “The Rolling English Road.” The poem begins,

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

As with so many of Chesterton’s poems, it appears at first glance to be doggerel. But then you realize that Chesterton is using nonsense to make a serious point. In this case, the rolling English road is a metaphor: It stands for twisting roads, yes, but also for driving on the left, whimsical place names, chilly rooms, warm beer, “public” schools that are really private, afternoon tea, cricket, that superfluous “u” in words like “colour” and “odour” and all the other quirks and eccentricities of an island people that make England distinctively England.

And woe betide the foreigner who tries to meddle!

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

The good people of England did indeed bash Bonaparte’s baggonets. Just as they had previously bashed the Spanish Armada and would go on to bash the armed might of the Kaiser and Hitler. More recently, they bashed the Brussels bureaucrats who tried to force metric units on them. It was a long, hard fight but today proud, stubborn Englishmen can still go an extra mile to a local pub and order a pint of beer.

In the dark days of 1941, when a Nazi invasion seemed imminent, George Orwell put it this way: “What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. [Without that] we might be watching the S.S. men patrolling the London streets at this moment.”

All of which is to say that if the English people vote to leave the EU on June 23, it will be because they have elected to follow the rolling English drunkard down the rolling English road. That is, it will be because they have been influenced more by sentiment than by rational self-interest.

Brexiteers, like the Trumpkins in the U.S., tend to be xenophobic and anti-establishment. They fear that under the liberal immigration policies of the EC, foreigners are coming in, taking their jobs, using public services, collecting benefits and refusing to assimilate. They also fear that the refugees streaming into the EU from the Middle East will have access to Britain and make Britain more vulnerable to the kind of terrorist attacks that have wracked the continent.

At the same time, they resent the billions of pounds they pay every year for the privilege of EU membership and having to comply with the petty rules and red tape laid down by the gnomes in Brussels.

In short, they’re afraid that remaining in the EU will mean that England will lose those characteristics that make it England—that an alien super-government on the other side of the Channel will “straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made.”

But if the Brexiteers prevail on June 23, “taking back control” will come at a price. Economists generally agree that leaving the EU will cause at least a short-term disruption of the British economy, and possibly long-term consequences as well, since Britain would lose access to the huge EU single market.

Brexiteers insist that Britain—which now has Europe’s second-largest economy—could easily strike a favorable trade deal with the EU, since too many EU companies would not want to lose access to British customers. This is wishful thinking. EU exports to Britain make up 3.1 percent of GDP, while British exports to the EU make up 12.6 percent. Clearly, the EU would have the stronger hand in any trade negotiations.

Further, if Britain wants to trade with the EU on any terms, it will have to comply with many of those pesky regulations the Brits find so irksome. The difference is that since Britain will no longer belong to the EU, if will no longer have a say in drawing up those regulations, and will not be able to nudge the Brussels bureaucrats toward less onerous, more free-market alternatives.

As for immigration, Britain needs foreign workers just as the U.S. does. And not only skilled workers. Ironically, Britain’s farmers, who are among the fiercest supporters of Brexit, would find it difficult to harvest their crops without the aid of seasonal migrant labor.

As for the terrorist threat, Britain has the best of both worlds. As an EU member, Britain can share intelligence with EU law enforcement agencies. But at the same time, since it declined to participate in the passport-free Schengen area, which includes most of Europe, it can tighten its border controls as circumstances may warrant in order to deny entry to suspected terrorists.

But it remains to be seen whether cold logic or warm sentiment will sway the voters on June 23.

Whatever the outcome may be, a devoted Anglophile like myself can only wish my cousins on the other side of the big pond the very best of luck. For, as Chesterton put it,

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

HGordonHal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.


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  • Recovering Editor

    As usual, you have produced an informed and articulate description of the situation. It remains to be seen if rational argument or ignorance and, as you mentioned, emotion, determine the outcome.

  • carlmueller92

    Excellent piece, Hal!