The British chrysalis: Defining a European Britishness for the 21st century

, by Juuso Järviniemi

The British chrysalis: Defining a European Britishness for the 21st century

In 1998, a group of highly educated young Zambians created an online magazine called Chrysalis [1] in their mission to “search for the Holy Grail of Zambia’s economic and social development”. With the country still grappling with the legacy of colonialism and the mismanagements of its first quarter of a century of independence, the magazine also sought to create a “Zambianness”, a notion the contributors didn’t believe truly existed. The goal was to identify and create reasons to feel proud about being Zambian. Within a year and a half, the mood on the site’s eloquent blog entries and comments descended from unwavering optimism into despair.

The magazine that once attracted international attention died out after just seven issues. In August 1999, in the final issue of the magazine, an author talking about a World Bank loan that Zambia failed to pay back lamented Zambians’ irresponsibleness. Expressing blistering disappointment about the failure of the dying magazine, the contributor wrote: “God save Zambia. P.S. Will the last guy out of this place [Chrysalis] turn out the lights?” The dead website was taken down from the Internet in 2003.

Of pro-European Facebook groups in the UK, The 48% is the biggest, at around 60,000 members. The mere size of the group ensures that conversations on the group reflect, in a certain way, the mood among the hardcore British Remain campaigners. Anger and disbelief at the stupidity and the self-servings of the British political class are of course omnipresent. Some commenters (who at times are suspected to be pro-Brexit trolls) proclaim that they have lost faith in the prospect of stopping Brexit. But importantly, under every defeatist post, there are dozens of comments from activists who are prepared to fight.

Interestingly, some members of pro-Remain Facebook groups have already looked ahead and asked what others plan to do in the event that the UK leaves the EU. The near-unanimous response in the comment sections is that the struggle will continue and that activists will advocate for rejoining the EU.

Regardless of where the UK is going, The 48% is soon going to be faced with a ‘Chrysalian’ task: acting as a forum for defining and defending a narrative of a European Britishness and converting national humiliation into faith in a better tomorrow where the nation is at ease with itself. The 48% is much bigger than Chrysalis whose guest book was, according to scholar James Ferguson, signed by 224 people from five continents. Among the 60,000 people, will there be enough many optimists and visionaries to keep the spirit alive?

The dangers of resignation and complacency

In the Zambian example, the bloggers were discouraged because things in the country took the wrong turn, without an end in sight for the misery. The obvious British analogy would be one where Brexit goes ahead in the end. Many have vowed to be on the streets to campaign for rejoining in the spring of 2019, but this campaign would be a long one, requiring resilience. The danger is that even pro-European Brits one day resign to the fallacious idea that they are “no longer European”. Indeed, I already hear this phrase coming out of British people’s mouths – though usually it’s uttered by those Brits who never felt very European in the first place.

It’s up to the vanguard of campaigners to show that as long as the UK is outside the European family, the country is not where it belongs. In Zambia, the task of building national self-confidence was bedevilled by the widespread belief that Zambians had deserved their fate. When the national decline sets in in the UK, pro-Europeans will persistently have to remind the public that they deserve better – not just in 2019, but in the years to come.

Certainly, the flag-waving activists cannot be accused of a lack of perseverance. The embodiment of this is Steve Bray, a leading figure behind the permanent SODEM (Stand of Defiance European Movement) protest in front of the Houses of Parliament who has demonstrated on a near-daily basis for months. (A tongue-in-cheek petition to erect a statue of him on London’s Trafalgar Square has gathered nearly 1,500 signatures at the time of writing.) However, besides resignation, another danger is lurking around the corner in the event that the Remain campaign succeeds: complacency. After the June 2016 referendum, the Leave camp ceased to campaign on the ground, a fact that they have bitterly regretted in 2018 when they have found themselves up against an ever more impressive grassroots network of Remain campaigners. If the Remain camp gets the referendum on the Brexit deal and wins, will it commit the same error?

From Remain to Reform

Ceasing to campaign isn’t the only kind of complacency; another would be to pretend that the ongoing British (or English?) identity crisis doesn’t need to be addressed. This is where the Chrysalian intellectual task of refashioning Britishness comes in. Treating Europe as “the other” hasn’t done the UK any good; reconciling Britishness and Europeanness is the only sensible option.

How exactly can you do that? There must be many complicated answers to this million-dollar (or should we say million-pound) question. One somewhat simpler answer is this: if enough Brits keep saying that there’s no contradiction between being British and being European, then there is no contradiction. (I don’t believe there is). It was lack of faith that ultimately killed Chrysalis. Certainly, the activists will have the task of convincing the broader public but we all know that the more often you say something, the more likely it is that others are convinced – just ask Nigel Farage.

The task of convincing, of course, becomes easier with a compelling narrative. Some think the essence of Britishness is isolation, others think it’s pragmatism. By departing from the latter notion, a 21st-century “European” Britishness could ensure continuity with history. What could be more pragmatic than articulating constructive solutions for problems like the EU’s democratic deficit, the waning global influence of Europe (including the UK, whether it’s inside the EU, outside or something in between), or the challenges of managing migration across the Mediterranean and of sustaining Europe’s economic performance? For too long, British governments have been too busy asking for “their money back” and leaving the EU to remember that in today’s Europe, good ideas are a key way to win influence.

“At a time of crisis, when it looked like we were in for a long decline, we refused to give up. We drew from our history of cool thinking and pragmatic ideas and helped to make Europe work better for ourselves and everyone else.” Doesn’t that sound like the narrative of a proud nation for the 21st century?

Further reading

For a history of the Chrysalis magazine, see Ferguson, J. (2003) ‘Stillborn chrysalis: Reflections on the fate of national culture in neoliberal Zambia’, Global Networks Vol. 3(3), 271–297.


[1A chrysalis is the pupa of a butterfly, enclosed inside a cocoon.

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