The Irish Times writes in the term “English nationalism” almost automatically now as the key factor to explain of Brexit. Even for the British they don’t doubt it’s wholly a bad thing, based on distorted memories of empire and English delusions of national sovereignty, not a bit like our own dear sovereignty won in a struggle for freedom. But this is too pat and shields Ireland from some awkward questions about its continuing relationship with the EU. Star columnist Fintan O’Toole is its most eloquent advocate, writing here in the Guardian a year ago.
When you strip away the rhetoric, Brexit is an English nationalist movement. Over time, the main political entity most likely to emerge from Brexit is not a Britain with its greatness restored or a sweetly reunited kingdom. It is a standalone England. Scotland will have a second referendum on independence, this time with the lure of staying in the European Union. Northern Ireland will be in a horrendous bind, cut off from the rest of the island by a European border and with the UK melting around it. Its future as an unwanted appendage of a shrunken Britain is unsustainable. Wales is more uncertain, but a resurgence of Welsh nationalism after Brexit is entirely possible, especially after a Scottish departure from the UK. After Brexit, an independent England will emerge by default.
As usual O’Toole makes a powerful case. He speaks for an Ireland which has always had good reason to recoil from English notions of exceptionalism. Today Ireland can see no good at all in Brexit. It projects its own fears onto the British. It therefore writes Brexit off entirely as an aberration, a false consciousness embedded in English delusions over past greatness they will live to regret. Plenty in Britain warmly agree. But there are flaws in the argument. There’s a risk here of falling into Hillary Clinton’s great error in writing off people with legitimate grievances as a basket of deplorables.
First voting exercises show that Brexit opinion is far from being an almost wholly English phenomenon. Indyref 1 was actually lost. The Tory revival in Scotland can hardly be explained in terms of English nationalism. It is registering a preference for the British internal market over the European and it may impose at least a check to the breakup of Britain. What is certainly new is that the survival of the British state, once unitary and entirely unquestioned, is now devolved and as much open to review as anything else. And this is taken for granted. I have my own fundmental reservations. But these are not delusions; they are challenging but democratic developments.
Again there is too little acknowledgement from O’Toole and the Irish Times school here that for Britain, the EU has not been a universally happy experience. British objections were rooted in the expansion of EU powers deep into domestic affairs without explicit democratic approval and in trauma over shadowing the D-mark in advance of the creation of the single currency. There were decades of frustration over the key British aim of developing the internal market, the very creation which ironically, they now seem determined to leave. These experiences had echoes in Ireland over the bailout – none more loudly than Fintan O’Toole’s. Yes, Ireland may have illusions about sovereignty too. The difference perhaps is that while it may well live to regret it, Britain is big enough to cut free: Ireland is not. Try this for size from July 2015, one among many.
If we put these three moments together, we have a perfect working model of arbitrary rule: a high-level group that does not consider itself bound by European treaties (those treaties that we went to such trouble to insert into our Constitution in multiple referendums); a second group that nobody ever elected but that has acquired the power to bankrupt an entire country and effectively expel it from the euro zone ( Greece); and a set of governing laws that are impenetrable, not only to citizens but even to professional politicians and to most of the experts whose opinions shape public discourse.
These realities amount to something that those (like myself) who have always supported the European project have to face: the project has taken a decisive turn away from democracy. It is conventional wisdom that the EU is in danger from below, with the rise of eurosceptic parties. But it is in even more danger from above.
According to the historical stereotypes, Irish nationalism is good as a movement of the oppressed.
English nationalism is bad as a movement of the oppressor and an expression of automatic dominance – even in today’s UK where Northern Ireland and even Scotland and Wales are seen as remnants of an essentially English empire.
In history, alien Catholic French and Spanish influences over the arbitrary power of the Crown were replaced by an English revolution extending the rule of law developing parliamentary government.
The attempts to impose the English Protestant character of that revolution on the Irish were no more successful than royal subjugation earlier.
In Ireland the Catholic Church represented the nation coping with alien English rule.
Today, old instincts die hard. The Catholic tradition in Ireland probably created a greater affinity with European institutions than Protestant Britain, which affected to steer clear of continental entanglements until absolutely forced to intervene to meet a military threat.
Today the Conservative party, while they’d hesitate at the English nationalist label, see themselves as the democratic check on the pressures of uncontrolled immigration and the champions of a traditional English identity within cultural diversity. So far the British are accommodating a growing ethnic population better than the French, who chose not to recognise the characteristics of diversity because of their particular versions of secularism and equality. As champions of parliamentary sovereignty the Conservatives see themselves as having “ taken back control” from the unelected foreign bureaucracy of the EU, an organisation which purports to be the level playing field for 27 very different states but is in reality in the view of many of them, a veil to cloak German domination achieved by peaceful means.
For Ireland the EU (with some hesitation over the role of the troika) buttresses Irish independence against any threat of British dominance and offers routes to the wider world and the destiny of unity.
Brexit is now polarising into familiar stereotypes. Remain equals liberal, progressive, Irish nationalist (SF formerly anti EU, has jumped on the bandwagon). Leave, traditional small c and cap C conservative, British, Scottish and Ulster Unionist (although Ruth Davidson is careful not to tack too far to the right).
What actually is English nationalism? John Denham former Labour cabinet minister and now running the Centre for English identity at Winchester University argues for a Labour populism to counteract global finance and control, not as an explicit nationalism. One for next time, perhaps?
Now that UKIP seems to have been killed off, the natural home for a more explicit nationalism with right wing baggage has reverted to the Conservative party. Qualms about the implications are felt by the Tory columnist Matthew Parris in the Times today.
How very comfortingly English.
With Theresa May spouting chauvinist fantasy about some imagined Brussels conspiracy to manipulate our general election, should we be pleased or sorry that after this weekend you can travel as far to the right as you like in British politics and still be in Tory territory until you fall off the edge of the world?
How many among that swathe of opinion once at home in Ukip can make the Tory party their new nest before Tories of my type begin to feel edged out by the lodgers?
The Conservatives have yet to explain to themselves, never mind the rest of us, how the party of the pro-Europeans Macmillan and Heath became the party of Brexit May. For the instigators of the British project, Europe would amortise remaining British power and shock the economy into growth through greater competition. The former worked better than the latter. This and the implications of ever closer Union were never explicitly acknowledged because the politicians of the day thought they could muddle them through more or less unnoticed.
In the old days the party membership provided the deferential patriotic chorus to very different solos by the leaders. The Tory rank and file are deferential no longer. Democracy lives in the Conservative party and reminds us that it cuts both ways.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London