Fintan O’Toole has written another of his entertaining essays trying to get to the bottom of why the UK and the English in particular are behaving like lemmings throwing themselves over a cliff over Brexit. In the Irish Times today he comes with up “England as Ireland.”
The big problem with English nationalism is that it is naïve. Because it has been buried for centuries under two layers of disguise – the United Kingdom and the British Empire – it has no knowledge of what, through bitter experience over those bloody years, most of the rest of us have had to discover about nationalism. What other countries (Ireland very much included) have learned the hard way is that nationalism is petrol: a combustible political fuel that can drive you forward or, if you do not control it, drive you off a cliff.
England is emerging, not from its own empire, but from an imaginary empire of the EU. And (with a certain comic magnificence) the nearest example of this process to hand is Ireland’s struggle for independence from the UK. Hence the Brexiteer Sir Bernard Jenkin explaining on BBC’s Newsnight last week why it was okay to renege on the withdrawal treaty: “The deal leaving the EU is a one-off exceptional treaty – it’s like an independent country leaving an empire.”
This bizarre mental construct of England-as-Ireland leads to the adoption, in the minds of English nationalists, of the Michael Collins model – sign the damn treaty and then you can change it afterwards. The withdrawal treaty, like the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, is not a terminus but a springboard.
Secondly, the big reason why English nationalism cannot articulate itself is that it cannot admit to its own most obvious consequence: the break-up of the UK. Toryism is supposed to be conservative and unionist, but it has become (in objective effect) radically anti-union. It is pushing through the most extreme possible version of a Brexit that both Scotland and Northern Ireland rejected.
But since this cannot be admitted, the blame for the consequences must be displaced. These people, of course, have a lot of practice at shifting the blame for their own failings on to their favourite scapegoat: the EU. Thus, it is not English nationalism that is wrecking the union. It is those damned foreigners.
We can make our own refinements. Nigel Farage is the clear voice of English nationalism , just as Paisley was the voice of unionism long before he took it over. Farage sets the pace but the Tories have been following him fast enough since 2016 to avoid being taken over unless they split along the red lines.This tail wagging the dog has been disastrous for the country although after the fright of 2017, not so far for the Conservative party.
English nationalism hankers less after Empire , though the “five eyes” is a remnant of that, more after a Rule Britannia keep- out- the- French impulse that is the response to deep set fears of European dominance and eventual integration which Fintan always underplays. It is a consistent thread in English history.
The far more interesting phenomenon now is how they are pulling in contradictory directions over the fate of the Union; belated recognition of the threat as they contemplate the consequences, combined with advancing a version of parliamentary sovereignty which devolution can finally veto. Why else would they have gone through the contortions of first the back stop , then the front stop which they are now trying desperately to dump? Superficially the attempt to rewrite the Withdrawal Agreement with the Ireland/NI Protocol is a defence of the UK free trade, a cardinal principle of the Union. But even the DUP MPs (or most of them), know Johnson’s rhetoric rings hollow. Inside the Cabinet Office in Whitehall “Northern Ireland” has become iconic even if bears little resemblance to the real place and its people. It would be ‘no surprise if English nationalists who are Tory MPs were beginning to wonder if the icon is worth its candle.
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