Brexit is English nationalism made flesh, but the English underrate its destructive potential as a form of communal identity. Concepts like “nationalism” and “self-determination” have traditionally been seen as something that happens to foreigners. An English failing today is an inability to recognise the egocentricity implicit in such nationalism and the extent to which it alienates and invites confrontation with other nations in the British Isles and beyond.
A classic example of this blindness to the consequences of this new type of nationalism came this week when Theresa May denounced Nicola Sturgeon for “playing politics with the future of our country” in demanding a second referendum on Scottish independence. This immediately begs the question about the nature and location of this “country” to which such uncritical loyalty is due. If the state in question is the UK, then why do the advocates of Brexit ignore the opposition – and take for granted the compliance – of Scotland and Northern Ireland in leaving the EU?
It is worth recalling the degree to which British politics was divided and poisoned by fierce disputes over Irish independence for the whole of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, right up to the moment that Ireland achieved self-determination in 1921. What used to be called “the Irish Question” has now been reborn as an all-consuming issue by “the Scottish Question” and, whatever the timing and outcome of a second Scottish referendum, it is not going to go away. Supposing that Theresa May really believes, as her patronising rejection of another poll in Scotland might suggest, that “the Scottish Question” can be indefinitely delayed, then she will be joining a long dismal list of British leaders down the centuries who made the same mistake about Ireland.
English politicians have frequently had a tin ear when it comes to other people’s nationalism, imagining that it can be satisfied by material concessions or rebutted by arguments about independence inflicting unacceptable economic damage. English people often have an equally muddled or myopic vision of their own nationalism, using the terms “English” and “British” as if they were synonymous or marked a distinction of no great account. They therefore do not see how their nationalism has changed significantly in the last few years and is making the continuation of the UK less and less likely. The transformation is also obscured because the ingredients of nationalist identity are in any case hazy since a successful nationalist movement becomes the vehicle for all sorts of grievances and protests.
British nationalism was in the past more fluid than Irish or continental nationalism because it did not face such intense pressures. It needed to be adaptable and inclusive enough to meet the needs of empire and a post-imperial world. It was primarily territorial within the island of Britain, rather than ethnic, religious or linguistic, and was so successful and self-confident that it did not closely define exactly what made somebody British. Strident assertions by Ulster Protestants about their “Britishness” sounded foreign and rather embarrassing to people in the rest of the UK.
The new English nationalism that surfaced so strongly during the Brexit campaign is, ironically, much closer to continental traditions of nationalism. It is much more ethnically and culturally exclusive than the English/British tradition, which developed when British politics stabilised after prolonged turmoil and civil war at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
What makes the new English nationalism so dangerous post-Brexit is that it is deeply felt but incoherent and comes with little self-knowledge. It is more dangerous than the elephant in the room, whose presence nobody will acknowledge, because in this case the elephant is scarcely aware of its own bulk and impact upon others. As a system of beliefs the new nationalism is much more appropriate to an English nation state than to a more diverse United Kingdom. Yet there is genuine bafflement among English people when the Scots apply the same arguments as Brexiters used to justify leaving the EU to justify Scottish independence. It takes a good deal of cheek for Theresa May, as she initiates Britain’s withdrawal from the EU – the consequences of which even its protagonists admit nobody knows – to accuse Nicola Sturgeon of setting “Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division, creating huge uncertainty.”
It should be quickly said that there is nothing wrong with there being an English nation state. The left tends to denigrate or suspect nationalism as a mask for racism or, at best, a diversion from more important social and political issues. It can be both, but nationalism has also been the essential glue for progressive and liberal movements since the American War of Independence. If it has fallen into the hands of the xenophobic right in England and the US in recent years, that is the fault of those who saw it as illegitimate, obsolete and irrelevant in a globalising world.
Because the new nationalism sees itself in a vague way as seeking to return to a mythical England, which seems to have had its terminal date in about 1960, it is not good at seeing that its project is new and different from what went before. The old British state, as it developed from the end of the seventeenth century, was known – and often detested by other states – for its acute sense of its own interests. The new English nation state stretching from the Channel to the Tweed seems to have little idea of its own strengths and weaknesses and will be much less capable of charting an independent course in the world, whatever its pretensions “to be taking back control”.
One of the curiosities of the Brexit referendum was that, while the Leaves frequently beat the patriotic drum and spoke of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the Battle of Britain in 1940, they showed little interest in or knowledge of history. Before the eighteenth century, English governments spent much of their energies and resources fighting the Scots, Irish and Welsh. In the years before Agincourt, Henry V learned to be a soldier suppressing Welsh uprisings. Scottish and Irish rebellions played a central role in precipitating and determining the outcome of the English Civil War. An end to this disunity through repression or conciliation launched Britain as a great power. A return to instability in relations between the nations living in the British Isles will have the opposite effect.
Britain is already weaker as a state than it was two years ago because its government is wholly preoccupied with Brexit and the prospect of Scottish secession from the UK. All other pressing problems facing the country must wait, possibly for decades, until these issues are dealt with. The break-up of Britain is not something that may or may not happen as the result of a second referendum, but is already upon us. The confrontation between English and Scottish nationalism is not going to moderate or evaporate. The one certainty is that “The Scottish Question” and Brexit have come together to destabilise Britain for years to come.