It is a question the English used to ask about their subject peoples: are they ready for self-government? But it is now one that has to be asked about the English themselves. It’s not facetious: England seems to be stumbling towards a national independence it has scarcely even discussed, let alone prepared for. It is on the brink of one of history’s strangest nationalist revolutions.
When you strip away the rhetoric, Brexit is an English nationalist movement. If the Leave side wins the referendum, it will almost certainly be without a majority in either Scotland or Northern Ireland and perhaps without winning Wales either. The passion that animates it is English self-assertion. And the inexorable logic of Brexit is the logic of English nationalism: the birth of a new nation state bounded by the Channel and the Tweed.
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.
And this is of course a perfectly legitimate aspiration. Nationalism, whether we like it or not, is almost universal and the English have as much right to it as anyone else. There’s nothing inherently absurd about the notion of England as an independent nation state. It’s just that if you’re going to create a new nation state, you ought to be talking about it, arguing for it, thinking it through. And this isn’t happening. England seems to be muddling its way towards a very peculiar event: accidental independence.
The first thing about the idea of England as a nation state that governs itself and only itself is that it is radically new. The Brexit campaign is fuelled by a mythology of England proudly “standing alone”, as it did against the Spanish armada and Adolf Hitler. But when did England really stand alone? The answer, roughly speaking, is for 300 of the past 1,200 years. England has been a political entity for only two relatively short periods. The first was between the early 10th century, when the first English national kingdom was created by Athelstan, and 1016 when it was conquered by Cnut the Dane. The second was between 1453, when English kings effectively gave up their attempts to rule France, and 1603, when James VI and I united the thrones of England and Scotland.
Otherwise – and this includes all of the past 400 years – England has always been part of at least one larger entity: an Anglo-French kingdom, the United Kingdom in its various forms, a global empire, the European Union. The English are much less used to being left to their own devices than they think they are.
English nationalists can quite reasonably point out that many emerging nation states have even less experience of being a standalone, self-governing entity – my own country, Ireland, being an obvious example. The big difference is that other countries actually go through a process – often very long and difficult – of preparing themselves politically, culturally and emotionally for the scary business of being (to borrow a term from Irish nationalism) “ourselves alone”. In England, there is no process. A decisive step is about to be taken without acknowledging the path ahead.
As Johnny Rotten (a typically English child of immigrants) put it: ‘There is no future in England’s dreaming’
Hardly anyone is even talking about England – all the Brexit arguments are framed in terms of Britain or the UK, as if these historically constructed and contingent entities will simply carry on regardless in the new dispensation. The Brexiters imagine an earthquake that will, curiously, leave the domestic landscape unaltered. English nationalism is thus a very strange phenomenon – a passion that is driving a nation towards historic change but one that seems unwilling even to speak its own name.
It is hard to think of any parallel for this. Successful national independence movements usually have five things going for them: a deep sense of grievance against the existing order; a reasonably clear (even if invented) idea of a distinctive national identity; a shared (albeit largely imaginary) narrative of the national past; a new elite-in-waiting; and a vision of a future society that will be better because it is self-governing.
The English nationalism that underlies Brexit has, at best, one of these five assets: the sense of grievance is undeniably powerful. It’s also highly ambiguous – it is rooted in the shrinking of British social democracy but the actual outcome of Brexit will be an even closer embrace of unfettered neoliberalism. There is a weird mismatch between the grievance and the solution.
None of the other four factors applies. As a cultural identity, Englishness is wonderfully potent but not distinctive – its very success means that it is global property. From the English language to the Beatles, from Shakespeare to the Premier League, its icons are planetary. The great cultural appeal of nationalism – we need political independence or our unique culture will die – just doesn’t wash. Moreover, this power of English culture derives precisely from its capacity to absorb immigrant energies. From the Smiths to Zadie Smith, from the Brontës to Dizzee Rascal, it is very hard to imagine an “English” culture that is not also Afro-Caribbean, Asian, Irish, Jewish and so on.
Is there a shared narrative of the English past that functions even as a useful collective invention? English nationalism has a hard time integrating the past of John Ball and the Levellers, of Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine with that of monarchs, generals and imperial power.
As for an elite-in-waiting, the English nationalist movement certainly has one. But the handover of elite power that will accompany this particular national revolution will surely be the most underwhelming in history — from one set of public school and Oxbridge Tories to another. And this elite’s vision of a future society seems to come down to the same lump of money – the (dishonestly) alleged £350m a week that will be saved by leaving the EU – being spent over and over on everything from the National Health Service to farm subsidies. Plus, of course, fewer immigrants, thereby creating some kind of imaginary Lebensraum. There is no attempt to articulate any set of social principles by which the new England might govern itself. As Johnny Rotten (a typically English child of immigrants) put it: “There is no future in England’s dreaming.”
When it comes down to it, nationalism is about the line between Them and Us. The Brexiters seem pretty clear about Them – Brussels bureaucrats and immigrants. It’s just the Us bit that they haven’t quite worked out yet. Being ready for self-government demands a much better sense of the self you want to govern.
Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with the Irish Times
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