“The alleged aptitude of the English for self-government,” writes Bernard Shaw in his preface to Androcles and the Lion, “is contradicted by every chapter of their history. Shaw was, of course, parodying British imperialist rhetoric and his insistence that lesser peoples – including his own nation, the Irish – were not ready to rule themselves. He was villainously provocative, which only the most irresponsible commentators would dare to be in these dire times.
But there is still an element of truth in his words. The ability to be self-governing is not what comes to mind when you look from the outside at what was going on in Westminster last week, when, as Tom Peck so brilliantly put it in London Independent, “the House of Commons was a Benny Acid Hill Race, traversing a Salvador Dali painting in a spaceship en route to infinity.”
Let’s just say that if Theresa May was the head of a newly liberated African colony in the 1950s, Britain’s Tories would have pointed, half sadly, half happily, in her direction and say ‘You see? I told you – they just weren’t ready to rule themselves. At least another generation of guardianship by the mother country was needed.
There is a kind of surreal logic to this. If, as the Brexiteers do, you imagine yourself to be an oppressed colony separating from the German Reich aka the European Union, you may find yourself with a pantomime version of the struggles of the newly independent colonies, including the civil wars that s ‘often follow. national liberation.
And without wanting to touch it, Shaw’s quip highlights two of the deep issues that underlie and undermine the entire Brexit project. First of all, the problem with this imaginary self-government effort is the “self” part. What is the ego of British politics? As in all nationalist revolts, the easy part of “Them versus Us” is Them: in this case the EU. The hardest part is us. Brexit calls for a collective British ego, but it is in itself the most dramatic symptom of the crumbling of this very thing.
Westminster Anarchy is the political expression of anarchy in the United Kingdom, the breakdown of a common sense of belonging. Brexit is a fabulous form of displacement – it recognizes a deep and genuine dissatisfaction with the way the British are governed, but sends it back to Europe.
Brexit acknowledges deep dissatisfaction with the way the British are governed, but sends it back to Europe
He simply marked in bright red ink the fault lines that had long been less vivid – the drift of England and Scotland; the economic and cultural divide between what Anthony Barnett calls “England without London” and the rest of the UK (Wales being the obvious anomaly); the social and geographic cleavages between the winners and losers of the long Thatcher revolution. Brexit, in the worst possible time in the world, clears up all of these divisions while doing absolutely nothing to address them. It reveals a regime that cannot create consensus because it lacks a basis in social consent.
Nationalism is a great beast to bring you to the point of independence – and then it becomes a dead horse
The other, closely related issue is English nationalism which is both such a powerful force in Brexit and so poorly articulated. As every former colony knows, nationalism is a great beast in bringing you to the point of independence – and then it becomes a dead horse. Shaw wrote to his friend Mabel FitzGerald (mother of the future taoiseach Garret) in December 1914: sudden and horrible decomposition, that he has been dead for years.
Whipping a dead horse
Brexit is a dead horse, a form of nationalist energy that began to break down rapidly on June 24, 2016, as soon as it entered the realm of political reality. He can’t go anywhere. He cannot transport the British state to a promised land. He can only leave him where he arrived, in a no man’s land between vague patriotic fantasies and persistent irritating facts. But also, due to the result of the referendum, the British state cannot dismount from the dead horse and must continue to whip it.
To fly over this whole idea of English self-government is the myth of loneliness. All independence movements have at their heart the meaning of Sinn Féin – “Ourselves alone”. Being alone is also one of the great motifs of the English self-image, brilliantly visualized in the famous David Low cartoon of June 1940, after the fall of France, showing a Tommy standing on the cliffs of Dover hugging the fist towards the Luftwaffe bombers above their heads. with the caption “Very good, alone”. But Britain was not alone back then (it had a vast empire) and it was never alone. Throughout its history since 1707, it has always been part of a larger multinational entity: empire first, then Europe.
Yet a fantasy of glorious and provocative loneliness is at the heart of making Brexit wishes come true. It’s a great warning to be careful what you want. What we are seeing right now is a taste of England alone. It’s no surprise that this is a preview of a horror show. Cause when you’re really alone, what are you alone with? You are alone with your demons.
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