Is England ready for autonomy? This is a question that the English used to ask people less well educated than them, like the Indians and the Irish. But it’s time they asked themselves that.
Brexit is essentially an exit: if the Leave side wins the referendum, it will almost certainly be without majorities in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Despite all the rhetoric about reasserting UK sovereignty, the desire to leave the European Union is primarily driven by the rise of English nationalism.
And the main consequence of Brexit will be the emergence of England as a self-governing nation. Whatever entity may eventually emerge from a tumultuous break with the European Union, it is almost certain that in the long term it will not include Scotland: a second referendum on the independence of the Scotland will be inevitable, and this time Scots will vote to stay in the EU.
This may or may not include Wales. (A resurgence of Welsh nationalism in reaction to the rise of English nationalism seems possible.)
And its relationship with Northern Ireland will be increasingly tenuous and strained: if nothing else, the Brexit campaign has made it clear that what is happening in the North is hardly worth English afterthought. The kingdom founded by Boris I will, over time, be bounded by the English Channel and the River Tweed.
So what? English nationalists will say that this is a normal situation, that England is returning to its glorious traditions of solitude, as it did against the Spanish Armada and Adolf Hitler. But when did England really stand alone? The English are much less used to being on their own than they think.
Historically, England has only been a political entity for two relatively short periods. One was between the end of the 9th century, when the first English national kingdom was created by Alfred the Great, and 1016, when it was conquered by Canute the Dane. The other was between 1453, when the English kings effectively abandoned their attempts to rule France, and 1603, when James VI also became James I to unite the thrones of Scotland and England. And even then, in this second period, England included Calais (until 1558) and Wales (from the 1530s) and was increasingly intertwined with Ireland.
Otherwise, England have always been part of something bigger. From the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the mid-15th century, England was part of a larger political unit that included much of France. Then it was part (albeit dominant) of a multinational kingdom that included Scotland, Wales and Ireland. And from the end of the 16th century, England was the center of a world empire: its identity and its system of government were imperial through and through.
Thus, of the last 1,200 years of its history, England has “stood alone” for less than 300 years – and none were in the modern age. England does not have the modern experience of being a bounded national entity that governs itself and only itself.
Again, English nationalists will ask, so what? Many nations that gained the power to govern themselves had no modern experience of doing so. (Ireland is an obvious example.) Why should English independence be any different?
But it’s different. And the first big difference is that it’s unconscious, even accidental. Usually, when a nation cuts itself off from a larger entity, it does so through a long, difficult, and often violent struggle. The process is nothing if not deliberate. But England appears to be stumbling on national independence as some sort of unintended side effect of discontent with the EU.
Hardly anyone even talks about England: all Brexit arguments are framed in terms of Britain or the United Kingdom, as if these historically constructed and contingent entities would continue in the new dispensation regardless.
Brexiters imagine an earthquake that will leave the domestic landscape unchanged, a seismic shock that will cut through all the familiar political pillars without undermining them. English nationalism is therefore a very strange phenomenon: a passion that pushes a nation towards historic change but which seems unwilling to even articulate itself.
It’s hard to find a parallel to that. Successful national independence movements typically have five assets: a deep sense of grievance against the existing order; a reasonably clear (even invented) sense of a distinctive national identity; a shared (albeit largely imaginary) narrative of the national past; a new waiting elite; and a vision of a future society that will be better because it is self-managed.
The English nationalism that underpins Brexit has, at best, one of these five assets. The feeling of grievance is undeniably powerful. It’s also quite the opposite: it’s rooted in the shrinking of British social democracy, but the outcome of Brexit will be an even firmer embrace of the rampant neoliberalism that is driving that shrinking. There is a strange disconnect between the grievance and the solution.
None of the other four factors apply. As a cultural identity, Englishness is powerful but not distinctive: its success means it is globally owned. 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 independence or our culture will die – does not wash away. And besides, take immigrants out of English culture and what are you left with? From the Smiths to Zadie Smith, from the Brontës to Simon Schama, it is very difficult to imagine an “English” culture that is not also Afro-Caribbean, Irish, Jewish, etc.
Is there a shared narrative of the English past that even functions as a useful collective invention? Good luck trying to integrate the pasts of John Ball and the Levellers, Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine, with those of Imperial monarchs, generals and governors.
Apart from the Second World War, it is hard to think of any great event in history that functions as a source of undisputed national pride for contemporary English people.
As for a waiting elite, the English nationalist movement has one. But the elite shift of power that will accompany this particular national revolution will surely be the most intimate in history: from one set of public-school and Oxbridge Tories to another.
And this elite’s vision of a future society seems to boil down to the same amount of money – the (dishonestly) alleged £350million a week that will be saved by leaving the EU – being spent over and over again on everything from the National Health Service to Farm Grants. Plus, of course, fewer immigrants creating a sort of imaginary Lebensraum.
There is no attempt to articulate a set of social principles by which New England might govern itself. As the English social critic Johnny Rotten once said, “There is no future in the English dream.”
The English have as much right to their nationalism as anyone else. But nationalism, ultimately, is about them and about us. Brexiters seem pretty clear about them: Brussels bureaucrats and immigrants. It’s just the American part that they haven’t quite settled yet. To be ready for self-government, maybe they should have thought about it a little more.