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.
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.
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.”
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.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Brexit, Nationalism and the Damage Done’.