The genie of English nationalism

December 22, 2019

Boris Johnson’s nationalistic-fuelled political troubles are not going to end any time soon

The 2019 British election ended up, largely, being all about Brexit despite Labour leaders’ efforts to shift focus onto the state of public services and infrastructure investment. The 2019 election was not due until 2022 in the Fixed Parliament Act. Yet, when Boris Johnson took over as the PM in July, he immediately sensed an electoral opportunity in the Brexit stalemate, and forced other parties into an early election to break the manufactured logjam. In the run up to the elections, he did everything possible to pit the parliament against the people by painting the parliament as the major stumbling block standing in the way of his rush to Brexit. He sought a renewed and a decisive mandate to get Brexit done through an early election to move Britain to new heights of post-Brexit glory.

Brexit has been conjured into being by the nationalist right-wing conservatives and the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP). Under pressure from the anti-European, nationalist right-wing of the Conservative party and the UKIP, David Cameron, the then Conservative prime minister, rather than giving a shut up call to this extreme wing of the Conservative party, as John Major had done a decade ago, gave in to the wing’s extreme nationalist agenda and pledged an in-out EU referendum. David Cameron also had another consideration in mind: the increasing defection of the Conservative party MPs to Nigel Farage’s UKIP on the issue of exiting from the EU. Thus, the internal party crisis was exported to countrywide in the form of an unnecessary EU referendum, the toxic pathologies of which continue to haunt the British political and social landscape to date.

As soon as the referendum was called, Boris Johnson, an MP, cast his lot with the nationalist and the anti-European wing of the party which had gathered under the umbrella of the Leave-EU campaign. Johnson lent his name, face and formidable campaigning skills to the Leave campaign which would otherwise have foundered. With the support of the far-right UKIP, the Leave campaign won the referendum, quite unexpectedly by a small margin. Boris Johnson used every dirty trick in the campaign book ranging from cooking up doubtful figures on Britain’s monetary contribution to the EU to scapegoating of Muslims and immigrants to sway the populist passion. This was purely far-right nationalist populist stuff which gained great traction among voters. In a parallel move, Nigel Farage, the leader of the far-right UKIP, complemented Johnson’s populist exertions by stoking unfound fears about the Syrian refugees. Thanks to the duo the Leave campaign got over the line.

Theresa May, on becoming prime minister after the resignation of David Cameron, sought to play a balancing act between the rabid English nationalists and the anti-European sentiment represented in the European Research Group in the parliamentary Conservative party and the moderate pro-European wing of the party. She failed to manage this tricky balancing act and her EU withdrawal bill was rejected by the parliament with the anti-European and nationalist wing of the Conservative party in the vanguard of the opposition to the bill. As a result of the prolonged and fraught negotiations and the ensuing parliamentary stalemate Theresea May had to quit. In came the herald of the nationalist wing of the party – the engineer and the cheerleader of the Brexit campaign – Boris Johnson as the new prime minister. Soon after becoming prime minister he began to ratchet up Brexit rhetoric and force the parliament into endorsing his rushed new Brexit plan.

Yet, the parliament wanted a proper scrutiny of the bill which was not acceptable to the authoritarian instinct of the new leader. From then on, all Johnson’s tactics were targeted at forcing elections in the event of delayed approval of his withdrawal bill. Liberal Democrats, another smallish opposition party, already high in the opinion polls, were keen to oblige Johnson in the hope of making gains at the expense of the Labour. The Labour party had to agree as the other main opposition, the Scottish Nationalist Party, also wanted early elections. Johnson ran a very nationalist campaign on a single-theme focused on getting Brexit done. His campaign slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ hit home with the electorate and the result was a thumping majority for him. During the election campaign, Johnson’s serial lying was ignored by the media while focusing disproportionately on Jeremy Corny and his alleged anti-Semitism. It is ironic that while Jeremy Corbyn – a known anti-racist – was portrayed as a born anti-Semite in the media narrative, Boris Johnson – a politician known for peddling falsehoods and racist views about immigrant Muslims – was let off the hook by the media. A large part of the victory of the hard-right nationalist authoritarian like Johnson is also due to his other ultra nationalist, anti-immigrant and racist political ally, Nigel Farage. In expectation of an early election, Nigel Farage set up a brand new Brexit Party with a view to challenge Boris Johnson from his right flank. Yet, within days of the announcement of the election he stood down his candidates in 317 constituencies which the Conservative party had won in 2017 election thus, giving Johnson a freer field. For the remaining seats, the Brexit Party peeled off a considerable Labour vote in Leave-voting areas contributing to the Conservative victory. However, in wooing the nationalist core of English nationalism, Johnson has also activated nationalist feelings in parts of the country which have been chafing under the Westminster diktat.

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has made huge gains at the expense of both the Conservative and Labour in Scotland. The SNP won 48 out of 59 Westminster seats from Scotland, clocking 45 percent of the popular vote. This is a resounding win for nationalist forces in Scotland. The party improved its 2017 tally from 35 to 48, reducing Labour to just 1 seat from its previous tally of 7, and the Conservative party to 6 from its 13. Heartened by the result, Nicola Sturgeon has upped the ante by claiming her mandate as a confirmation of her resolve to hold a second independence referendum. So this Brexit election may also lay the basis of Scexit in a spin-off outbreak of nationalist sentiments in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, too, the nationalist forces have gained more seats than the unionist parties. For the first time, Sein Finn and the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) – both catholic and pro-Irish parties – have more seats than the unionist party, Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), which had propped up the conservative minority government until this election. This means that Boris Johnson’s nationalistic-fuelled political troubles are not going to end any time soon. This election result is rather the beginning of his political headaches in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The opportunistically released genie of English nationalism, wrapped up in Brexit, may be difficult to be corked back into the unionist bottle after this election. Whether Boris Johnson can ride the beast of nationalist forces he himself has unleashed remains a moot question.

The writer is a development consultant and public policy expert. He writes on policy matters, politics and international affairs. He may be reached at

UK election and Boris Johnson's politics: The genie of English nationalism