EDOARDO CAMPANELLA. Back to Little England? (Project Syndicate 17-9-19)

Future historians may come to describe Brexit as the defining moment of a nationalist wave that swept away the postwar liberal international order. Yet their task will be complicated by the fact that Brexit is not, in fact, a manifestation of British nationalism. To the contrary, it is precisely the lack of a proper British nationalism that has pushed the United Kingdom to the brink of disintegration.

Over the centuries, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish national identities have developed as reactions against stifling English imperialism. Before creating an overseas empire – first in North America and the Caribbean, then in India and Southeast Asia – the English built a land empire, by expanding from the south of the British Isles to the northwest. Thus, while the “outer empire” allowed for the convergence of the UK’s different national identities around a common British identity, the “inner empire” was decidedly English.

Still, for centuries the British Empire generated wealth, supplied raw materials, and created globe-spanning professional opportunities for all inhabitants of the British Isles. Its “civilizing” mission created a sense of collective meaning, as well as a narrative of uninterrupted democratic and economic progress.

But the fusion of identities was always incomplete, not least in Ireland, where the fallout from independence still reverberates a century later, through the uncertainty generated by the Northern Irish “backstop.” Irish independence revealed the true colors of the “outer empire.” It, too, was always actually an English endeavor, with the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish serving as junior partners.

After all, both the inner and the outer empires had been built on the foundations of English common law, the English Parliament, and the English monarchy. London was the political capital and the main trading and financial hub, and English was the language spoken across dominions, colonies, and protectorates. Nowadays, the identifiers “British” and “English” are essentially interchangeable.

But once the empire dissolved, so, too, did the glue that had bound Britons together. Suddenly, the English were the only ones without a traditional national identity. As the de facto core of the two empires, the English had always suppressed expressions of ethnic English nationalism in the interest of unity and stability, and to avoid being perceived as oppressors.

Yet they remained what sociologist Krishan Kumar calls an “imperial people”: their national identity, such as it is, remains strongly linked to the missionary role of empire. In fact, during World War II, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt also saw that imperialism was innate to the British/English – and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. “The British would take land anywhere in the world, even if it were only a rock or a sand bar,” he told Winston Churchill. “You have 400 years of acquisitive instinct in your blood.”

Britain’s history of imperial glory has always contributed to its skepticism of the European project, because that past provides an unattainable benchmark for assessing the present. The same British exceptionalism that once justified imperial rule has been used to argue that the UK should not submit to “colonization” by a European (Franco-German) empire. From this standpoint, joining the European project was tantamount to abandoning Britain’s providential mission; only an extreme political act like Brexit can recover it.

But Brexit is not only about severing ties with the EU. It is also ostensibly about strengthening the domestic bonds among the inhabitants of the British Isles. At the center of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “Global Britain” strategy is the promise to restore the country’s past imperial glory through revived relationships with the former colonies of the Commonwealth. The ulterior motive, of course, is to re-instill a sense of self-importance in the English, by putting them back at the center of a common British project.

Yet English chauvinists do not seem to have realized that the demise of the British Empire – not to mention constitutional devolution – has allowed their fellow islanders both to strengthen their own national identities and carve out more autonomy for themselves. Moreover, the Scots, Welsh, and Irish have come to see EU membership as a safeguard against English political revanchism.

As in the past, imperialism aspires for unity, but comes with divisive side effects. Brexiteer fantasies of a Global Britain focus squarely on English national identity, while diluting those of the Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh, who would return to serving as junior partners in a far less magnificent and rewarding English project.

Although socioeconomic factors played some role in the outcome of the Brexit referendum, the geographic breakdown tells the real story. Excluding London, which is a bastion of multi-ethnic cosmopolitanism, 55% of voters in England supported leaving the EU, whereas 62% of Scots and 56% of the Northern Irish voted to remain. As Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy observed, it was “England’s Brexit.”

The risk now is that Brexit will trigger the political disintegration of the UK, as the other nations vie to remain in the EU. Secessionist ambitions are already simmering in Scotland and even in Wales, which supported “Leave” by 52%. And, given the complexities of the Irish border question, it is easy to imagine how Brexit could one day lead to Irish unification.

No one should be lured into thinking that Brexit is a credible reflection of resurgent British nationalism. Far from reviving Pax Britannica, it promises to sacrifice the UK in the name of an English Empire that will never amount to more than a fantastical aspiration.

Edoardo Campanella is a Future of the World Fellow at the Center for the Governance of Change of IE University in Madrid and co-author, with Marta Dassù, of Anglo Nostalgia: The Politics of Emotion in a Fractured West.

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2 Responses to EDOARDO CAMPANELLA. Back to Little England? (Project Syndicate 17-9-19)

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    It was Edward I of England who began the imperial expansion of England in the latter half of the 1200’s. Against the Welsh and against the Scots (the latter who he – and subsequent monarchs – never conquered. Indeed, Scotland gave England its King (James VI) in 1604.

    I observe that Roosevelt left himself open to a truthful retort: “And the U. S. A. has 250 years of territorial acquisition. You paid for yours. More fool you!”

    Your representation of the South-East England vote is skewed by excluding London.
    Your description should acknowledge that northern England voted with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain.

    But I do agree with your conclusion: the United Kingdom is far less likely to remain the “United Kingdom” if Brexit succeeds. Comprehensive and abominable stupidity.

  2. Malcolm Crout says:

    I don’t want to be rude to the author, but this is really just a personal opinion withour much factual data. The referendum for Brexit was decisive and recent polls indicate that a similar outcome would eventuate should another referendum be held. The reason the people want Brexit is no due to any spurious ideas of national identity, but the fact that the EU rules and regulations are inhibiting the UK population to express their wishes through the political process.

    Anyone who has studied the EU will understand that it is not a democratic state, but a collaboration of ideologies where real power has been handed to bureaucrats located in Brussels whom are now running roughshod over member states. Interestingly those bureaucratic structures were essentially concocted by France and Germany who held sway over lesser states by virtue of coercion, pork barrelling and outright bullying. The peoples of Greece, Portugal, Italy etc are virtual captives to the draconian form of Governance which stifles economies to work for the people.

    The UK is the second largest economy in the EU. The EU has never negotiated in good faith as they know full well that when Brexit eventually happens the EU will be severely weakened. The EU invented the so called “backstop” to prevent the UK making a clean break. This is the way the EU manage negotiations and the UK will be much better to be out of the dysfunction. The present fuss has been created by the remainer brigade in Parliament who are working against the democratic will of the people. A recent poll conducted in Scotland found that Scottish people want to stay in the UK post Brexit. I wonder what the result will be for Ireland?

    I wonder if the IE support this author’s view?

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