By Philip Stephens : –
The invented identity of ‘Britishness’ is unravelling as English nationalism takes hold.
During the spring of 1975 the Wall Street Journal ran a powerful headline. “Goodbye Great Britain”, the American business newspaper declared. The UK was known as the sick man of Europe. Investors were taking flight in the face of its ruinous economic performance and endemic industrial strife. Greatness had made way for spiralling decline. The prediction proved premature.
Britain was bailed out by the International Monetary Fund and subsequently saved by North Sea oil and, some would say, by Margaret Thatcher’s economic revolution. In any event, a decade later Thatcher was dancing on the world stage with US president Ronald Reagan. Britain faces another existential moment. The Brexit story was supposed to be about leaving the EU. It has turned into a runaway national crisis.
The forces driving Brexit look set to sweep away much more than the institutional machinery, economic relationships and political ties created during decades of EU membership. Goodbye to Brussels is shaping up as the first act in a two-part drama. The second may well wave goodbye to the UK. The other day I listened to Mervyn King say that the government should dispense with further talks with Brussels and opt for a no-deal Brexit, albeit after a six-month period of preparation. The costs, the former Bank of England governor said, would be manageable and temporary. Given Lord King’s complacency about the stability of financial markets before the 2008 crash, many will discount his economic judgment. What struck me, however, was his insistence that Brexit was really about identity and culture.
Though he sits on the opposite side of the European debate, the former Conservative chancellor Kenneth Clarke agrees. The impetus for Brexit, Mr Clarke says, comes from a resurgence of the rightwing English nationalist wing of his party. The project reflects a strain of Conservatism that has never come to terms with the loss of empire. Leaving the EU — Independence Day, the Brexiters call it — is rooted as much in nostalgia as in the populist revolt against elites and outsiders that has supplied the European debate with such visceral anger. Hence the Brexiters’ fantasy of a new “Global Britain” and the ubiquitous allusions to the second world war and Winston Churchill’s readiness to stand alone. The bluster conceals a cry of pain.
Brexit is an English rather than a British enterprise. More specifically, it belongs overwhelmingly to provincial England. With the exception of Birmingham, the nation’s great cities — London, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle among them — were on the side of Remain. They were outvoted by Leavers in smaller English cities and towns and in rural areas. Scotland backed Remain by a large margin. Pace the Brexiters of the Democratic Unionist party, Northern Ireland voted for continued EU membership. Wales followed England out. Scotland voted in 2014 to stay in the union of the UK. It is hard to imagine it would do the same in another referendum. Five years ago, unionism offered proud Scots two supplementary identities. They could be at once British and European.
After Brexit it will be either/or. The 1707 union with England handed Scotland an international role as a partner in empire. Outside of the EU it will be cut off from the rest of Europe. Theresa May’s government insists that powers returned from Brussels will be hoarded at Westminster rather than shared with the Edinburgh parliament and other devolved administrations. The prime minister wants sharply to reduce immigration. Scotland wants more newcomers to oil the wheels of the economy. Why would that nation, with a political culture steeped in social market centrism, shackle itself to the rule of English nationalists?
Nor can Northern Ireland’s place in the UK any longer be taken for granted. The DUP has made a great fuss about ensuring that a settlement with the EU27 does not differentiate between the province and the rest of the UK. But their hostility to the EU is a minority position in Northern Ireland itself. Nothing has done so much as Brexit to reopen the question of Irish unification.
Britishness is an invented identity. It is deliberately expansive, calculated during the 19th century to cast empire as a joint project of the four nations of the UK. More recently, as the empire came home, it has provided a welcoming mantle for immigrants from former imperial outposts. British citizens of overseas heritage overwhelmingly identify as, well, British. Allegiance to England is seen predominantly as the property of the nation’s white communities. The Leave side understood this during the 2016 referendum. It made two promises: to spend more money on the National Health Service and to shut out an (entirely imagined) influx of migrants from Turkey. Better to spend money on the health service, the less than subtle message ran, than see hospitals overrun by foreigners. The distance between such sentiments and the overt racism of extremists such as the English Defence League is perilously short. To watch Britain’s descent into chaos in recent times has been to see the threads of Britishness, woven over centuries, unravel. Identity politics has elbowed aside common purpose. The tears in the fabric run alongside borders and within them. It is hard to imagine how they can be repaired.
Published by – Financial Times