Fintan O’Toole on Brexit: Is England ready for self-government?

The country seems to be stumbling towards independence as an unintended side effect of disgruntlement with the European Union

Is England ready for self-government? It's a question that the English used to ask of peoples less obviously made from the right stuff than they are, such as the Indians and the Irish. But it's time they asked it of themselves.

Brexit is essentially Exit: if the Leave side wins the referendum it will almost certainly be without securing majorities in Scotland or Northern Ireland. For all the talk of reasserting the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, the desire to leave the European Union is driven above all by the rise of English nationalism.

And the chief consequence of Brexit will be the emergence of England as a stand-alone nation. Whatever entity might eventually emerge from a tumultuous breach with the European Union will almost certainly not, in the long term, include Scotland: a second referendum on Scottish independence will be inevitable, and this time Scots would be voting to stay in the EU.

It may or may not include Wales. (A resurgence of Welsh nationalism in reaction to the rise of English nationalism seems possible.)


And its relationship to Northern Ireland will be increasingly tenuous and fraught: if nothing else the Brexit campaign has made it abundantly clear that what happens to the North scarcely merits an English afterthought. The kingdom founded by Boris I will, in time, come to be bounded by the English Channel and the River Tweed.

So what? English nationalists will say that this is a normal state of affairs, that England is going back to its glorious traditions of standing alone, 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 left to their own devices than they think they are.

Historically, England has been a political entity for only two relatively short periods. One was between the late ninth 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 English kings effectively gave up 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 has 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 a part (albeit the dominant one) of a multinational kingdom that included Scotland, Wales and Ireland. And from the late 16th century onwards England was the centre of a global empire: its identity and system of government were imperial through and through.

So out of the past 1,200 years of its history England has “stood alone” for fewer than 300 years – and none was in the modern age. England has no modern experience of being a bounded national entity that governs itself and only itself.

Again, English nationalists will ask, so what? Many nations that have acquired 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 is different. And the first big difference is that it is unconscious, even accidental. Usually, when a nation cuts itself off from a bigger entity, it does so through long, difficult and often violent struggle. The process is nothing if not deliberate. But England seems to be stumbling into national independence as a kind of unintended side effect of disgruntlement with the EU.

Hardly anyone is even talking about England: all the Brexit arguments are framed in terms of Britain or the UK, as if these historically constructed and contingent entities will carry on regardless in the new dispensation.

Brexiters imagine an earthquake that will leave the domestic landscape unaltered, a seismic shock that will pass through all the familiar political pillars without undermining them. English nationalism is thus a very strange phenomenon: a passion that is driving a nation towards historic change but one that seems unwilling even to articulate itself.

It is hard to think of any parallel for this. Successful national-independence movements usually have five things going for them: a deep sense of grievance against the existing order; a reasonably clear (even if invented) sense of a distinctive national identity; a shared (albeit largely imaginary) narrative of the national past; a new elite in waiting; and a vision of a future society that will be better because it is self-governing.

The English nationalism that underlies Brexit has, at best, one of these five assets. The sense of grievance is undeniably powerful. It’s also highly contrary: it is rooted in the shrinking of British social democracy, but the outcome of Brexit will be an even firmer embrace of the unfettered neoliberalism that is causing that shrinkage. There is a weird mismatch between the grievance and the solution.

None of the other four factors applies. As a cultural identity Englishness is potent but not distinctive: its success means that it is global property. 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 – doesn’t wash. And besides, take immigrants out of English culture and what do you have left? From The Smiths to Zadie Smith, from the Brontës to Simon Schama, it is very hard to imagine an “English” culture that is not also Afro-Caribbean, Irish, Jewish and so on.

Is there a shared narrative of the English past that functions even as a useful collective invention? Good luck with trying to integrate the past of John Ball and the Levellers, of Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine, with that of monarchs, generals and imperial governors.

Other than the second World War it is hard to think of a great event in history that functions as a source of uncontested national pride for contemporary English people.

As for an elite in waiting, the English nationalist movement certainly has one. But the handover of elite 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 come down to the same lump of money – the (dishonestly) alleged £350 million a week that will be saved by leaving the EU – being spent over and over on everything from the National Health Service to farm subsidies. Plus, of course, fewer immigrants creating some kind of imaginary Lebensraum.

There is no attempt to articulate any set of social principles by which the new England might govern itself. As the English social critic Johnny Rotten put it once, “There is no future in England’s dreaming.”

The English are as entitled to their nationalism as anyone else. But nationalism, when it comes down to it, is about them and us. The Brexiters seem pretty clear about them: Brussels bureaucrats and immigrants. It's just the us bit that they haven't quite worked out yet. To be ready for self-government they might need to have given that a little more thought.