English nationalism and exceptionalism
Sir, – Fintan O’Toole’s piece about the confused chauvinism sadly evident in my native country (“English nationalism is too naive to know its limits”, Opinion & Analysis, September 16th) was perceptive.
Rightly, he views it in the context of a people failing to come to terms with a post-imperial reality.
It has had a long fuse. My early classrooms in the late 1950s were decorated with maps in which vast swathes of the world were still coloured pink – the chosen hue of United Kingdom dominance. No matter that the sub-continent had already gained its independence and that many African nations would soon follow suit, along with chains of islands across the globe.
It was against this background of propaganda that my generation grew up and, despite witnessing the retreat from empire, passed on to their children a notion of British exceptionalism.
Worse, much worse, was the consequent reaction to the arrival from 1950s onwards of immigrants from those countries our ancestors had colonised. Casual, thoughtless racism evolved gradually into deep-seated bigotry, especially among those who, for a variety of reasons, were economically disadvantaged. Their feeling of marginalisation, which was reinforced by the entry of people from European Union countries, also bred an antagonism towards fellow Brits who were relaxed about immigration.
Although only a minority joined rallies organised by far-right parties there was a widespread, unspoken sympathy for the anti-migrant, anti-establishment views they espoused. This finally exploded into public consciousness in the enormous vote for Brexit.
But that, of course, is only one side of the story because the marginalised were not so isolated after all. Their nationalistic ethos found intellectual support, and a political voice, through the reactionary wing of the Tory party. That group had long been evident but its members seemed like a harmless sideshow until they stumbled across a cynical, populist opportunist who was both greedy for power and lacking in principle.
Boris Johnson was, and is, their captive. English nationalists, meaning English racists, have found their man. Here is a prime minister intent on taking his nation back to the 1950s, when the people were white, the map was pink and Johnny Foreigner was where he should be: elsewhere. Yes, it is unreal. But that’s the surreal nature of my country today. Forget Covid-19, the most venal virus of all now infecting England is a miserable, misguided, misanthropic disease called nationalism. – Yours, etc,