Nearly a century ago, a well-travelled English writer with a somewhat weary view of Britain’s far-flung empire described nationalism as one of England’s “many spurious gifts to the world”. Patriotism, he said, can be defined as a lively sense of collective responsibility but nationalism is a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill.
Now that Britain is voting on membership of the European Union, it may be time to ask if the stupid fowl of nationalism has finally awakened in England.
How else to read the cacophony of the leave campaign? It adopted exclusivist logic and an extremist tone that appeared to seek self-assertion for the English — minus, by every reckoning, majority pro-European opinion in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London, the UK’s largest city. It didn’t seem to be winning Wales either.
If Brexit comes to pass, the chances are that England will have cut itself loose not just from the EU but set in motion the untethering of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
Scotland would be emboldened to declare another referendum on independence and subsequently apply to join the EU as a sovereign nation.
Welsh nationalism could become a resurgent force and the apparently settled question of Northern Ireland may be reopened. Under the 1998 Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, enjoys some local decision-making powers, leaving others to the government in London and cooperating with the Republic of Ireland on the remainder.
That careful triangulation could not conceivably continue if Northern Ireland were separated from the Republic by a newly imposed European border. Brexit would make England wholly, terribly free — independent of appendages and the accumulated weight of interlinked destinies. England would, in the mythomania propagated by the leave campaign, once again proudly stand alone.
There is nothing wrong with a people’s impulse to achieve self-determination — the Palestinians are brutally stymied in the attempt — but it’s worth asking why the silly cock of nationalism is crowing on its dunghill at this juncture. What’s so iniquitous about Britain being in the EU?
The 28-member EU is admittedly a bureaucratic behemoth with institutions that self-servingly hint at democratic accountability without the means or inclination to follow through. But Britain, which has four opt-outs from EU treaties, could generally be said to have had the better end of the deal. It has opted out of the Schengen Agreement, which abolished border controls, and from the euro zone. It has negotiated flexibility on the EU charter on fundamental rights and police and criminal justice legislation. Britain has even managed to take in a relatively small number of Syrian refugees — 20,000 over the next five years — despite the continent-wide drumbeat for every EU country to do its fair share with resettlement.
Additionally, Britain has benefited from the absence of trade barriers with other European economies, while leveraging its position as the English-speaking gateway to business with the EU. Roughly 45 per cent of all British exports currently go to the EU, capitalising on the lack of tariffs and a uniform (if sometimes parodied) set of common standards.
In economic terms, leaving the EU raises the prospect of Britain, or eventually a stand-alone England, adrift in the roiling waters of the global marketplace. It would have multiple onerous trade deals to negotiate and could expect little sympathy from allies who fear the collapse of the post-Second World War status quo of European collaboration.
The UK Treasury, the IMF, OECD and other technical bodies have warned that leaving the EU could harm the British economy. US president Barack Obama has said that if Britain were out of the EU, it would have to take its chances at the back of the queue of countries vying for a trade deal with America.
Politically, however, there is a certain magical realism in the leave narrative. It offers a vision of a self-governing future without the Brussels bureaucracy. Poll after poll has shown that there is a strong sense of grievance among Brexit supporters. Not only has this sense of ill-usage about Britain’s perceived inability to chart its own course tapped into the grass roots base of the governing Conservatives, it has support among older people on the left. If anything, Brexit has become a battle not of left versus right but of the centre vs the fringe.
That fringe is the dunghill on which the silly cock of nationalism sits. A half-dreamt idea of returning to a Neverland of hedgerows as far as the eye can see, and, as a former British prime minister once said, the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs and old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist.
Did that ever exist? And if it did, could Brexit make it live again?
JK Rowling, author of the bestselling Harry Potter series of books, recently blogged about a possible Brexit and what it might mean to her, a writer who creates monsters for a living and an Englishwoman raised by a Francophile mother whose family was proud of their part-French heritage.
“I’m the mongrel product of this European continent and I’m an internationalist,” she wrote before laying into the nationalism on the march across the western world.
“Finding the present scary?” she asked, parodying the Brexiters. “We’ve got a golden past to sell you, a mythical age that will dawn again once we’ve got rid of the Mexicans/left the EU/annexed Ukraine! Now place your trust in our simplistic slogans and enjoy your rage against the Other!”