If you’re still in shock at the end of a gruesome week about both the personal and political implications of Jo Cox’s murder, and hoping it might be a trigger to some better politics, this may be a disappointing read. None of the likely scenarios is going to bring forth a period of calm, a settled will or a landscape of progressive politics, certainly not a British level. A Remain vote is likely to be slim and contested, with a bitter aftermath. A Leave vote is likely to be highly traumatic and signal a further constitutional crisis.
If Ian Jack (and others) are right (‘Scotland’s Europhilia stands between Cameron and catastrophe’) then Scotland may save the (European) Union. He writes: “If David Cameron wins on Thursday by the narrowest of margins, he may well owe his salvation to his old enemies in the north. They will tilt the balance. So much of his own side is on the other side, working for his defeat… If it happens, British political history will be hard pushed to furnish a bigger irony.”
You can’t imagine this scenario going down calmly with the far fringes of the Out Brigade, some of whom find little difficulty transferring bile and bigotry from Poles to Jocks in their efforts to ‘take back their country’.
Commentators from Fintan O’Toole to Neal Ascherson are describing this phenomenon as a form of revival of English nationalism and a plaintive, if confused claim for English independence. O’Toole writes (‘Brexit is being driven by English nationalism. And it will end in self-rule‘): ” England seems to be stumbling towards a national independence it has scarcely even discussed, let alone prepared for. It is on the brink of one of history’s strangest nationalist revolutions.”
Ascherson writes: “Down south, many factors are combining in the surge of opinion towards Brexit. But the strongest is the one that dare not say its name: English nationalism. This is why what happens on June 23 is England’s independence referendum.”
But there are severe difficulties with this analysis.
First, as O’Toole accepts, “There’s nothing inherently absurd about the notion of England as an independent nation state. It’s just that if you’re going to create a new nation state, you ought to be talking about it, arguing for it, thinking it through. And this isn’t happening.” There is no Claim of Right, no Constitutional Convention, there is no ‘movement’ and there won’t be either.
There are good reasons for this.
First, you can’t create a campaign for an English Parliament when you dominate the existing institutions of democracy on such a vast scale. Why would anyone feel disenfranchised when they get the government they elect? There is no democratic deficit.
Secondly as O’Toole explains: “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 simply carry on regardless in the new dispensation.” And this is an ongoing problem, the inability for people outwith or within Britain to distinguish between Britain and England. This is in part out of a sense of propriety openly displayed during the Scottish referendum in the kind of language used about Scotland, but it’s also about a sense of innate settled continuity. Part of the reason that “hardly anyone is even talking about England” is because ‘England-Britain’ is just what is. It just ‘is’: ok?! This inability to even conceive of England as England is one of the problems that Scottish self-determination stirred up. Not just ‘how dare you’ – but ‘how could you’? The break up of Britain would represent for many a break with the natural order of things.
Third such a non-movement without a driving purpose also lacks any leadership. And no the Poundshop Powell doesn’t count. The likely inheritor of the head of a latent English Nationalist movement is Boris Johnson, and he has bigger fish to fry. He wants to take over the British State not lead some incoherent cultural shambles. He’s not as stupid as he looks.
Fourth, there is a complete mismatch between the non-movements non-aims and the potential outcomes. O Toole again: “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 ambiguous – it is rooted in the shrinking of British social democracy but the actual outcome of Brexit will be an even closer embrace of unfettered neoliberalism. There is a weird mismatch between the grievance and the solution.”
Fifth, and connected, the non-movement has the wrong target in its aim. As Ascherson observes: “Are English people justified in feeling unrepresented, underprivileged and manipulated by a remote power-clique? Yes, they are. But that enemy is not the Commission and it’s not Brussels. It’s London. It’s the geopolitical dominance of London and the south-east, and the elitist power-politics of the United Kingdom. Direct rebellion against that metropolitan elite would threaten both Remain and Leave leaderships. Most of them belong to it.”
This is a rebellion led by a stockbroker and an Etonian.
It’s smoke and mirrors and in an atmosphere of blind self-pity and xenophobia it’s difficult to find a space for a real critique of power, or a progressive politics of solidarity. They made you a moron. A potential H-bomb.
Finally, there is no cultural basis for English self-determination. Despite the grievance culture no language has been suppressed no cultural identity obscured. Instead England’s linguistic and cultural gifts to the world are celebrated and rightly lauded. The problem of a real rejection of multiculturalism is that it’s so great and so successful and so many people love it so much. A process of rediscovery and salvage from cliche and dross might be fruitful but that seems a side-show.
If commentators are right – and Labour canvassers are witnessing on the doorsteps what their northern comrades did two years ago, ie an extinction level collapse of the Labour vote, then the problem may not be the failure of an elusive English nationalist movement to make sense of itself. The problem may be that morphing into something far worse.