On September 2nd 1939, as Neville Chamberlain sat down in the House of Commons, his speech having delivered distinctly equivocal support for Poland, invaded the day before by the Nazis, despite all the previous promises of solidarity, Arthur Greenwood was rising to his feet to reply for Labour when an angry voice came from the Tory Government backbenches, and shouted possibly the most famous and most spine tingling set of four words uttered in that Chamber during the Twentieth Century : “Speak for England, Arthur!”
The words were spoken by Leo Amery, an anti-appeasement Tory MP in a moment of angry shame that, in his judgement, his Conservative and Unionist colleagues were preparing to bow the knee to the Nazis, that the terror of another war with Germany was about to push The United Kingdom into further acquiescence in the Nazi take over of central Europe that had begun in earnest with the unopposed invasion of Czechoslovakia in March that year. Those words were spine tingling for a reason not usually part of the story we tell ourselves about Our Finest Hour…that right from Munich in 1938 until the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, it was by no means a settled certainty that the hour in question would have been anything other than one of shame, betrayal and collaboration. It was, as the Duke of Wellington observed on another European occasion, “a close run thing.”
I’m thinking of this pivotal moment in our national history (as the UK of GB and NI) partly because I am dead certain that Leo Amery’s defiance of a weak and vacillating Tory Prime Minister is not ever far from the thoughts of Jacob Rees-Mogg as he characteristically – and not without the courage of his own convictions – identifies so clearly what is at stake as we go into “Phase Two” of the Brexit negotiations. Jacob Rees Mogg, in his heart of hearts, knows he is speaking for England, and that what is at stake is what “England” and the “UK”…mean. .
This second stage of talks with the EU will focus on the so called “transition” after the UK putatively leaves at the end of March 2019. The Chancellor , Phillip Hammond, confirmed yesterday that during this period, the UK will follow EU Trade Rules…even though it will no longer have any say as to what those rules are. Rees Mogg, and the rest of the “Conviction Brexiteers”…still a minority in the Tory party in the Commons, if not in the country, are horrified. Rees Mogg has described this transition status as being equivalent to the UK being a “colony” of the EU. (Able and highly educated though he is, irony seems to be entirely lost on this scion of a newspaper dynasty and the 18th Century.)
Mildly absurd though the rhetoric is, it does point us to the beating heart of what Brexit means to its advocates, both consciously and unconsciously: The Independence of England. If that Independence is sacrificed to expediency and pacifying the Irish, why then, Old England really is Done…as the song nearly says at the beginning of Dad’s Army.
When Amery used the word “England” in 1940, he meant Britain, of course. An England equivalent to Britain…and Britain a Greater England… was as natural for him as it was for George Orwell, who in his own defining statement on the war in 1940 had to add a rather irritated footnote to the effect that Scottish, Welsh or Irish readers might object to the lumping together of the four nations under the name of one of them , but that he thought they were being a bit silly about it. Thing is, that in 1940, and for some considerable time afterwards, most Scots would have agreed with him that the differences between us added to our cultural richness and “diversity” (to use a later term) but were of no real political account. This was and remains the opinion of those who campaigned most coherently for a No vote in 2014.
What has changed in the last couple of weeks, I believe quite by accident, is that Ireland’s refusal to contemplate a hard border with the North, and crucially, that refusal being comprehensibly and unequivocally backed by the 27 countries of what we will need to get used to calling the rEU, combined with the risible mixture of incompetence and arrogance that somehow persuaded the Tories that the DUP would ever contemplate a functioning border between Holy Protestant Ulster and the Motherland, has catapulted us into UK wide “Soft Brexit” territory quite without plan or expectation…to the manifest relief of the Remainer majority on the Government benches.
Ireland has saved England from itself. I always thought that was our job!
Anyway, Farage is quite openly spitting out his own teeth with rage, while in rather more civilised tones, Rees Mogg, on Newsnight last night, drew the battle lines for the next stage in the Tory Civil War that has landed us all here in the first place.
“We cannot be a colony of the European Union for two years from 2019 to 2021, accepting new laws that are made without any say-so of the British people, Parliament or Government,” Jacob Rees Mogg said on Newsnight last night. “That is not leaving the European Union, that is being a vassal state of the European Union, and I would be very surprised if that were Government policy.”
With Rees Mogg, as with Enoch Powell before him in the story of the break Up of Britain, the choice of language is fascinating. But I want to concentrate on the word “we.”
“We” are “the people”…to coin a phrase. And the people are being betrayed and hoodwinked by what Nigel Farage, despite more than twenty years salary anjd a fat pension on its way from the European Parliament, calls “professional politicians” – involved in a conspiracy against the nation.
But that nation is not the place Leo Amery wanted Arthur Greenwood to speak for in 1940, it is not not the place with a Global Empire that decided to create the Welfare State in a moment of nation defining solidarity when the Labour Party, fired with a sense of British National certainty and purpose it has not had before or since, (despite “White heat” in the Sixties and “Cool Brittainia” in the 90s) swept to popular and political power in 1945. That Vision of Britain held itself together while begging to join the EU from the late fifties till the early seventies when it finally succeeded. But one part of that Britain was never comfortable with subsuming itself into the greater whole, was never comfortable with the diminution of its “place in the world”, clinging onto past greatness through folk memories of the 1940s as much as to its seat on the UN Security Council and a “special relationship“ with an increasingly bemused and indifferent United States – ALL, of course, products of that war and it’s victorious but complicated conclusion. The complications of that Victory came crushingly home to the UK (and France) in Egypt just ten years after that part in a World War that came out more or less right.. I believe that “Brexit in 2016” will have the same resonance for future historians as the words “Suez in 196” do now…as a self inflicted slap in the face to British Exceptionalism based on folk memory more than current reality. And will stand with the same symbolic certainty for the difficult acquisition of self-knowledge.
Part of this learning curve is that you cannot simply pretend that the other three nations of the UK don’t exist, or rather, that they only exist when they’re being “silly” and annoying. The debacle over the Irish border saw to that. But to KEEP Northern Ireland and maybe Scotland and Wales and, crucially, LONDON, within that Greater England…then England will have to KEEP the Single Market and the Customs Union and quite possibly Free Movement as well. (Ask the 27…you can’t have the first two without the third)
So to keep the Kingdom United, England can’t leave the EU, in any terms that Rees Mogg and his like would accept, at all. England can’t leave the EU without leaving the UK as well.
As has been observed before, England cannot abide being “just another country in Europe.” “We”…in the Rees-Mogg sense of “we”…stood alone and unique in 1940. What Rees Mogg and his fellow Brexiteers insist upon is that once more “we” can stand alone despite the traitors and equivocators of appeasement among us. But “we”, in my view, isn’t what it used to be. “We” no longer convincingly mean the same “us.” For example, I don’t think that even Unionist Scotland, here and now, has a problem with being “just another country.” In fact, in Nationalist Scotland, I think a considerable number of us rather aspire to being “just another country.”
But we learned in 2014 that Breaking Up Britain was too big a job for the hesitant, equivocal Scots. Breaking Up Britain was always a job for the English – who went ahead with Brexit without, really, a second thought…. This despite the warnings (not entirely delivered with conviction, admittedly) that a Brexit vote in 2016 was a decisive step along that road.
But now, as we move into the next phase of the divorce, the question of English Independence that was implicit in 2016 (Farage didn’t use the word till the next morning) is going to be explicit as the “transition” (to what?) is negotiated not just in Brussels, but in the Cabinet room, the pubs and the Parliament of England.
If Rees Mogg inter alia do decide to “speak for England” in the way I describe (though they will still call England “Britain”)…and insist that a hard, clean break with Europe is what “the people” voted for in June 2016…they will likely bring down their own government, of course. But they will also, I think, do something else of rather more historic significance. They will declare that the English Independence they believe in, is not only a “liberation” from the EU, and from its daily insult to English Exceptionalism. Brexit is also, in effect, an English Declaration of Independence from the UK.
Are they really ready for that? Because the light will dawn in the course of 2018, that Breaking Up Britain is the price of a meaningful Brexit.
Fasten your seat-belts and pass the popcorn.