The Limits to Cakeism

The Theresa May phoning SKY meme has hit hard. You know the one?

“Hello, is that Sky? This is Theresa. I’d like to cancel my subscription but still receive all your channels, but in only one room of my house. If you give me this package, I’m willing to pay up to three times the current subscription fee for this deal.”

That one.

Part of the meltdown of Cakeism is the dawning of realisation. Britain is weaker than Ireland, and weakening daily. In the eyes of the world this fiasco is not going unnoticed. As Brexiteers rant about a Global Britain the reality of power relations unfolds. As Fintan O Toole notices (“Hard Brexiters have just discovered Britain is weaker than Ireland”):

“It is not just that Britain’s weakness in its negotiations with the European Union has been made even more starkly clear. On the three issues on which “sufficient progress” had to be made – people, money and Ireland – Britain seems likely to suffer a hat-trick of defeats.”

None  of this is a surprise but the whole “they need us more than we need them” schtick and the whole Ireland as “a tiny country that relies on UK for its existence” whine from UKIP’s Gerard Batten and his ilk is painfully exposed today.

Some clever psychologist can explain to us why the more you cling desperately to something the more you crush it to death. It’s an exquisite irony that it is the Conservatives pact with the DUP – a sort of incoherent suicide pact between reluctant English nationalists and British loyalists is making talk of ‘Britain’ ever more ridiculous. As London, Wales and Scotland form an orderly queue behind Arlene Foster for opt-out conditions, the Prime Minister will have to explain carefully (without reference to £1billion quid) why special conditions and exemptions can be made here but not here (perhaps whilst pointing daintily at the requisite points of this Sceptered Isle and shrieking “Nothing has Changed!”).

This is a key moment. If the relationship between Northern Ireland and Westminster was always symbolic rather than actual, this is becoming more and more apparent. The object of the adoring gaze of Northern Irish Unionist and Loyalists: Britain, is fading fast. It’s becoming one off those twilight imaginary places. You can’t pledge allegiance to a Lost World.

O’ Toole again: “The hard Brexiters like to see themselves also as hard unionists. But these two positions have just become radically incompatible.”

The fond gaze isn’t really reciprocated, instead you just have a steady stream of bile and ignorance.

It’s quixotic the whole British Unionism thing, as we saw in the indyref. One minute you’d be told that this was a sacred and precious Union and you were an adored part of the family (Lovebombing, Phase One), the next you’d be told that you were a worthless feckless and useless appendage, an economic backwater full of dolts, and then quickly back to the “we’re a family of nations” lullaby.

So Mrs May has a dilemma on her hands. How does she play to the increasingly bizarre Cakeism of Brexitland when it seems that the whole episode was just a tissue of lies?

And who is going to tell Diddlesex, Mallardshire and Barnfordshire (Viz) the truth?

The punditry and gatekeepers don’t like this level of chaos.

Alex Massie writes in The Times:

“Sadiq wants what Nicola wants and Nicola wants what Arlene can have. But Theresa says Sadiq and Nicola cannot have what Arlene has and Arlene says she doesn’t want what Theresa says only she can have. Welcome, people, to the latest Brextucker challenge, where everyone except Kezia Dugdale has to swallow something vilely disagreeable.”

It’s funny but you can virtually hear the cogitation going on as the penny drops of the ridiculousness of well-cherished constitutional positions. To personalise it is to trivialise it.

But the idea that this weird exceptionalism doesn’t have both constitutional consequences and wider changed perceptions beyond the political leadership is just more wishful thinking.

Andrew Neil went into meltdown several times last week. As Zelo Street reported the Great Man couldn’t quite cope with the idea of Britain being described as a “Small Open Economy”, which is not a terrible put-down but just a standard economic term:

“For someone whose University degree was an MA in Political Economy and Political Science, Neil’s spat earlier in the week with both his former BBC colleague Stephanie Flanders, and Jonathan Portes of King’s College London, was mystifying. Ms Flanders had described the UK as a “small open economy”. The Wikipedia explainer is useful here.

This tells “A small open economy, abbreviated to SOE, is an economy that participates in international trade, but is small enough compared to its trading partners that its policies do not alter world prices, interest rates, or incomes. Thus, the countries with small open economies are price takers”. Neil had, for some reason, not grasped this concept.

Define small, given UK 5/6th largest economy in world. What does that make 7th downwards?” he snapped. Portes observed “If @afneil knew any economics (or indeed could use wikipedia) then he’d know @MyStephanomics was using – correctly and appropriately – the standard definition of ‘small open economy’”.

Just to whisper “Britain is just a country like any other” is to trigger apoplexy with these people. Neil might want to ponder how his “5th largest economy in the world!” announced this week that there are now 3.7 million workers living in poverty (equates to one in eight of all workers).

But whether it’s Massie’s super-slick denialism or Neil’s frantic defence of our Global Magnificence, reality seeps out LiveTweeted from Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, Cardiff.

This is a crisis of Britain but it springs not from Scottish nationalism but from a deeper crisis of English identity. As Anthony Barnett explains:

“Post-imperial England–Britain is a hybrid. It has generated a special nationalism, a two-sided entity: English within and British without. The English aspect of this identity is more often personal, even whimsical, and has a romance as well as a coldness and hooligan element. It is the English countryside, the English rose, the English sense of humour.

Whereas Britishness is exterior-facing, bullying and imposing: it is the British navy and Britain’s government in Whitehall that carries the lure of greatness. The sweet and the violent are attached. When Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands it was as if ‘the Nazis invaded Ambridge’. The 800 families of the barren islands of the South Atlantic became the personification of a bleak, pastoral England. Politically, however, the islands were British and the country rallied every sinew to support a British task force, sent to liberate the innocents on the other side of the globe.”

This has taken a new twist as the hybrid mutates. What happened in Brussels yesterday is the two-sided entity folded. Post-imperial England-Britain is now English within and English without.

In January this year, Theresa May told an audience of American politicians that by leaving the EU Britain had taken a decision to restore our ‘national self-determination’.

As Barnett writes: “She was speaking for England. Last October, in her set-piece speech to her own party, she spoke of the ‘divisive nationalists’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At the same time, throughout that speech she refers repeatedly to Britain as a ‘nation’ – and how she intends to build a ‘new united Britain’. Apparently, her English nationalism is not divisive. It is unifying. It is British.”

That single notion, that of Britain as a “partnership of equals”, or as a unifying force is broken.

Comments (9)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    I think one of the ironies in this British/English confusion, is that it is the Northern Irish unionists who have the strongest sense of Britishness in the United Kingdom. More than any other group in the other nations of the UK, the Northern Irish unionists have a stronger and deeper historic understanding of what Britishness entails. They are clear that while they are “British” they are also Irish and have a clear idea of whom the “English” (and the Scots and Welsh) are and, when they refer to “England” they really mean the geographical entity. If they have a problem in understanding, I think it is about the rest of Ireland. I think they are cleaving to “the priest-ridden” myth which many, and their ancestors back to 1690, absorbed with their mothers’ milk. They are, of course, aware of the substantial political, economic, social and religious changes which have taken place south of the border and have benefitted from the peace and the cross-border trade. But to recognise it explicitly would mean questioning the myth and on the myth rests so much of their identity.

    Having been born and raised in Anderston in Glasgow, where boats from Belfast and Derry docked every day, I lived in a community which had a high proportion of people born in Ireland, both parts, and from both traditions. I knew many as friends, neighbours, school mates. They had the same human aspirations, same generosities, same failings as the rest of us. While some brought the conflicts into Glasgow (and some of us Scots, of course, had fomented the problems with things like the ‘Plantation’ in years past) the majority used the opportunity and space that Scotland provided to set aside the hatreds and discriminations. I think the evidence is that the sectarianism which was a powerful presence in parts of Anderston in the 1940s – 60s, blights present day Glasgow to a far smaller extent. The Irish, of both traditions, with Gaels, Poles, Italians, Jews, Indians, Pakistanis etc. contributed to the creation of a better and continually evolving culture of the city.

    Today, in the Brexit negotiations, we have reached a position where the myth is being challenged. Reaction might win for now, but the challenges will continue and they will emerge from the mids of Northern Irish unionists.

  2. Elaine Fraser says:

    And there we have it Daily Politics today saying Ruth Davidson ‘obviously very influential in terms of Scotland suggests why can’t other parts of UK get similar deal to NI’ Presenter mentions Nicola Sturgeon secondly as having said ‘a similar thing’.

    So yet a gain BBC present Rape clause Ruth as the first port of call in Scotland for her take on what should happen. Kill me now!

  3. John O'Dowd says:

    This is a truly brilliant analysis of what may well turn out to be a defining moment: a Ceaușescu moment when the tyrant realised the crowds were no longer sycophantically cheering – but baying for (his) blood.

    The game was up for – just as it may be now for Ukania. Destroyed by its own unacknowledged internal contradictions.

    What a delicious irony it would be if UberBritNationalism were consumed by its own hubris, at the very moment of ecstasy – consumed at the point of orgasm by the DUP ‘black widow’ – still declaring her undying love!

  4. Bill McDermott says:

    You can see English exceptionalism in all its glory with the likes of Owen Patterson. Not for him, despite having been a Northern Ireland Secretary, to offer a balanced appraisal of the Ulster situation. Oh no! He goes full tilt for the DUP positioning on this and even calls into question the right of the Irish government to have any view on the border question.

    I do wonder though what Ruth Davidson is up to. She won’t have put in her two pence worth without a great deal of consultation with her Westminster 13 and possibly also the supposed leaderene, Theresa. Is this a machiavelian effort by May to get us round to agreeing a soft Brexit for the whole of the UK, whereby we stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union? They won’t call it that but their bespoke deal that they aspire to is essentiaaly that.

  5. James Coleman says:

    An excellent piece of work. Sums ‘them’ up perfectly, whether ‘them’ be English, British, or hybrid Brittonic-Celt.

  6. Kenny Smith says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Still can’t believe there is people still clinging to the line brexit is good and blaming everyone else. Scotland really has to break free. The SNP really need to up the anti here pronto. Withdraw the MPs from Westminster and hold a snap Holyrood election or something. Talking is doing sweet fanny adam

  7. Alastair McIntosh says:

    It’s quixotic… One minute you’d be told that this was a sacred and precious Union and you were an adored part of the family (Lovebombing, Phase One), the next you’d be told that you were a worthless feckless and useless appendage…”

    In the psychopathology of individuals, is that not what’s called a “borderline (or emotionally unstable) personality disorder”? Worth looking it up.

  8. SleepingDog says:

    If you assume that the British Imperial state went on building up its spy empire since
    Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09c6q1w
    then its diplomatic strategy was to some extent a mask for its cloak and dagger activities.

    It is only now that the generation of agents, informers, proxy-warriors and puppets placed before the decolonisation/neo-colonisation switch is finally dying off that the new batches are being tested to the limit. And these may be even more motivated by cash and less by loyalty to some withered, globe-clutching octopus.

    As Panorama (as Mark Curtis long before) reveals, the UK’s preferred agents are often those they publicly decry.
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09j0fql/panorama-jihadis-you-pay-for

    Government ministers, privy to all the naval accidents and blunders, are less likely to rely on the Royal Navy than on their modern spymasters with their comforting whispers from the shadows that they have events in hand.

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