The Limits to Cakeism
“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.”
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.