First a simple but uncomfortable truth remains: “Scotland is not a colony, a semi-colony, a pseudo colony, a near colony, a neo-colony, or any kind of colony of the English. She is a junior but (as these things go) highly successful partner in the general business enterprise of Anglo-Scots imperialism. . . ” – (Tom Nairn, The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism, 1968).
Fifty years on and we are confronted and engulfed by imperial fantasies driving us to a bizarre and economically catastrophic withdrawal from Europe and the world. But they are not our fantasies, they are not our fears and they are not our future.
Gary Younge, probably one of the finest journalists of our time, and author of Another day in the Death of America – a brilliant portrait of the tragedy of dysfunctional US society – writes how:
“Once again, Britain has overplayed its hand. Preferring to live in the past rather than learn from it, we find ourselves diminished in the present and clueless about the future.”
1966 and All That
But like many astute observers Younge is describing Britain as a single unitary coherent political and cultural entity, driven by and captured by the same forces, the same institutions and the same political figures. Whilst Anglo-British elites overlap (we have the spreadsheet, thanks David), there is no credible way in which Younge’s description can be held to be true.
Younge writes (‘Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit’):
“Remarking on the chant “Two world wars and one World Cup” that rang out whenever England played Germany at football, academic Paul Gilroy wrote, in After Empire: “The boast to which the phrase gives voice is integral to a larger denial. It declares nothing significant changed during the course of Britain’s downwardly mobile 20th century … We are being required to admit that the nations which triumphed in 1918 and 1945 live on somewhere unseen, but palpable.”
The problem, as the sharp-eyed reader will have spotted, is that my country didn’t win a World Cup and the culture of Scottish football, and much of wider Scottish society is self-mocking, rebellious, daft, slightly ridiculous. Sure it’s full of bellicose 90 minute patriotism and drunken bonhomie but there is no possible sense in which you could argue that it’s reflective of a loss of status, empire or power.
There is no equivalent of the See You Jimmy Hat at Wembley.
Younge continues: “…while the Brexit vote was certainly underpinned by a melancholic longing for a glorious past, the era it sought to relive was less the second world war than the longer, less distinguished or openly celebrated period of empire. For if memories of the war made some feel more defiant, recollections of empire made them deluded. Our colonial past, and the inability to come to terms with its demise, gave many the impression that we are far bigger, stronger and more influential than we really are.”
Who really did feel stronger and more influential than they really were?
How influential are you feeling having voted 62% to remain in Europe?
Scotland had a role in British Empire – but it has a different relationship to that history. It has a different political culture, a different political institutions and a different political trajectory.
To describe Britain as a collective entity, as the far-right of the Conservative party hatch a plot against Therese May to sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement in pursuit of their ideology is absurd.
There are no Scottish MPS in the Brexit cabinet. Not one.
This is not a nationalist point, it is an issue of understanding our times and the forces directing them.
In one sentence Younge describes how: “It took Britain and France overplaying their hand, in punishing Egypt for seizing the Suez canal from colonial control and nationalising it, to realise their imperial influence had been eclipsed by the US and was now in decline.”
In the next he cites the West German chancellor at the time, Konrad Adenauer saying: “France and England will never be powers comparable to the United States”.
Britain and England are not the same. Scotland exists. Wales exists. Northern Ireland and Ireland exist.
The forces driving Brexit are English nationalism. This is about a crisis of English identity and economic failure and political intrigue.
The greatest irony is the line: “At some point they convinced themselves that the reason we are at the centre of most world maps is because the Earth revolves around us, not because it was us who drew the maps” – and yet the writer remains blinded to his own anglo-normative worldview.
As Anthony Barnett points out in The Lure of Greatness, probably the best account of the Brexit crisis so far:
“Different forces, tangible and intangible, were at work. These included immigration, the refugee emergency, the effects of austerity, the outrageous rip-off of the financial crash, the loosening of loyalties thanks to the internet, the undemocratic nature of the EU, the implosion of social democracy. The popular response to these forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland was to seek closer relations with the EU, with more and better continental solidarity. A similar response came from London, the global city. But across the more numerous England-without-London, an overwhelming majority was for Leave and carried the day.
This is the central fact of the referendum’s outcome. All the wider influences were concentrated into the force-field of the English spirit. There, they reinforced each other in the prejudices, longings and judgement of English voters across their land to create a decisive majority for Brexit, one that overwhelmed the proportionally larger majorities for Remain in the cities, the capital, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It was undeniably England’s Brexit. To understand why this was so, is to understand why it happened.
The heart of the answer is the unique, hybrid nature of Anglo-British self-consciousness. This goes unchallenged by what can be called England’s ‘defining classes’ (its media and cultural intelligentsia) who adamantly refused to be English. Or ‘merely English’ as many put it.”
It is not just that Brexit has been self-described as ‘liberation day’ or that many English voters see Brexit in relation to and often in competition with the ‘iniquity of devolution’, nor is it just that we are witnessing a constitutional power-grab as we speak, but that so many commentators fail to even acknowledge or comprehend this phenomenon.
Brexit is in Barnett’s words: “as the people living in the debris of their land, watching on their screens the new skyscrapers of London rise and shine. The debris is not poverty or lack of money but something intangible and inescapable: the end of Great Britain.”