Mark Collins – BREXIT, or, Speaking for England?

Excerpts from a piece in the Irish Times on what the June 23 is really all about, not much yet noticed in Canada (via @TerryGlavin)

Fintan O’Toole on Brexit: Is England ready for self-government?
The country seems to be stumbling towards independence as an unintended side effect of disgruntlement with the European Union
Fintan O’Toole

English nationalism: Nigel Farage of Ukip unveils a referendum poster. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty
English nationalism: Nigel Farage of Ukip unveils a referendum poster. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty English nationalism: Nigel Farage of Ukip unveils a referendum poster. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty

Is England ready for self-government? It’s a question that the English used to ask of peoples less obviously made from the right stuff than they are, such as the Indians and the Irish. But it’s time they asked it of themselves.

Brexit is essentially Exit: if the Leave side wins the referendum it will almost certainly be without securing majorities in Scotland or Northern Ireland. For all the talk of reasserting the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, the desire to leave the European Union is driven above all by the rise of English nationalism.

And the chief consequence of Brexit will be the emergence of England as a stand-alone nation. Whatever entity might eventually emerge from a tumultuous breach with the European Union will almost certainly not, in the long term, include Scotland: a second referendum on Scottish independence will be inevitable, and this time Scots would be voting to stay in the EU…

So what? English nationalists will say that this is a normal state of affairs, that England is going back to its glorious traditions of standing alone, as it did against the Spanish Armada and Adolf Hitler. But when did England really stand alone? The English are much less used to being left to their own devices than they think they are.

Historically, England has been a political entity for only two relatively short periods. One was between the late ninth century, when the first English national kingdom was created by Alfred the Great, and 1016, when it was conquered by Canute the Dane. The other was between 1453, when English kings effectively gave up their attempts to rule France, and 1603, when James VI also became James I to unite the thrones of Scotland and England. And even then, in this second period, England included Calais (until 1558) and Wales (from the 1530s) and was increasingly intertwined with Ireland.

Otherwise England has always been part of something bigger. From the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the mid-15th century England was part of a larger political unit that included much of France. Then it was a part (albeit the dominant one) of a multinational kingdom that included Scotland, Wales and Ireland. And from the late 16th century onwards England was the centre of a global empire: its identity and system of government were imperial through and through.

So out of the past 1,200 years of its history England has “stood alone” for fewer than 300 years – and none was in the modern age. England has no modern experience of being a bounded national entity that governs itself and only itself [see The Isles: A History by Norman Davies–and note this: ‘…From Publishers Weekly…He closes with a provocative forecast: “The breakup of the United Kingdom may be imminent,”…’ hmm].

Again, English nationalists will ask, so what? Many nations that have acquired the power to govern themselves had no modern experience of doing so. (Ireland is an obvious example.) Why should English independence be any different?

But it is different. And the first big difference is that it is unconscious, even accidental. Usually, when a nation cuts itself off from a bigger entity, it does so through long, difficult and often violent struggle. The process is nothing if not deliberate. But England seems to be stumbling into national independence as a kind of unintended side effect of disgruntlement with the EU…

As for speaking for England (of course Leo Amery should have said “Speak for Britain” but in those days “England” was often used as shorthand, including by foreigners, for the whole kingdom; which naturally the other nations therein rather resented)…


Julian Lindley-French – Brexit: Do No Harm Mr President!

Anthony Cary – The world needs Britain in the EU

Colin Robertson – It’s time Canada spoke out to help save Europe’s grand federalism experiment

The EU and a Case For Brexit

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


7 thoughts on “Mark Collins – BREXIT, or, Speaking for England?”

  1. As for foreigners using “England” as shorthand–“Kriegsmarine Marsch – Wenn Wir Fahren Gegen Engeland”:

    By the way a good English friend in his 60s, who has dual citizenship with a European country and who has been generally “progressive” most of his life, intends to vote for BREXIT: go figure.

    Mark Collins

  2. I think that, as the progressive, dual national who intends to vote for Brexit, my over riding perspective is not on the short term (this is mostly the perspective of politicians looking at their next election outcome) but rather on the long term – the next century perhaps. What will Europe look like by then given all the external factors – the growth of the Indian and Chinese economies, the massive weight of immigration (even from Turkey by then), the growth of Russian power as its economy grows etc etc? By taking an independent position, regaining total political control, becoming more democratic away from the unelected/scarcely elected Euro-elite, we will become our own nation again. There will be economic bumps along the road but what are they compared to the long view?

  3. This was an interesting piece and I certainly would have missed it myself had you not shared it here, so thank you. However, it is little more than a mental game to imagine an independent England. Brexit is about a host of issues that can find a reason to separate from the EU in almost any part of the Kingdom. Polls show that regionally, Scotland and Ireland will most likely vote to remain in the UK, which may lend itself to a rise of English nationalism within that specific reason, but the overall reasons for the campaign are broader than regional issues within the Kingdom. I am listening to a wonderful debate right now between Farage and Clegg concerning the economic reasons for staying/leaving. The EU has become a mammoth within the lives of everyday Europeans, and the debate of association has become very grand as a result.

  4. FCO views via erstwhile ambassador Charles Crawford (dips are not usually very revolutionary):

    ‘Brexit v UKinEU (20): UK Diplomats


    From what I can see the broad consensus among senior diplomat ex-colleagues boils down to: “Oh dear. The EU ship is holed beneath the waterline. But it’s the best ship we have. And we don’t really deserve another one. Batten down the hatches. Brits aren’t quitters!“

    Sink? Or swim?’


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