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
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)…