English nationalism is too naive to know its limits

Because the Brexiteers cannot articulate the force that drives them, they cannot set its boundaries

Fintan O’Toole

Irish Times, 15th September 2020

What has brought the UK to the point of openly declaring its intention to break international law is not just English nationalism. It is the strangely contradictory nature of that nationalism. It is the motive force of a genuine political revolution. Yet it dare not speak its own name.

It will not acknowledge itself and thus does not know itself. It is everywhere and nowhere, shaping the whole course of Brexit, but itself barely articulated. Because it cannot even admit its own existence, its limits cannot be mapped and its consequences cannot be weighed.

The big problem with English nationalism is that it is naïve. Because it has been buried for centuries under two layers of disguise – the United Kingdom and the British Empire – it has no knowledge of what, through bitter experience over those bloody years, most of the rest of us have had to discover about nationalism. What other countries (Ireland very much included) have learned the hard way is that nationalism is petrol: a combustible political fuel that can drive you forward or, if you do not control it, drive you off a cliff.

Three aspects of this dangerous innocence are at play in the determination of the toxic troika – Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – to tear up the withdrawal agreement the UK signed with the EU only nine months ago.

The first is that the Brexiteers can’t acknowledge that theirs is a post-imperial nationalism, so they have to frame it as an anti-colonial nationalism. An honest account of the re-emergence of the idea of England as a political entity would say that this is a last stage of the end of empire. England was folded into empire and now that empire is gone, England returns.

The big reason why English nationalism cannot articulate itself is that it cannot admit to its own most obvious consequence: the break-up of the UK

For reasons we will come back to, however, this can’t be said. So what we get instead is a double displacement. England is emerging, not from its own empire, but from an imaginary empire of the EU. And (with a certain comic magnificence) the nearest example of this process to hand is Ireland’s struggle for independence from the UK. Hence the Brexiteer Sir Bernard Jenkin explaining on BBC’s Newsnight last week why it was okay to renege on the withdrawal treaty: “The deal leaving the EU is a one-off exceptional treaty – it’s like an independent country leaving an empire.”


This bizarre mental construct of England-as-Ireland leads to the adoption, in the minds of English nationalists, of the Michael Collins model – sign the damn treaty and then you can change it afterwards. The withdrawal treaty, like the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, is not a terminus but a springboard.

Secondly, the big reason why English nationalism cannot articulate itself is that it cannot admit to its own most obvious consequence: the break-up of the UK. Toryism is supposed to be conservative and unionist, but it has become (in objective effect) radically anti-union. It is pushing through the most extreme possible version of a Brexit that both Scotland and Northern Ireland rejected.

But since this cannot be admitted, the blame for the consequences must be displaced. These people, of course, have a lot of practice at shifting the blame for their own failings on to their favourite scapegoat: the EU. Thus, it is not English nationalism that is wrecking the union. It is those damned foreigners. Hence Gove’s case for resiling from the withdrawal agreement: “the EU [is] disrupting and putting at threat the integrity of the United Kingdom”.

The third consequence of this naive nationalism is a rather infantile understanding of national independence. Leave aside the obvious truth that Britain is and always has been independent and sovereign. The Brexiteers, in seeking to “reclaim” its allegedly lost sovereignty, fall into the delusion that often affects early-stage nationalists: the idea that, once you are “free”, you can do whatever you damn well please. You enter a new world where the National Will is untrammelled by compromises, limits and pre-existing obligations.

Imaginary oppression

The particular problem of “freedom” in the Brexit project is that, as I’ve suggested before, you can’t free yourself from imaginary oppression. Countries that have been subjected to domination from the outside can (after they make all the mistakes) learn to settle for a negative freedom – we are no longer being dominated, so now we are free to make our own compromises and share our sovereignty with others. But Brexit cannot afford this satisfaction, because Britain was never being dominated in the first place.

Hence, it is driven towards a hyper-exaggerated notion of pure sovereignty, unadulterated by responsibilities and commitments. Liberty is replaced by libertarianism. The “nation” becomes a larger version of Cummings during the coronavirus lockdown, so special that it can give a fine old English “up yours” to the rules that apply to everyone else. The rallying cry of this “freedom” is “never apologise, never explain”.

The tragedy for England is that it is not unfettered, merely unmoored. Its unspoken nationalism is not a course charted towards a well-planned future. It is just the setting adrift of an ill-conceived nation. It floats under a false flag – not the cross of St George, but an increasingly tattered Union Jack. And it has just ditched its moral compass.