I WAS talking to an English relative last night who voted for Brexit. I was making my usual case that the only sane course of action for the country is a second referendum. I was told “You just don’t get that most people hate Europe, do you?”. I pointed out that Scotland, Northern Ireland and London seemed pretty fond of Europe given the large Remain votes.
“Oh,” I was told, “the Scots and Irish think differently – and London, well, London is different too.” Different in what way, I asked. “It’s very mixed – you know what I mean,” they said.
I’d had about as much of the conversation as I could take so I said my goodbyes. But within those few sentences I could discern the outline of something that has been increasingly worrying me – English nationalism.
First of all, my relative saw England at the centre of the world – England, in their mind, represents “most people”. Secondly, the Scots and the Irish aren’t that important – we’re “different” – and finally, London is rendered an outsider because it just isn’t white enough.
Just a few days before, I was speaking to Lord Kerr – once the UK’s leading diplomat, and the man who authored Article 50, the trigger mechanism for Brexit. Lord Kerr is a passionate Remainer, and one issue troubled him the same way it troubled me: that the vote to leave Europe was driven by English nationalism.
Wherever you look now you see a political process harnessed to English nationalism. A few days ago The Telegraph ran a piece suggesting “there’s one way for England to achieve Brexit – and that’s by achieving independence from the UK”.
There’s a clear “England First” agenda at large. On the Today Programme, John Humphrys asks whether Dublin should leave Brussels, so the UK can gets its way over the Irish backstop. Instead of Dublin “telling this country that we have to stay within the single market”, there’s an argument, says Humphrys, that Ireland should “leave the EU and throw in their lot with this country”. It’s hard to think of a more absurd and arrogant proposal.
Humphrys also says, as a matter of fact, that when “we went to the polling stations to vote in the referendum … it’s unlikely that Northern Ireland would have been at the forefront of our minds”. Did the Northern Ireland people – acutely aware of the risks to peace posed by a Leave vote – go blithely to the polls, in this England-centric world, not thinking of themselves? When Ireland’s Europe minister Helen McEntee told Humphrys that the UK Government had an obligation to protect the Good Friday Agreement, he told her she sounded “a bit arrogant to a lot of people on this side of the Irish Sea”.
His comments came just a few days after dissident republicans planted a bomb in Derry. Perhaps, Humphrys should have reminded listeners that of the 3,532 people killed during the Troubles, more than 700 were British soldiers.
Is this what an English nationalist Brexit looks like? Demanding Ireland kow-tow to England. Flagrantly disregarding and thereby endangering the peace process in Northern Ireland. Even forgetting dead veterans amid the delirium of Brexit. Do English nationalists not care if more young men from Bradford and Birmingham go and die in the Bogside and Ballymurphy? Because there is a very real risk that will happen if their hard border falls over the island of Ireland.
Theresa May is now being pushed by extremists like Boris Johnson to secure changes from the EU on the backstop. It will be a “freedom clause”, says a man who has parlayed a career from lies, and cares about nothing but himself.
Europe won’t budge on the backstop, because Ireland won’t budge on the backstop. Europe will stand by Ireland no matter what. This is what English nationalists need to learn: that their decisions leave them alone in a world where unity is paramount. It will be a cold place for little Englanders if they ever get their way, and that is what makes them so hard to understand – they would maim themselves and others to achieve what they see as a “win”.
Sanity seems to be coming apart at the seams in the world of the English nationalist. Tory MP Mark Francois, of the European Research Group, lost it a few days ago when he all but chewed the microphone during a TV interview. Incensed by a letter from Tom Enders, the German chief executive of Airbus, warning about the catastrophe of Brexit, he proceeded to shred the pages live on air. Calling himself a “patriotic Englishman”, Mr Francois ranted about “Teutonic arrogance” before proclaiming his father was a D-Day veteran who’d “never submitted to bullying by any German, neither will his son”. The war still rages in the English nationalist mind.
Meanwhile, the Government plans for martial law in the event of no deal, Jacob Rees-Mogg calls for the suspension of democracy, and tycoon Brexiters like James Dyson jump ship to Singapore.
Scotland and Northern Ireland cannot be led to ruin against our will by the whims, nostalgia and reactionary fury of a hardcore cabal of English nationalists who have hijacked politics south of the Border.
The Scottish independence movement is the polar opposite of what we see in English nationalism. There are no far right thugs, no threats of violence, no dangerous slurs like “enemy of the people” thrown around with revolutionary zeal, and little hatred – though personally I could do with less Saltires, marching and “Saor Alba” nonsense. Voting Yes was not an anti-English vote, it was a vote for a fairer, more positive and open world which Westminster was standing in the way of – sure, the Yes movement has its fair share of cranks and idiots, but those are mostly confined to the conspiracist corners of the internet.
If the English nationalists seem set to get their way and drag Scotland and Northern Ireland out of Europe, against our will, like hostages in the boot of a car, then the only course of action is for the Scottish Government to move for an independence referendum at the earliest opportunity. Sane people don’t allow themselves to be the captive of an extremist who seems intent on wanton destruction if they don’t get their own way.
Writer at large