‘English independence day’ was fuelled by victimhood and muddled xenophobia
The Herald Scotland, by Neal Ascherson
"For we are the people of England / That never have spoken yet." So, famously, wrote GK Chesterton. But now they have spoken, with an immense roar which has frightened all Europe and even some of their own Brexit supporters. The trouble is that nobody is quite sure what they meant to say.
The London media have decided not to enquire too closely. Instead they have retreated into familiar babble about personalities instead of issues. Safer to snigger about Boris v George, Jeremy v Alan and Yvette, than to ask why a dark flood of political rebellion has swept across England.
That flood carried away landmarks which had stood for generations. In the north-east, north-west and West Midlands (as in post-industrial south Wales), the old Labour signposts were swept off downstream. By the tens of thousands, people disobeyed their Vote Remain directions, as they did in Scotland in September 2014. If that comparison holds, the next election could see Labour’s English representation at Westminster almost wiped out or reduced to a handful of London MPs.
Was this Jeremy Corbyn’s fault? His campaign was lamentably feeble, but the great defection would probably have happened anyway. It was part of a long-term, Europe-wide change: the withdrawal of social democratic or mildly socialist parties from their traditional base among the poor and exploited. Huge alterations in the economic climate – the collapse of communism in 1989, the coming of Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal policies and their adoption by the bungled Eurozone and by the European Commisssion itself – created societies in which millions of losers are ignored by prosperous governing elites. Into that vacuum creep essentially right-wing parties peddling a weird mixture of toxic nationalism and protectionist welfare. When Tony Blair steered the Labour Party into the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s attack on the public sector, the same inner decay began to eat away at his party in both Scotland and England.
Floods also bring buried things to the surface. The English Leave victory was also about old-fashioned, unfashionable class. The English working class continues doggedly to exist, in spite of decades of denial by sociologists, and in the broad areas of industrial decline where "proper jobs" are a memory, it is in a bad temper. There has always been contempt for the narcissism of southern England. But now there is real rage at the cultural "remoteness’’ of those who govern and have money and power. As austerity bites, social gulfs widen, and the young live by day-to-day expedients rather than employment.
"Take back control" therefore had another dimension in Hartlepool or outer Birmingham. Traditionally, families there seldom felt that they had much control to lose or take back. They lived community lives, belonged to trade unions and voted Labour for MPs and councillors who were supposed to know what they were up to. Now the latest generations of those families hold in their palms winking, bleeping knowledge of all that happens and access to how it’s made to happen. A seductive illusion of control over this virtual world is supplied by Twitter and Facebook.
People feel that they should be increasingly empowered, and yet their actual ability to change their lives is visibly dwindling. England has no devolved government of its own, no intermediate regional tier of democratic authority to intercept complaints. Instead, the pad in the hand shows the antics of what seems to be a single power elite, self-perpetuating, privileged and fortified behind the pinnacles of London.
For the older English generation, English nationalism played a bigger but tactfully veiled part. Disguised as "Great British" patriotism, it seldom revealed itself through St George’s Cross flags or – more rationally – in demands for an English parliament. Instead, the sense of victimhood and unfairness came out in complaints about "Brussels diktats" imagined to be swamping England’s schools and hospitals with Latvians and Romanians. Sometimes this resentment issued in muddled xenophobia. More often it was simply misdirected against immigration by Leave orators. Few voters seemed to reflect that overcrowding was mostly the result of governments, Labour and Tory, ceasing to build council houses and A&E departments.
With this, unmistakeably, went a deep-rooted sense of national "exceptionalism". Older English people can’t easily suppress an instinct that Great Britain, with its memories of empire, its Big Three status in the Second World War, its permanent seat on the Security Council, can’t really be treated as just one nation among others, on a par with France or Slovakia. God, it’s implied, didn’t dig the Channel for the English just to see them fill it in again. English Leave voters were offended when I suggested that they were swapping "Great Power nostalgia" for Little-Englandism. Britain would become a Great Power again, Boris suggested, when it stood up alone and threw off Brussels shackles. But nobody I met felt quite comfortable with Nigel Farage’s’ proclamation of "English Independence Day". Significantly, he didn’t say "British".
It was a scratchy, muddled, ugly campaign. Unlike Scotland 2014, nobody formulated bright visions of "the Britain/England I want". And there’s a constitutional nightmare ahead. England’s doctrine is that Parliament is "sovereign" and absolute. Most MPs – 464 to 151 at one count – favour EU membership. But now they must submit to a popular referendum, sacrificing consciences and "sovereignty" as they vote through "withdrawal" legislation they don’t agree with.
This was a confused uprising of the English common people against the elites which control them. But it failed to take that control back, and only tightened the grip of right-wing politicians. It brought closer the breakup of the United Kingdom and threatened the hard-won peace of Ireland. Whoever benefits from the Brexit vote, it will not be the people of England. Whatever it was that they were really asking for, their new rulers will not wait to find out.
"Smile at us, pay us, pass us, but do not quite forget / We are the people of England." And sooner rather than later, they will want to speak again.