Brexit is a cry of English national pride, with potentially significant ramifications on national identity for all nations of the United Kingdom, writes Aled Gwyn Job
Next month, the negotiations between the UK government and the European Union concerning Brexit will re-commence as the two parties move on to stage two of the discussions. It’s not completely fanciful to speculate that a new Prime Minister could be at the helm during these negotiations, and a Prime Minister with a completely different mindset to the present leader as well. If this indeed were to happen, this may well lead to a wave of what could be termed English exceptionalism which in turn could lead to a situation where the UK will leave the EU without a deal next year.
One element that is scarcely mentioned at all in the debate thus far is the fact that Brexit is England’s bid for independence to all intents and purposes. This indeed is the “love that dare not speak its name”, if we apply Oscar Wilde’s pithy sentence to our own political situation today. This has remained concealed and unrecognised up to this point. But this element is likely to come much more to the fore over this coming period, whatever attempts are made to couch it under the usual deflective mantle of “Britain”.
The first round of negotiations proved to be a national humiliation in effect with Prime Minister Theresa May having to yield to each one of the EU’s demands. To add wound to English national pride, May seemed to cut a forlorn figure during the negotiations – the subject of what seemed to be a combination of ridicule and pity amongst her fellow EU leaders. Theresa May could well be a suitable metaphor for the irrelevance of England on the international stage by now, but one senses that English pride will not stand for much more of this. There are plots aplenty to replace her with either Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson or Michael Gove (depending on which Sunday paper you believe). Whether you were Remain or Leave in the Referendum, one would think it was reasonable to have a leader in place who was committed to honouring the largest democratic vote ever held on these islands.
One would also expect that a pitch for independence would also be accompanied by a bid to paint a positive and optimistic future after leaving the European Union (whatever the truths may be about that since any economic forecasting is always such a lottery in truth). And it seems to follow in turn that a natural leader would seek to inspire people here of the opportunties to completely revamp our democracy and reshape our political and economic landscape after leaving the EU. But none of this has happened. Has there indeed ever been such such an insipid, lukewarm and lily-livered bid to execute the process of national freedom in the whole history of Europe?
It is patently clear that Theresa May has failed on all the above points, and that is why the English with their irredoubtable sense of national pride will eventually have no choice but to install an alternative figure representing their vital interests in the second part of the negotiations. How that figure actually emerges remains to be seen, but this particular development could have one possible timeframe following the dire results expected for the Conservatives in the London elections in May.
I wouldn’t completely dismiss the possibility either that such a leader, attuned to the positive mood music evoked by a stronger negotiating position, could well call a snap election to ensure the proper parliamentary arithmetic for this new position.
It’s a bizarre experience for Welsh nationalists to listen to the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson expousing the cause of national freedom and democratic accountability, which have been such an integral part of our own national story for so many years. It’s also quite bewildering to hear them place these cherished principles over and above the golden calf of the economy which their own party – and everybody else to all purposes – has worshipped so uncritically over the past generation.
Such Welsh nationalist sentiments in the past have been dismissed and scorned as romantic hogwash, but here they are being hijacked and appropriated by our neighbours! Have they no shame at all?
It almost feels like your girlfriend has left you for a bloke who did nothing but criticize her and put her down with you during the time the two of you were together.
Instinctively, one feels that the English will actually pursue these causes with much more passion and tenacity than we have ever done in Wales. This could well lead to the growth of a troubling “Greater England” mentality. On the one hand, one could argue that a sense of exceptionalism is at the heart of this particular mentality. This argument posits a post-imperial wish for England to have status and power again on the international stage – a type of “expansionist-orientated nationalism” if you like.
It’s very easy to imagine how this type of exceptionalism could take off again in response to a much tougher approach to the negotiations with the European Union. After the complete drift and lack of vision which has characterised the UK government’s strategy over the past 18 months, more backbone and self-assertion will undoubtedly pay dividends for any new leader, however this comes about.
On the other hand, one could also argue that this exceptionalism actually amounts to a more grounded sense of ” we deserve much better than this as a people”. Communities the length and breadth of England used Brexit as a revolutionary cause to call for a new economic and political order, as the existing order both on a UK and EU level has failed them so badly over the past generation. As indeed it has for us in Wales.
In these communities, there is also mounting anger at the exponential growth and wealth of London over this period at the expense of everywhere else in England (apart from the London-fuelled South-East). The metropolitan superiority of London and Westminster, already a red rag to a bull in many places is also now being expressed anew in the Remain counter-revolution which is afoot. This is seriously provoking an unprecedented amount of disquiet in the rest of England.
People there instinctively feel that the flaunting of this metropolitan wealth, power and influence is not only unjust on an individual and community level, but also on a national level: it is just not sustainable for one city to thrive to such an extent at the expense of the rest of the nation.
And one feels that the rest of that nation is now starting to stir, almost in the form of modern-day cavaliers agitating for change against the roundheads, wedded to the status quo and the royal power of the EU. And we all know how that particular struggle ended in the long run. Whatever form this nascent exceptionalism eventually takes, be it the expansionist or emancipatory form, there can be little doubt that the arrogance of the EU triumvirate of Juncker, Bernier and Verhofstadt have also helped to lay the foundations for such a development.
Not one of them has ever expressed the slightest amount of interest or curiousity why so many people in these islands decided to say NO to the European Union. They could not even bring themselves to acknowledge that this was an unprecedented exercise in popular democracy in Europe( however flawed it may have been in some respects).
As ever, as has always been the case with every problem within the EU, which now amounts to a very lengthy list, the answer is always more of the EU. This institutional myopia is now set to come up against English nationalism. In my mind, there can be no doubt which one of these two is the most resolute and most resilient. The cheerleaders for the EU, who almost seem to believe that modern civilization actually started because of it, always forget that in historical terms it is very new, only 40 years in its present inception. English nationalism on the other hand has a history of many centuries behind it.
The harsh truth that all of us who want to see meaningful change on these islands have to confront is that this can only really happen when England changes. Its disproportionate size, power and influence means that all the other countries of these isles have to wait for this sleeping giant to stir in reality. No one can predict exactly what will happen when England achieves its independence from the EU. What will become of the delicate situation in Ireland, and Scotland in turn is anybody’s guess at this point. But history shows us that revolution is very often followed by counter-revolution with a third force then emerging to eventually surprise all the protagonists. Who knows, thanks to England, Wales can perhaps emerge as part of that third force.