The vicar’s daughter, who likes nothing more ‘Little England’ than to listen to BBC Radio Berkshire of an evening, yesterday delivered her Big Brexit speech.
While it was welcomed by some as delivering an unequivocally ‘hard’ Brexit, it was still notably short on detail.
What will happen if parliament votes against Brexit? PM Theresa May didn’t answer that one. What will happen to public services if Britain goes down the road of the tax haven on the shores of Europe? Pretty thin on that, too. She was, however, able to pledge to combat ‘discord’ in the United Kingdom.
For ‘discord’ – a term with which May conjured up yet again the ghost of Margaret Thatcher – read ‘rebellion in the regions’. For Scotland and Northern Ireland, as we know, voted to Remain in the EU. The ‘Celtic fringes’, as so often before, are being troublesome.
Instead of offering calm, Theresa May’s language has actually up to now been inflammatory (whether she realises it or not) in Scotland and the six northern counties of Ireland. I’m referring to the use of the term ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ which the PM has been bandying around. This conjures up the Union flag: very much a contested symbol in those parts of the world.
But ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ is typical of the language of someone suffering England’s imperial hangover. Or, as Nick Boyle puts it in this article – http://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/the_problem_with_the_english_england_doesn_t_want_to_be_just_another_member_of_a_team_1_4851882 – typical of the attitude of someone mired in a sense of identity forged in the imperial period, of an Englishness which refuses to be a team player.
In unions with Scotland, in 1707, and with Ireland, in 1801, England emerged the senior partner in the United Kingdom. In the forging of empire and civil society at home in the Victorian society, Englishness was priviliged above other identities within these Isles. Civilising Victorian elites would appropriate the tartan, and other Celtic imagery, as witnessed in Theresa May’s tartan trouser-suit yesterday – but England was the senior partner in domestic and global affairs and my gosh didn’t everyone know it.
This all ended with the break-up of the Empire at the end of WW2 in 1945, but try telling that to the many who voted Brexit out of the sheer bloody-minded attitude that EU membership connoted living in a continent on an equal basis with others.
For Brexit was not merely austerity-induced anti-immigration sentiment in de-industrialised northern towns, it was also an affluent and obnoxious two fingers up to the very idea of England losing its proper place delivered overwhelmingly by people of an older generation still suffering the nightmarish effects of a hangover in which the reassuring notion of Old England has been destroyed – the vicar has fallen off his bicycle and the roast beef of old England has turned out to be halal – in short, the plebs and the ‘coloureds’ and the Europeans seem to have found a voice and need to be put back in their place.
Admittedly, there were and are major problems with European democracy and Europe faces something of an immigration crisis. Admittedly, the colonial hangover is not just a British phenomenon. But the resurgence of popular rightism in France and Germany, for example, is complicated by both those countries’ recent history of progressive civic republicanism: something conspicuously missing in the (Dis) United Kingdom.
English nationalism – stupefied by the imperial hangover – conflated problems within the EU into an opinion that all that had gone wrong in the world could be traced to the European federalism (and not, for example, to the disastrous effects of British and western intervention in Iraq at the turn of the century).
Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have national assemblies, but England has none. England still wants to be master and commander and, headed up by an anachronistic aristocracy, jealously protects its dwindling power even to the extent (as May does) of deriding any identities within its boundaries who fail to march in the line with the ‘red, white and blue’.
As the world anticipates a looming US-China trade war, anxiety, uncertainty, ‘post-truth’, the imperial hangover worsens, the empire becomes ever more rose-tinted, the massacres and exploitation and oppression of the British empire dim, and the Old Order takes on a sweet tinge.
Fine sentiments for brandy-guzzling old farts still drunk on the ‘red, white and blue’, but for the country’s prime minister, oh dear. Then again, what more can we expect from a BBC Radio Berkshire fan catapulted undemocratically into a s**tstorm?