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Analysis
Missing link in Brexit puzzle

Missing link in Brexit puzzle

May’s challenge over English nationalism 

by Meghnad Desai

Wed 13 Jul 2016

Many explanations have been broached for the Leavers’ surprise win in the UK European Union referendum: a divide across age, anti-elitism, a protest against globalisation, the suffering many communities feel from an influx of immigrants, the dislike of unelected 'eurocrats'. Yet the real culprit seems to be the rise of English nationalism. This is the missing link in the 'Brexit' puzzle.

If this persists as a political force, the UK has no scope under Theresa May, the new prime minister taking office today, to choose a Norwegian or even a Swiss arrangement for its future relationship with the EU. The shape of a post-Brexit UK looks more like that of a free-trading nation with tight controls on immigration. Further ahead, we may well have to live with a break-up of the UK. In a few years, ‘abroad’ may start nearer to home.

England made the difference by voting for exit by 53.4% to 46.6%, against 51.9% to 48.1% for the UK as a whole. England – not Scotland, Northern Ireland (where in both regions most voters said they wished to stay) and Wales (a majority of Brexiteers) – was where the UK Independence party gathered votes, nearly 4m at the last election. England has never had devolution; it is too large to be a single unit in a putative federal polity.

Leavers in the Conservative party have suffered a setback with May’s elevation – a mild Remainer. But Conservatives favouring exit may take up the English nationalist cause as controversies grow over post-Brexit arrangements. There could yet be a coalition of Brexit Tories and UKIP.

Leave supporters (perhaps naively or misguidedly) have spoken of independence and 'getting our country back' from the EU. But the main resentment on 23 June was aimed not at EU institutions, but against shortcomings of regional power perceived by the UK’s largest and dominant region.

The assertion of English nationalism embodies certain peculiarities, as George Orwell argued long ago. It is not done, unlike in the US, to fly the flag for England. English football fans sing no English national anthem at matches, unlike Scotland and Wales: there is only 'God Save the Queen', the national anthem of Great Britain. (Some have proposed 'Jerusalem', the popular hymn, but the idea has not caught on.) When Labour came to power in 1997, the Spice Girls wrapped themselves in the Union Jack, but that was a fashion statement.

Respectable England does not do nationalism. Writers like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were early English nationalists. English nationalism has always been a right-wing preoccupation. The post-war loss of empire gave some room for right-wing nationalists, but – apart from Enoch Powell in the 1960s – no politician from any of the mainstream parties has espoused English nationalism. The contrast with Scottish or Welsh nationalism is striking.

UKIP, founded in 1991 as the Anti-Federalist League by Alan Sked, a London School of Economics academic, filled a gap. It distanced itself from racism, stayed small, and focused on the EU. It gained traction after the 2007-08 financial crisis, championing those weakened by recession. The Labour party, in power at the time, suffered from its proclaimed liking for globalisation, liberal economics and an open attitude towards the EU.

The 23 June referendum result stems from the failure of Britain’s two major parties to understand, let alone harness, the forces of nationalism. The Tories lost Scotland by ignoring Sottish sensitivities, for example over the ‘poll’ property tax in the late 1980s. Labour thought that Scottish devolution would defeat the Scottish Nationalists; in the end the SNP ejected Labour from Scotland.

The developments of the past two decades set a serious challenge for the new prime minster. Her fate will be to master English nationalism – or be defeated by it.

Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Chairman of the OMFIF Advisory Board. 

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