Brexit has been driven by England’s nostalgia for an imagined past
The campaign to leave the European Union and its subsequent manifestations was not about Britain as a whole, but one of its constituent nations' struggle with its own identity
Only 53 shopping days until Brexit. This week, leading supermarkets warned of major disruption to food supplies if Britain crashes out with no deal on March 29. The UK imports one-third of its food from the EU. In my household, we’ve begun laying in supplies of Italian extra virgin olive oil.
As the deadline approaches, Second World War nostalgia is more rampant than usual. Recently, the head of the Europe-wide Airbus consortium, Tom Enders, a German, wrote a public letter hinting that if Britain leaves with no deal, the company would have to shut down its UK operations, which employ 12,000 people.
Conservative MP Mark Francois went on television and tore up a copy of Mr Enders’ letter, saying: “My father was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to any bullying from a German and neither will his son.”
Harking back to the war is a distinctive cultural feature of life in this country. Actually, acute national nostalgia is a major syndrome of Englishness. War films are always on TV. In documentary after documentary and book after book, the danger and the glory of the war years are painstakingly recounted. Having spent too much time in hotel rooms around Europe while on assignment, I can say with certainty that no other EU country is as obsessed with this era. In fact, the rest of the UK is not as obsessed with it as the English.
And that’s the point. Brexit is essentially a vote about England, not Britain. The energy for Brexit was entirely generated by English politicians from within the Conservative Party. It was campaigned for by newspapers whose circulation is almost entirely within England.
Scotland voted by a margin of almost two to one to remain in the EU. In Northern Ireland, whose border with the Republic of Ireland has become the sticking point in negotiating Brexit, the vote was 55 per cent in favour of staying within the EU. Wales came out for Brexit but only contributed 855,000 votes to the cause. In England, 15.2 million people were behind it.
A constituency by constituency map of the country gives the clearest picture. In England, remain was the choice of the big, cosmopolitan cities. Leave was the choice of England, a physical place and a myth that its people want to be real.
Nearly 50 years ago, I did a junior year abroad at a university in a country called England. My friends identified as English, not “British”. Fifteen years later, the country I moved back to – as it turns out, permanently – was called Britain. We are “Brits”, my friends would say.
What had changed? Hard to say for sure, but in the interim, the country had voted to join what was then the European Economic Community. Travel to the continent had become commonplace. People were flocking to Spain on package holidays and for their retirement.
The change was disorienting to me and disconcerting to many English people. The idea that travel broadens the mind is overstated. For many people, it simply confirms prejudices about foreigners.
A fundamental truth of geopolitics, however, is underscored by the European Union: while all men are created equal, all nations are not.
Within the United Kingdom of Great Britain – born of the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 and arguably the first and most enduring federation of nations – England, with 10 times the population of Scotland, has always been the dominant country. For its natives, Englishness and Britishness, are almost interchangeable. Within the EU, Great Britain is just one of the Big Three, along with France and Germany. For English nostalgists, that doesn’t seem right. Who won the war, after all?
Although the hard right of the Tory party has been anti-EU since Margaret Thatcher’s time, the current crisis comes out of something else. Over the last quarter of a century, what it means to be a nation in a globalised world has been challenged. The UK has not been immune. The smaller nations in the UK have experienced a revival of national sensibility.
The Scottish National Party went from the political fringes to become the largest party in Scotland. Then in 2014, Scotland held a referendum on independence. At the time, Michael White, former political editor of the Guardian, worried that the Scots’ failed attempt to break away (which was frowned on by the EU) would have the unintended consequence of rousing similar sentiments in England. “You don’t want to awaken English nationalism,” he warned.
But to a considerable degree it was already stirring. Jez Butterworth’s epic play Jerusalem debuted five years before the Scottish independence referendum. It was a sensation in the West End and on Broadway. Mark Rylance’s astonishing performance as Rooster Byron almost obscured what the play was about. In rural England, a group of young people, wasting their days are looking for some sense of identity. They fall under the spell of Rooster, a man seemingly untamed by modern life. To the kids he is a mythic wild man. Their patch of England’s green and pleasant land – where they have no jobs or prospects of finding one – is being paved over for new suburban housing. The world they should have inherited was gone before they were born and there is nothing to take its place. Butterworth’s play is set in Wiltshire, in the south-west of England, which voted comfortably to leave.
“Jerusalem” is one expression of nostalgia for England. Football hooliganism is a much darker expression of nostalgic nationalism. It is also more connected to real-world politics.
By the time I moved to London in 1985, English professional soccer teams had been plagued by violent supporters for more than a decade. When English teams went to the continent for competitions, their fans laid waste to town centres. The most notorious incident came at Brussels’ Heysel Stadium before the European Cup final in 1985. Liverpool fans broke through a barrier and attacked Juventus fans. As the Juve fans retreated, a wall behind them gave way. Thirty-nine people were killed and 600 injured. English teams were banned from the competition for five years.
But the England national football team was not banned from other international competitions. Flying the flag of St George, a violent minority rampaged wherever England were playing. There were particularly nasty riots in Dublin in 1995 and France during the 1998 World Cup.
Eventually, the authorities got to grips with the problem in the early days of this century. They were helped by the fact that attending matches became very expensive, which made it hard for a lot of young men involved in the violence to afford tickets. The creation of England’s Premier League, eliminated an element of nationalism in the domestic professional game. The Premier League is an international brand. Most of its star players are foreign-born.
Many hooligans drifted from football grounds into extremist ethnonationalist politics, joining groups like the British National Party and, more recently, the English Defence League.
But in 2016 – a week after the Brexit vote – in Marseilles, during the European championships, the English hooligan made a dramatic return, chanting: “Raise your hand if you hate the French!” The hooligans spent two days rioting and abusing other fans.
The close connection between English ethnonationalist politics and football hooligans is embodied in one man: Tommy Robinson, born Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. Robinson – the pseudonym was taken in honour of a 1980s thug of the same name – was involved in hooliganism before founding the notoriously Islamophobic EDL. Today, he is a special adviser to the head of UKIP, the anti-EU co-founded by Nigel Farage.
Robinson was recently endorsed by the pied piper of ethnonationalism, Steve Bannon. Appearing on Farage’s show on radio station LBC, Bannon said: “I think Tommy’s a solid guy”. Off-air, he reportedly got into an argument about Robinson with LBC’s political correspondent, shouting: “Tommy Robinson is the backbone of this country”. Not really, Steve. Although to more than a few people in England, what Bannon said is perfectly accurate.
Between the theatrical nostalgia of Jerusalem and the violent ethnonationalist nostalgia of Robinson is a reality of people who remember stories of the war, of jobs in rural and provincial areas, of the days of empire. National nostalgia is a drug for which there is no 12-step programme. Sadly, leaving the EU will will not provide a cure.
Michael Goldfarb is the host of the FRDH, First Rough Draft of History podcast
Updated: February 26, 2019 11:20 AM