It’s the English, stupid! Hudson Meadwell (McGill University) writes that the national structure of the UK and Britain, and the political organisation and expression of that structure, are keys to understanding Brexit.
Brexit is an English-centric phenomenon in which Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales appear as complications or afterthoughts. The sole constitutional voices in the Brexit process are English-dominated, first in the referendum itself, which aggregated the vote across national jurisdictions and in Parliament. Neither Northern Ireland, nor Scotland nor Wales are constitutionally empowered to express a voice on the matter of EU membership.
However, English political dominance is not something which can be directly acknowledged in political discourse. The language used by David Cameron and Theresa May in their letters, eighteenth months apart, to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, shows some of the political equivocations that result. Cameron’s letter opens under the heading, “A New Settlement for the United Kingdom” and then twice refers to the ‘British people’. May opens her letter with reference to the ‘people of the United Kingdom’ and then presents the referendum as a ‘vote to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination’. These brief quotations should show just how slippery these signifiers are. The United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland but Northern Ireland is not British. Indeed, the notion of the ‘United Kingdom’ was repurposed in the 1920s in order to recognize the reality of Irish partition. May never refers to the British people but she does invoke national self-determination. Later, she again makes reference to the ‘people of the United Kingdom’ But to which nation is she referring; whose self-determination is she signifying? Is this just loose, sloppy language?
These kinds of ambiguities and equivocations in expression, in important documents written both to your negotiating adversary as well for a larger political audience, are revealing and call out for some diagnosis. Perhaps the political unconscious is slipping out. Or are we looking at strategically ambiguous political rhetoric embedded in plans, the elements of which are not self-evident in these documents? These are hard questions, in any case, particularly so here, when there is relatively little material, primary or secondary, to work with.
So, how to proceed? I’ll advance a conjecture related to nationalism. If anything can be taken for granted and thus draw some of its force from its unarticulated everydayness and be articulated and enacted in a political plan, it’s nationalism. Nationalism, as some of its theorists suggest, can be both banal and a self-conscious political project. That’s not a contradiction, it is a measure of the sources of nationalism’s social and political force.
Hence the conjecture: Brexit is an expression of nationalism. Between Cameron and May in their letters, the latter is much more explicit, as she tried to invoke the legitimating power of national self-determination. But which nationalism? Who is more likely going to slip into the mentality that confuses their nation with ‘Britain’ or the United Kingdom?
This is a nationalist conceit but whose? It’s not the Scots, nor is it the Irish, or the Welsh. It’s the English.That’s fully compatible with the recurring theme of English exceptionalism in British history, which takes English dominance (if not superiority) as a natural birthright. After all, who incorporated who?
That birthright has been challenged at different historical points, and each challenge marks an important political crisis. English identity has proven fairly resilient but each crisis has left its mark. English dominance is not as natural a birthright as it used to be.
Irish resistance and eventually revolution still casts a long shadow in the form of Irish partition, even if England retained its dominant position in what is now known as the United Kingdom. In hindsight, partition perhaps bought England some (considerable) time but it looks now like that particular colonial legacy has come home to roost. Northern Ireland, drawing indirect and direct support from the EU and Ireland, and despite the support the Democratic Unionist Party has provided the Conservatives in Westminster, is now limiting England’s political degrees of freedom, much to the chagrin of Brexiteers.
Scotland is no longer particularly tractable and successfully induced the English to concede an elected assembly and, not long after, a first referendum on independence. This may be more a running problem than a crisis, if you prefer your crises to be episodic; nonetheless, the Scottish question will be part of the calculations of the Conservative government in their negotiations, up to and after the run-up to October 31, of a Labour government in the event of an electoral defeat of the Conservatives, at some point, whether post-Conservative transition or post-withdrawal and, naturally, of the SNP. There is no resolution of the Scottish question in sight.
Then there are the cumulative long-run effects of the rise of American power culminating in its post-1945 hegemony, the loss of blue-sea colonies, and more recently, the incremental deepening and enlargement of the EEC/EU after British entry. All of this changed the international standing of Britain and the UK and their imperial core – England.
English dominance thus is vulnerable: There are standing internal challenges to the borders of the political shells it maintains, and membership in the EU threatens its ability to control these interior spaces through the British parliament. These challenges can work in tandem as well as separately. ‘Scotland in Europe’ captures dramatically the instrumental relationship between Scotland’s national aspirations and EU institutions. Both the EU and Ireland have tangible stakes in Northern Ireland.
England has seen off various challenges to its dominance but its day of reckoning does seem to be drawing closer. It’s now much harder to separate challenges and deal with them as one-offs.
However, imperial cores don’t often reform themselves in the aftermath of empire. The current imbroglio does not look like the expression of a politically-healthy ruling class. There is no appetite for reform in the English ruling class. It’s a little like watching for regime change in autocratic contexts, looking for signs of a crack in the regime and the emergence of challengers to its hardliners. But there is not much sign of this in the party system, at least not yet.
The Conservative Party appears now all in for withdrawal, although it has been debating different scenarios. However, some of these scenarios are contrived. The Conservative party does not hold many cards, now that an agreement has been negotiated and ratified by one of the two parties in the negotiation.
On the other side of the House, the main political alternative – Labour – has been, at best, ambivalent about EU membership in the run-up to Brexit and afterwards. We can’t really say that Brexit has polarized the two major parties until relatively recently, as its leader pledged to support Remain in the event of a new referendum. Yet this was a rather half-hearted, rather than fully-voiced position. It likely will be overwhelmed by internal party division.
Labour is led by a longtime MP and activist who came to political maturity in pre-Thatcher Britain in a period in which (‘old’) Labour had not fully cast off its dream of ‘socialism in one country’. Membership in the EEC/EU, and the long march of English and British political history may not have put fully paid to that dream (even a weaker version of it) in Labour. Hence, withdrawal could be seen as an opportunity to return to roads not taken. That is also quite consistent with the general argument on the left that the EU is a neo-liberal dead end. So, the narrow national vision that underpins the Conservative position is not completely alien to Labour. If something like this is the choice on offer – if these are the two little Englands on offer – unification for the Irish and separation for Scotland may look more attractive.
This brings me back to where I started: the language of the letters written to Donald Tusk by Cameron and May. Perhaps, then, it is the political unconscious speaking in those letters even if the most recent challenge to English political dominance that continued EU membership represented has provoked a nationalism that is anything but banal.
No doubt, like his predecessors, the new Prime Minister will take the opportunity to write, whether to the President of the European Council or the President of the European Commission. Whatever is being said privately between the two negotiating parties, we can expect such a letter to be written partially for a domestic audience and hence to be made public.
How will he put it? In such a letter, will Johnson repeat in different words, his first public communication after being named Conservative leader, and invoke ‘the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red white and blue flag who together are so much more than the sum of their parts’?
Part of this is generic, boilerplate nationalism, ‘rally around the flag’ rhetoric. Yet most of it is distinctively English nationalism – the denial of challenges to English dominance which an acknowledgement of national disunity would represent, coupled with an appeal to the unbroken coherence of the United Kingdom (the ‘awesome foursome’), all of which studiously skirts political reality.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
 Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage, 1995); Michael Skey and Marco Antonisch (eds.), Everyday Nationhood. Theorizing Culture, Identity and Belonging After Banal Nationalism (London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2017), Political Geography. Special Issue, Banal Nationalism 20 Years On. 54 (September, 2016).
 Krishan Kumar, The Making of English National Identity. Englishness and Britishness in Comparative and Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Michael Skey, National Belonging and Everyday Life (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2011).
 Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass. Britain and Its Monarchy (London: Verso, 2011, rev. ed), Leah Greenfeld, Nationalism. Five Roads to Modernity, (Cambridge, MASS.: Harvard University Press, 1992), chapter 1, Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, CT.: Yale University, 2009, rev. ed.)