England prepares to leave the world

Neal Ascherson

I never thought I would see this opera again. ‘Rule Britannia!’ peals, the curtain parts, and there is a mad queen poling her island raft away into the Atlantic. Her shrieks grow slowly fainter, as the mainland falls behind. The first performance was in the 1980s. Who could forget Margaret Thatcher’s ear-splitting arias? But she never took the raft to the horizon, and never finally cast off the cross-Channel hawser mooring her to Europe. This revival is different. Theresa May says she’s bound for the ocean, and she means it.

Or rather, she means it because she doesn’t mean it. Nothing in British history resembles this spectacle of men and women ramming through policies everyone knows they don’t believe in. Never mind the few genuine Brexiteers. Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond and Theresa May – among others in government – all tried to keep the UK in the European Union. Now they are trying to take it out again, apparently on the terms that will do their country most damage.

There’s a kind explanation, a white-coated one and a coarse one. The kind account says that they feel democratically obliged to carry out the wishes of the English people, whatever their private opinions. (A variant suggests that they think themselves duty-bound to save the country from the worst consequences of a disastrous decision, but their recklessness over Brexit doesn’t support that.) The white-coated shrink account is that they are pathologically over-compensating out of guilt for backing the wrong side. And the coarse explanation is that they just want to stay in power.

This is a government that stamps and shouts in order to hide its inner weakness. Its majority in the House of Commons is tiny; the Conservative Party is noisily divided; the quarrelling cabinet – despite the ‘no running commentary’ proclamation – leaks and briefs daily about Brexit. And it’s led by a politician whose show of flinty determination conceals – I increasingly suspect – awful fears about her own ability to control her party and something close to panic as she leads Britain into the black cloud of unknowing that covers Brexit negotiations, the trembling economy and the future of the United Kingdom itself.

It’s insecurity, not complacency, which is prompting such Little England deafness and blindness to the outside world. May stowed Boris away in the Foreign Office as if it were a scullery cupboard: nothing in there mattered to her. She and the other Tory leaders simply didn’t notice that Amber Rudd’s plan to name and shame British firms that didn’t list their foreign employees provoked days of horrified media coverage all over Europe and America. When the outside world asked if the country that wanted to ‘anglify’ the NHS, block European students and use EU residents as bargaining chips was really the Britain they had known and loved, May’s ministers shrugged.

At the EU Bratislava summit in September, the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, proclaimed that he would veto European plans to co-ordinate national armies – even though Britain would be long out of the EU by the time anything of the sort could take place. More recently, May told EU leaders in Brussels that Britain intended to use its right to interfere up to the last hour of its membership. When Jean-Claude Juncker commented on May’s performance with a loud raspberry, British journalists, accustomed to reporting every EU meeting as if Britain were the only item on the agenda, pretended to be shocked. But the other 27 nations must be wondering when they can tell May to mind her own business.

England is dragging the other nations of the United Kingdom with it as it leaves not only the European Union but the world. Does anyone think seriously that Canada or Australia, comfortably embedded in the American and Asian trade regions, will turn back towards ‘the mother country’? Somebody commented that Theresa May was the best person to build a better yesterday (many would say the same about Jeremy Corbyn). It’s the way back to a bedraggled exceptionalism, the 1970s pretence that Britain was still at the top table of the Big Three or Four, a Victor Power of the Second World War which should never be classed with mere nation-states like France or Albania.

Back then, the media and politics thrived on the patriot superlative: this or that British bridge or factory chimney or ancient monument regulation was the longest or the tallest or the most protective in Europe/the world/the universe. Often these claims were quite untrue. But then followed a more sober period, in which European comparisons worked their way into the media. English education was set against German school attainment; British healthcare outcomes against French; our public spending on culture and heritage against that of Austria. Britain sometimes did poorly by these measures and was spurred to catch up. But now that invaluable habit – judging British standards by those of other European members – will die out again. The kingdom will become once more nonpareil – incomparable. Or incorrigible.

Trying not to show how frightened they are, this governing crew are backing into the future. But this is a way of ensuring that old problems crawl after you, snarling as they catch your eye. Britain’s gross social inequality, only briefly reversed in postwar decades, will continue to increase. A return to grammar schools in England is one sign. Another is the stealthy return of references to ‘the poor’. Until the other day, politicians and journalists tried to avoid that ancient term, talking instead of ‘families in multiple deprivation’ or ‘children in poverty’ or ‘the less fortunate’ – categories suggesting individuals who can be rescued. But now ‘the poor’ are back, a dark, dishevelled tribe who may be our fault but are definitely not our brothers and sisters. The Victorians used to say that ‘the poor are always with us,’ and now, once more, the losers in a free-market economy are labelled as an inevitable sludge that forms at the bottom of any growth society. Do Britain’s right-wingers really hope that ‘the poor’ will subside into an ‘underclass’? An archipelago of wired-off ghettos on basic welfare, where criminality is assumed to be genetically inherited? Tories passionately deny that. And yet their policies seem designed to bring it about.

Westminster was the one place where May seemed to be showing harsh resolve. But the High Court judgment striking down her plan to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary consent humiliated her before her own front bench. She set out to kick aside constitutional convention in order to get her way on Brexit: no Commons vote but instead the use of Crown Prerogative to bypass Parliament. All this to stifle debate on Britain’s heaviest decision since 1945. What happened to parliamentary democracy? Was May setting out to be a new tsar? It seems, however, that she lacks an autocrat’s backbone. And what befell parliamentary democracy was that it stood helpless with its trousers round its ankles – until High Court lawyers, not politicians, came to the rescue and pulled them up again. That failure by MPs to defend their Chamber’s boasted rights won’t soon be forgotten.

Nothing that May was proposing was unconstitutional. There is no constitution. It was an archaic convention she was violating: the peculiar English belief in ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. The slogan in the referendum was ‘Take Back Control.’ But of what and from whom? The establishment Leavers said: ‘Take back the sovereignty of Parliament, the Ark of the English Covenant. England isn’t England if Parliament can be overruled by anyone – least of all by foreigners.’ But the mass of more plebeian Leavers asked something different: why should they obey laws they didn’t want, made somewhere else by politicians they didn’t elect? (Did some Scotch git at the back say something?) It was the imagined rights of the nation they wanted to take back, not of Westminster. It wasn’t parliamentary sovereignty they were after, but something paradoxically un-English and European: the sovereignty of the people.

The muddled argument still goes on. Impassioned Remainers march and demonstrate and demand that Parliament have the last say – in the hope that a majority of MPs might even now reject Brexit, hard or soft. But the Leavers, some of whom still suspect that the government will buckle in negotiations and sell them out over immigration controls, retort that the will of the people expressed through a referendum amounts to supreme law. In other words, superior to whatever an elected parliament might decide.

May chose the second view. The people had spoken, and politically she felt obliged to obey. But English constitutional doctrine says the opposite: Parliament, not the people, is absolute. At the end of the 17th century (putting it crudely) the so-called Glorious Revolution took absolute power away from the monarch and bestowed it on Parliament. Over the years, that quick fix has become a jewel-encrusted shrine. Its high priest, the late Victorian sage A.V. Dicey, intoned: ‘Each successive generation from the reign of Edward I onwards, has laboured to produce that complete political unity which is represented by the absolute sovereignty of the Parliament now sitting at Westminster.’ That was rubbish history. But it confirmed the idea of absolute authority, a top-down flow of power from the Crown in Parliament (better called the ‘elective dictatorship’ of a cabinet) to the smallest local authority. In theory, this rejects the whole Enlightenment ideal of popular sovereignty (the ‘subsidiarity’ on which other European state systems are based). It implies that civil rights can be no more than a loaned-out privilege. In practice, this Anglo-British power doctrine makes it horribly difficult for the state to devolve its authority in any coherent way. It’s obliged to do it more and more, but grinds and screeches as it does so: the old machine just isn’t made for that. And this is why Nicola Sturgeon’s requests to admit the Scottish government as an equal partner in Brexit negotiations, or to share Home Office control of immigration, make May so cross. The fact that the British constitution is invisible often makes it inflexible.

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‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere.’ Mrs May will pass into folklore with that line, just as Mrs Thatcher is remembered for ‘There is no such thing as society.’ It’s her own Mad May Queen utterance. And yet the sentence reveals a lot. It comes out of a solid, unexamined nationalism. It’s becoming clearer than ever that for millions of English voters 23 June was just what Nigel Farage said it was: England’s independence day. It was almost as much an independence referendum as the one in 2014 which saw so many patriots ask for ‘Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands’. But, true and tragic, the real dependence of England was never on foreigners and ‘Brussels’ but on London: on Britain’s ancient fusion of politics and money power into a single densely matted elite. So the consequence of the Leave victory has been to put those English voters under the control of an even smaller and more extreme establishment, or Obrigkeit. True and sad, great numbers of good people who wanted to liberate the country they loved were misled into wounding it, ensuring pain and damage for a generation. But what matters now is to recognise that the Brexit choice was largely driven by a force that must no longer be ignored: English nationalism.

The New Statesman recently sought answers to the Scottish Question and the Irish Question. What about the English Question? In the multinational Habsburg Empire, the only component nation that didn’t have special cultural and political privileges and festivals of identity was the one supposed to form the imperial core itself: the Germans of Austria. In the United Kingdom, where 86 per cent of the population is English or lives in England, the imbalance is even more absurd. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have self-government while England has only ‘the imperial Parliament’ of the UK. While the empire lasted, Englishness dozed quietly under the cloak of Great Britishness. Now the cloak is off, and Englishness wakes in a sour temper.

England is well administered but badly governed. Populist disgust with existing parties and rulers is as sharp among ordinary people here as in many other European countries. But organised English nationalism – the campaign for an English parliament, for instance – is still weak, though growing. This is because, in contrast to the common European experience, England’s educated middle class has refused to foster and guide the embryo of a national movement, seeing it as a vulgar commotion akin to football hooliganism. Even Ukip, which would probably have reached solid ground as an openly English party, tried to play safe as a defender of ‘British’ identity.

For at least twenty years, the sense of England as an affronted and neglected nation has been growing, but its expression has been formless, generally noticed by the media only when it turns racist and xenophobic. Devolution to Scotland and Wales was taken as a slight, discriminating against the biggest partner in the United Kingdom. Then came a surge of approval for the rather abstruse ‘English Votes for English Laws’ project in 2015, limiting the right of Scottish MPs to shape legislation affecting only England. It was a warning sign of the simmering disaffection which erupted in the EU referendum; not only the post-industrial north of England voted Leave but swathes of the semi-rural south as well.

Two readings of English nationalism compete. One comes from Tom Nairn, who named it ‘perpetually regressive’, with a ‘stalled and pathological character’. His books have argued that English political imagination has been ‘stunted’ by Britishness, and that only the break-up of the British state can transform English nationalism into a modernising, progressive force. Michael Kenny, on the other hand, in his book The Politics of English Nationhood, thinks that a civic and popular English nationhood is attainable within the Ukanian framework. But only if liberal-minded people stop holding their noses and ‘engage England as the site for a positive and progressive nationality’. No sign of that yet.

But England, that tough, funny and normally tolerant nation with a unique sense of fairness, does deserve its independence. What irony, if it’s true that only Scottish independence can bring the English to their own! With no ‘British’ mirror to confuse them, the people who live between the Tweed and the Channel might get a grip on their real ‘controllers’, that alliance of private money and public power which maintains such shocking contrasts of wealth and such shameless unfairness in the distribution of opportunity.

So must an EU Brexit lead to a UK ‘Scoxit’? More people think so in London than in Edinburgh, where the obstacles to a successful ‘Indyref2’ – some old but some new – are more clearly seen. In the May-Sturgeon standoff, Sturgeon has more to lose if May concedes nothing and forces her into another referendum defeat. Yet I sense again that May is much less confident than she seems. She isn’t a coward – remember how she faced down the Police Federation as home secretary. But she is tidy-minded and hates a gamble. In time, she may give the first minister some of what she wants – just enough, perhaps, to allow Sturgeon to put off that referendum. Scottish opinion polls are pretty stagnant, and campaigns to revive the old ‘Yes’ enthusiasm don’t yet seem to have much traction. But standing back from daily politics, you can watch Scotland’s place in the union growing steadily looser, almost month by month, as one shock or disappointment follows another. Like an old front tooth ready to drop out. ‘Aye,’ a friend said, ‘but where’s the tooth fairy?’

Independence is a one-way street. Decisions for it – overt or unadmitted – can’t be turned back. It may be that the Scottish plank of May’s raft will break off and wash up on the European shore again. But England is out. Its confident civil society, the liberal nation that abolished the slave trade, welcomed refugees from tyrannies and created Amnesty, includes the Remainers. They won’t cease to feel European. The other England – kindly but dyspeptic, which doesn’t like foreigners ‘except for all the foreigners I know’ – will never understand that dual loyalty. The work to reconcile those nations, suddenly so alien to each other, falls on a nervous and unconvincing government. Facing the Atlantic, May searches desperately for the manual of seamanship and the wind rises.

4 November