If Brexit is the midwife of the new British nationalism, it is also fuelling the causes of self-determination among England’s Celtic neighbours.
Mike Small is a freelance writer and editor of Bella Caledonia
Cross-posted from Bella Caledonia
The week saw the passing of Ian Hamilton at the grand age of 97 years old. A ‘life well lived’ as the saying goes. He was responsible for the return of the Stone of Destiny to its rightful place. It was not, as some Scottish media had it ‘stolen’ by him and his colleagues.
For some the story is a couthy romantic tale of a bygone era of 1950s Britain complete with pea-soup fogs and Pathe News Footage of the Old Bill. But it can also be seen as a more contemporary light, as an act of direct action or sabotage. In an era in which political life is triangulated into non-existence and calculations balance on the outcome of focus groups, this was an act of instinct and bravery. It was not Hamilton told me, particularly difficult to do, once he’d decided to do it.
‘Politics cannot live by politics alone’ – he once said. People need some ‘theatre’ too. If we may be exhausted by the pantomime of Boris Johnson’s regime and the freak show of Liz Truss’s, and the ‘spectacle’ of much of public discourse, he is right. We need less ‘performance’ and more live action. This wasn’t a meme, a hashtag or a media ‘moment’ it was what we now call ‘irl’.
This week saw the (under-reported) live action of thousands of people taking to the streets in Cardiff and Edinburgh in favour of independence and in Glasgow and right across the country – in fifty cities – calling for a general election, an end to austerity and for workers rights and decent pay. The latter was organised by Enough is Enough – a campaign group opposing Tory austerity and the social crisis. It felt like an up-swelling of pent-up anger brought into life by the horror of the new Tory government. If Johnson’s government provoked shock and laughter – Truss’s evokes more disgust and disdain. Post-covid as well it feels like people have just had enough.
It’s not just on mainland Britain that revolt is being organised. Over in Dublin thousands gathered for a mass meeting on ‘Irish Unity’ with a keynote address by the actor actor James Nesbitt, a Northern Irish Protestant from a unionist background, declared it was time for a “new union of Ireland”, one that accommodated all identities and allegiances.
“We’re standing at a profound moment here in the history of the islands,” he said.
Indeed we are.
The new census reported that for the very first time Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland. As Rory Carroll reported:
“Perhaps even more significant in the census was a loosening of British identity. Some 32% identified as British only, 29% identified as Irish only and 20% as Northern Irish only. In 2011, the figures were 40% British only, 25% Irish only and 21% Northern Irish only. Brexit’s fingerprints are all over this waning Britishness. Most people in Northern Ireland, as in Scotland, voted in 2016 to remain in the EU and resented being forced out of it by the English.”
“It wasn’t just about markets and travel. The Good Friday agreement’s success hinged on blurring identities – in Northern Ireland you could feel British or Irish or both. By resurrecting the debate over borders, Brexit revived an existential question – which side are you on?”
That is the shining and dark irony of the Truss government as manifest at their conference: when the Prime Minister talks about ‘standing up to the separatists’ and denouncing ‘nationalism’ they have no consciousness, no self-reflection, on the nationalism they represent and the separation they have forced.
The idea of Sinn Féin being ascendant (North and South) or of Welsh independence even really being taken seriously was not something that anyone would have really considered even a few years ago. But it is the unspoken rise of a new English nationalism, both shielded (and propelled) by Brexit that makes much of this possible. English Nationalism remains (mostly) Unchained, to use the current lingo.
But instead we have a forced British Nationalism, resplendent with Suella Braverman caustic racism and Liz Truss who is gearing up for a almighty clash with striking workers – the ‘anti-growth’ coalition – vile separatists – and other imagined enemies that crowd her beleaguered brain.
That much of this seems psychotic and absurd even by the standards of the Tory Party is notable, and the shift even further to the right has provoked (finally) some astonishing polling numbers for the Labour Party. But two things prevent unmitigated celebrations.
First the fantastic new polls are not evenly spread through the UK. Stermerism does not wash away the constitutional crisis, it just adds a new dimension to it.
Support for independence has risen again and accelerated up the priority list for Scottish voters, according to a new poll. According to YouGov Forty-three per cent of people back independence, an increase of five points since the last poll in May, while 45 per cent want to remain in the Union, down one point, and seven per cent were undecided, a fall of four points.
Tory wipeout in Scotland would largely be at the hands of the SNP not Labour.
The instant joy for Orphaned Centrists that Labour’s revival would wipe-away the nasty Nats is premature.
But the second reason for a pause on the celebrations at Labour’s new-found popularity is a different one.
Some of this feels like familiar territory.
In the 80s and 90s when we were reeling from horrific Tory governments we didn’t elect the economic damage and social chaos wore people down. The experience of state violence and the repression of workers rights was an appalling attack on civil society. Eventually people became so sick and scared of it that they (we) defaulted to a new political task. The object became ‘Get Thatcher out’, the political project became ‘get rid of the Tories’ and the endgame became: a Labour government.
So sick and tired of the Conservatives were people that they stopped having a critical take on what the alternative was. So when you watch Rachel Reeve talk about immigration and asylum seekers in language that would not be out of sync coming out of Priti Patel’s autocue, you should stop and think.
If Starmer is doing well he is doing well because he has sanitised the Labour Party to a point of acceptability by Britain’s right-wing press. They have sung the National Anthem and cleaved to British nationalism, they have studiously avoided supporting striking workers and joined the chorus of racism that they deem necessary for electoral success.
They have also strapped themselves manfully to the Brexit Mast.
But here’s a problem because there’s a direct line between the Unleashed Tories and te Brexit phenomenon which propelled Johnson into office and his improbable successor.
As Will Huton has put it: “Whisper it – this is where Brexit has inexorably led …A democratic vote has transmuted into a rightwing coup, culminating in a destructive libertarian programme, an attempt to shrink a state the right considers bloated, to eliminate the last remnants of regulation, to try to drive taxes down, however vital to sustain public services. All in the name of “liberating enterprise” and forcing “self-reliance” on what the Brexit right consider a lazy, cushioned workforce. The line from Brexit to last week’s debacle is straight and obvious.”
It’s an unpopular view – even – or especially among some of the pro-Brexit left, but it’s entirely true.
If Brexit is the midwife of the new British nationalism, a simulacra of the English nationalism that is its true beating heart, it is also fuelling the causes of self-determination among England’s Celtic neighbours.
Scottish nationalism is not going away, despite the many failings and faults of its incumbent party. Welsh nationalism is on the rise and Sinn Féin, once a political outcast, is now ascendant. Rory Carroll again has written: “In May’s assembly election, it overtook the DUP as Northern Ireland’s biggest party, a milestone that makes Michelle O’Neill eligible to be first minister. In the republic it leads the opposition, is surging in popularity and appears poised to lead the next government, a once unthinkable proposition.”
As we watch the Truss government take form in all its ugliness and stupidity – we can also watch new forces take form – the movements for democracy in Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and the renewed militancy of workers fighting for a decent living wage. The real breakthrough will be if these forces can make common cause and unite against this reckless government and all the dark forces they represent.
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