Historian JAMES HAWES reviews Gavin Esler’s new book foretelling the imminent end of the UK.
Things that have been a long time coming, finally come suddenly. And the end of the UK has been a long time coming. The band may still be playing, but it is playing on the deck of the Titanic: we were holed below the waterline a long time ago, it’s just that the tipping point has now been reached.
Gavin Esler knows it. In How Britain Ends, a wonderful book which will be quoted in years to come, he takes us deep below decks, to watch the waters rushing unstoppably in.
The problem is simple: England. “The central argument of this book is that while the United Kingdom can survive Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms, it cannot survive English nationalism.” Winston Churchill, no less, agreed.
In 1912-13 Churchill was trying to hold the UK together in the face of the new, democratic realities which had arisen, as if by magic, with the 1884 Reform Act: the peoples of the UK (none of whom had been consulted in its construction) had immediately started to vote on openly or implicitly nationalist lines.
The result was that in 1886, 1892 and 1910, the UK’s Liberal governments were actually tactical (at times, openly cynical) alliances of the Celts and the northern English, ranged against clear Conservative majorities in England based on their rock-solid hold of southern England. Uncoincidentally, furious Conservative grandees stirred up the Orange nest in Ulster: playing the “Orange card”, as Randolph Churchill openly called it, was meant to split off some of the Celts from this alliance, even if it took us to the brink of civil war.
By 1912-13 things had got so desperate that Churchill twice in formal public meetings suggested that the only way to save the UK was to divide England into “several great self-governing regions”.
The great question then was: why didn’t the Conservative Party simply become the English National Party? The answer was: because of empire. As long as the empire survived – and, as Esler reminds us, it was still a genuinely potent force in the Second World War, when we by no means “stood alone” – it was structurally impossible for the Tories to become simply the populist party of the English. He fascinatingly argues that this remained true even after the loss of empire.
There were a brief, strange couple of decades – the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s to which Brexiteer fantasies seem so often to refer – in which a new, post-imperial nationalism purely of the UK seemed to be working: English fans at the 1966 World Cup waved the Union flag.
That construct was crippled by the political, economic and cultural triumph of southern England after 1979 and killed with the defection of practically all Scotland to the SNP in 2015.
Esler provides an excellent reminder of just how knife-edge our recent politics has been: if Labour had held onto even half of their Scottish seats in 2015, there would have been no Cameron government, and no Brexit. But with the empire gone and the UK fracturing, there was no longer any reason for the Tories to resist the destiny which had been manifest since 1885.
Esler quotes the iron facts: poll after poll showed that Tory voters now wanted Brexit even if it destroyed the UK (and, for that matter, the Conservative Party itself). The Tories became in effect the English National Party – and that, as Churchill had seen back in 1912, meant the end for the UK. Esler pulls no punches: “It’s the endgame for Britishness… Brexit is drowning the Union.”
What, then, of the future? The great question at the heart of Esler’s book is what the new English nationalism is going to look like, compared to modern Irish and Scottish versions (he has, to my mind, a slight blind spot about Wales, where support for independence is now at about where it was in Scotland 15 years ago, and rising fast). But surely, nationalism is nationalism, isn’t it? It’s always a bit dodgy, isn’t it? Ireland, Esler himself boldly reminds us, was for decades a poor, grim, ruralist theocracy. And surely, Scottish nationalism has its dark side?
In my own Edinburgh primary school-days, I merrily hopped around singing “Hail hail, the Pope’s in jail, kick him in the goolies”, without any idea who the pope might be; by the time I wanted jeans, I knew they carried a secret ID tag: Wranglers for us wee Protestants, Levi’s for the weegie soap-dodgers. How, then, can anybody object to a few thugs shouting “Inger-land” or a few politicians ready to egg them on? We all have them, right?
Well, no. There is what the Germans call “Verfassungspatriotismus” – literally, ‘patriotism towards the constitution’. This eschews historical knee-jerks in order to consciously debate, define and agree the qualities which it assigns to its nationhood; it then makes adherence to them, not ethnic origin, the mark of citizenship.
Of course, it’s easy to say that this is a bien-pensant liberal view of what makes up a nation, but few people have called Pope Gregory the Great a bien-pensant liberal, and it was he who invented the idea: non enim pro locis res, sed pro bonis rebus loca amanda sunt (roughly: ‘things should not be loved because of where they come from, but places should be loved because of the good things in them’). Esler believes that both Irish and Scottish nationalisms are now of this ilk. “Scottish nationalism in the 21st century is civic nationalism.”
On the other hand, there is what anthropologists call (though Esler doesn’t himself use the phrase) “narcissistic social dominance orientation”. This is the belief that “we” have some kind of inherent quality (generally proven by a glorious, victorious history) which makes us better than a ‘them’ against whom we now have to defend a threatened dominant status.
Esler regretfully comes to the conclusion that the Conservative Party has embraced this kind of nationalism, to the point at which its claim to be the Conservative and Unionist Party seems absurd. The credo is “English exceptionalism plus nostalgic pessimism… mixed with a streak of self-pity”, and its adherents seem alarmingly prepared to suspend the laws of rational thought in the adoration of their “fantasy England, white upper-middle-class, rural, warm-beer-drinking, Conservative, churchgoing… a pathological attachment to something which is dead.”
This book isn’t perfect. It takes an elliptical, non-chronological route around its subject, with very short sub-chapters in which the danger of repetition isn’t always avoided: this leaves speed-bumps in the way of a single, long, satisfying read – but on the other hand, it means that wherever you dip in, you will find a self-contained and memorable passage.
It’s also odds-on that you’ll find something fun: not content with the journalist’s rapier, Esler sometimes reaches for a high-quality custard pie: “Boris Johnson’s phrase about the union as ‘sheer might’ began to sound like a Spoonerism.”
That the UK as we know it is finished, Esler is in no doubt. The question for us all now – and above all, for the English – is not whether nationalism will triumph, but what kinds of nationalisms will win out. As we enter uncharted waters, this splendid book is going to be an invaluable guide.
How Britain Ends is published by Head of Zeus
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