Why Ukip cuts little Celtic ice

David Marquand says EU exit would reduce the UK to a cross between greater Norway and greater Guernsey

For the first time since 1975, when the British people voted by a two-to-one majority to stay in what was then called the European Community, British exit from the European Union (Brexit) is a possibility. The odds are still against it, but the margin between stayers and would-be quitters is narrowing all the time.

Part of the responsibility lies with David Cameron. He is the Ethelred the Unready of the 21st Century. He has forgotten that paying Danegeld (the protection money that Viking raiders demanded) only encourages the Dane to come back for more. The Europhobes in the Tory party walk ever taller, partly because Cameron has been afraid to cut them down to size and partly because he is petrified by Ukip.

But Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are also to blame. Miliband must know that social democracy in one country is unfeasible. The voracious, masterless, resurgent capitalism of our time and the gross inequalities and social fragmentation that are its stigmata cannot be held at bay by a single, medium- sized European nation state, however well intentioned its government may be. Outside a European Union moving slowly but surely towards more political and economic integration, a Miliband government would be as tightly constrained by the forces of global capitalism as were the Blair and Brown governments of yesteryear.

Yet ‘one nation’ Labour has signally failed to offer a coherent and principled challenge to the Europhobic tide surging through the Conservative Party. As for Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, their contribution to the European debate has been little more than a series of bleats from the sidelines.

As a result, the debate over Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU has been a prolonged exercise in missing the point. Europhobes see Brexit as a Get Out of Jail Free card, liberating our island race from bossy Brussels bureaucrats, but leaving everything else unchanged. They cannot bring themselves to see that the complex, humdrum activities of the Brussels Euro-village have become part of the woof and warp of British politics, British economic life and British jurisprudence; that secession from the EU would have a drastic impact on virtually every aspect of British politics and government.

Yet even their opponents rarely ask the crucial questions: how would Britain’s political and moral economies fare after Brexit? What niche would she occupy in the global economy? What would happen to the increasingly fraught relationships between the several nations of the United Kingdom?

One or two near-certainties stand out. A post-Brexit Britain would be a cross between a greater Norway and a greater Guernsey. British firms trading with EU countries would still have to abide by EU standards, as Norwegian firms do now, but the British government would have no more influence on them than the Norwegian government has today. Britain would be excluded from the endless round of wheeling and dealing that shapes EU policies on the vast range of topics over which EU institutions (notably including the European Parliament) share power with national governments. Britain could survive outside the EU; she might even prosper. But her prosperity would depend, even more than it does now, on the competitiveness of her financial sector.

Frankfurt would strain every nerve to capture business from London; and in a post-Brexit world it would be well placed to do so. Fending off that challenge would inevitably become a top priority for British governments. Rebalancing the economy in favour of manufacturing, an objective shared by all three main political parties, would take second place.

The logic of self-exclusion from the EU points, in fact, towards a market society, governed by a market state, presiding over a glorified tax haven and financial services hub. In such a society, inequality would rise yet more. Public trust – above all trust in politicians and political institutions – would decline still further from its already dangerously low level. There would be more poverty and more of the humiliations it brings with it. Collective action to redress the ills associated with poverty would be even less feasible. The already battered public realm of equity, citizenship and service would yield still more ground to the invasive market realm. The welfare state would continue to erode. The hateful language of ‘shirkers’ versus ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’ versus ‘hard-working families that play by the rules’ would sound ever more loudly. Britain would be a harder, more selfish and, above all, nastier society.

A second near certainty, however, is that where Europhiles speak to the head, Europhobes speak to the heart. They appeal to a myth of glorious, insular self-sufficiency that swamps memories of the long centuries of British involvement in the cultural, religious, ideological, political and military history of the European mainland. It is an odd myth, to say the least. To read the tabloid press or listen to Europhobic speeches in the House of Commons, you would think that the Dutchman William of Orange had never been king of England; that George I had not been a German princeling; that Waterloo had not been a German victory as well as a British one; that the Englishman George Orwell had not fought in the Spanish civil war on the same side as Spanish anarchists and Trotskyites and against Spanish Fascists; and that hundreds of thousands of British men and women had not been killed in world wars triggered by ethnic conflicts in eastern and central Europe.

But in the battle between head and heart, facts count for little. The myth of insular self-sufficiency has tough, deep roots, watered by a long line of poets. Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt famously compares the “blessed” realm of England to a “precious stone set in the silver sea”; his Bastard in King John resonantly declares: “Nought shall make us rue,/ If England to itself do rest but true.” In one of the best-known passages of his Areopagitica, John Milton exclaimed that God was revealing himself “as his manner is, first to his Englishmen”. Blake’s “Jerusalem” is another example of the genre. So is Benson’s “Land of Hope and Glory”. Yet another is Rupert Brooke’s celebrated lines, written at the start of the First World War, that if he were to die in battle there would be “some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England”.

There is a paradox in all this which the paladins of Brexit resolutely ignore. The heart to which they speak is English, not British. North of the border and west of Offa’s Dyke, Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt and Philip the Bastard, Milton’s vision of England as a providential nation, Blake’s “Jerusalem”, Benson’s “Land of Hope and Glory” and Brooke’s corner of a foreign field cut little ice. For what it’s worth, polling evidence suggests that a significant majority of Scots are against Brexit, while the Welsh are evenly divided. But polls matter less than the deeper forces of memory and myth – the “mystic chords of memory”, as Abraham Lincoln called them – that shape a nation’s self-understanding and existential choices.

In Scotland, these forces increasingly recall the long, proud history of the independent Scottish nation that defeated the English at Bannockburn, nurtured the Declaration of Arbroath which insisted that Scotland’s king could rule only with the consent of the Scottish people, allied itself with France against England, embraced an austere Calvinism closer to Geneva than to Canterbury, and eventually negotiated a voluntary union with England which protected the idiosyncrasies of the Scottish Kirk and legal system.

The subsequent Scottish Enlightenment gave birth to the economics of Adam Smith and the philosophy of David Hume, both thinkers of European as well as Scottish sig- nificance. Geographically, Scotland is farther away from the European mainland than England (except, of course, in relation to Scandinavia); yet emotionally, intellectually and culturally, she is closer. Already there are signs that, in response to the English myth of insular self-sufficiency, the Scots are crafting a national myth of Scotland as a proud, centuries-old European nation whose contribution to European civilisation has been out of all proportion to her size. The more clamant English Europhobia becomes, the more powerfully such a myth is likely to resonate north of the border.

The Welsh story is more complicated. Unlike Scotland, Wales was conquered. The bizarre tradition that makes the heir to the English crown Prince of Wales is a badge of Welsh subjection. (It remains to be seen what will happen if a woman becomes the heir.) Under the Tudors, Welsh by origin, Wales in effect was incorporated into England. For many English commentators in subsequent centuries, the Welsh mountains were England’s Highlands. A notorious Encyclopaedia Britannica entry – “for Wales, see England” – epitomised the patronising indifference with which the English viewed their turbulent western neighbours.

Yet, against all the odds, the Welsh language survived and prospered as a vehicle for high culture and not just as a peasant patois. Despite a steady decline in the number of Welsh speakers, it still does. More to the point, the political culture of Wales – a culture that nurtured two of the greatest leaders of the labour movement in 20th Century British history, Aneurin Bevan and Arthur Horner – is radically different from England’s. Even more than Scotland’s, it is saturated with an egalitarian (if sometimes inexplicit) democratic socialism, the legacy of the days when coal was king and when Welsh workers fought for justice and industrial democracy against exceptionally tight-fisted mine owners.

More important than any of this, the Welsh and Scots are comfortable with multiple identities and multilevel governance in a sense untrue of the English. Whatever the Encyclopaedia Britannica might have said in days gone by, the Welsh have never thought of themselves as English. Still less have the Scots. For both, there is nothing strange or shocking in the notion that you can be both Welsh or Scottish and British. And if you can be Welsh and British you can also be Welsh, British and European. The same applies to governance. The devolution statutes created autonomous centres of power in Edinburgh and Cardiff, reminiscent of Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, or of Munich, the capital of Bavaria. In Wales and Scotland, public policy has diverged from England’s and increasingly does so. The long-term results are unknowable, but there is not much doubt that there is more divergence to come.

The United Kingdom has morphed almost unconsciously into a strange, lop-sided, unacknowledged quasi-federation, in which centrifugal forces outweigh centripetal ones. The centralised British state that joined the European Community in 1973 no longer exists. That will still be true even if a majority opts for the status quo in September’s Scottish referendum on independence: the status quo is more like a squashy blob of mud than a rock of existential certainty.

There can be no worthwhile debate on Britain’s role in and membership of the EU until these simple truths are acknowledged. But though Scots and Welsh people rejoice in them, English reactions vary from blissful ignorance to petulant irritation. The implications are alarming. Given that England is by far the biggest of the different nations that make up the United Kingdom, a UK-wide, in/out referendum on continued British membership of the EU might well yield a majority for secession even if the Scots and Welsh voted to stay in.

Naturally, everything would depend on the political conjuncture at the time. Referendum results usually reflect public attitudes to the government of the day. A referendum called by a popular government would be one thing. A vote called by an unpopular government would be another. Yet such niceties are beside the point. What matters is that the European question, which has loomed so large in British politics for a quarter of a century, is inextricably entangled with Scottish, Welsh, perhaps Northern Irish and even English questions – and all these questions affect each other in complex and confusing ways.

The English question is the most intractable. There is more to it than Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt and Milton’s Areopagitica. In England, though not in the other nations of the United Kingdom, the terms ‘British’ and ‘English’ have been almost interchangeable. When Kipling asked, “What do they know of England who only England know?” he had Britain in mind. In his magnificent polemic The Lion and the Unicorn, first published in 1941, George Orwell called for a “very English revolution”, but it is clear from the context that by that, he meant ‘British’. When foreign, imperial and defence policies have been in question, however, terminological roles have been reversed. The empire on which the sun never set was always a British empire; its later incarnation was the British Commonwealth. It was Britannia who ruled the waves and the British Grenadiers whose feats surpassed those of Alexander and Hercules.

Scots contributed mightily to Britain’s imperial expansion. And the Duke of Wellington, arguably the greatest British general of all time, and the conqueror of much of India, was an Irishman, born in Dublin. For the English, however, the British empire was an English empire – just as for Russians the vast, multi-ethnic and multilingual Soviet empire was Russian. The parallel with Russia shouldn’t be pushed too far, but it throws much-needed light on the curious interaction between the European question and the English question. The non-English nations of the United Kingdom have responded to the loss of empire with equanimity. They have sloughed off their imperial skins and rediscovered their much older national ones. And, like other small European nations, they have seen EU membership as an opportunity, not as a threat.

The English story could hardly be more different. For England as for Russia, the loss of empire was traumatic; and far from softening the blow, entry into the European Community rubbed it in. The contrast with France and Germany, the two core states of the EC and later the EU, is particularly instructive. For them, European integration spelled hope: escape from the demons of three centuries of blood-soaked rivalry. For England, integration has spelled demoralisation verging on despair – relegation from great-power status, a petty future in place of a great past. Brexit’s champions present it as a return to greatness. In truth, it would confirm pettiness.

Yet if Brexit comes about because English votes in favour of leaving overwhelm Welsh and Scottish votes against, the probability is that the United Kingdom would break up. Wales and Scotland would stay in the Union. England would be on her own. Conceivably, just conceivably, isolation would force her to come to terms with reality. It would be a painful process, but it would be better than endless self-deception. Best of all would be a coherent and passionate social-democratic and social-liberal challenge to Europhobia. We haven’t seen one yet, but there is still time. Just.

David Marquand’s most recent book is The End of the West: the Once and Future Europe (Princeton University Press, £13.95)

12 thoughts on “Why Ukip cuts little Celtic ice

  1. This article is possibly the most ill informed piece of romanticised drivel that I have ever read

  2. Spot on! By far the most incisive piece for many a moon that has appeared amongst the misinformed churn that stems daily from London’s media bubble. England desperately needs to discover a new path – a revitalised identity – otherwise it (and, tragically, we, in our supine acceptance of all things Anglo) will be finished. UKIP is just the pinnacle of this delusional, insular British nationalism. The Tories and, in particular, the supposedly radical Labour Party must take huge responsibility as well.

  3. ‘EU exit would reduce the UK to a cross between greater Norway and greater Guernsey.’

    With respect, that is hardly the most terrifying prospect in the world!

    There are too many misconceptions in this piece to go into detail, but one is so huge that it must be corrected: Mr Marquand does not appear ever to have spoken with those who oppose the EU or he would understand that our opposition is not based on a romanticised ‘insularity’ but, quite the contrary, on the EU’s own insular attitudes relative to the wider world.

    He does get one thing right when he admits ‘social democracy is one country is unfeasible.’ Trotsky said something similar to Stalin in their debates about the future of socialism in its more virulent form. Put bluntly, socialism needs to leech off free markets to survive. That in itself is a good reason to oppose the EU with its outdated socialist structures and seek to replace it with a decentralised free trade organisation open to the whole world. Lady Thatcher’s Bruges Speech, far from being ‘anti-European,’ hinted at a new vision for Europe that might actually help all its peoples.

  4. If BREXIT means the UK becomes something like a cross between Norway and Guernsey then bring it on!

    An alternative – I would say a more enlightened – view without the distraction of the England-Scotland-Wales non-issue is available here from Richard North who is one of the IEA BREXIT Competition finalists – it’s more like a cross between Norway and Iceland. The video is in English after the Icelandic introduction.


  5. Apart form the the swipe at the Lib Dems, the only unambiguous “party of in”, this article is one of the best I’ve read on the subject and provides a concise summation of the English hubris. This was evidenced most recently following the success at Sotchi of the British (ie Scottish) Ladies Curling Team who by the following morning had become the English Ladies Curling Team, according to some broadcasters!

    The Ulster poet John Hewitt had an interesting take on this:

    “I’m and Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born on the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.”

    Amongst other things this enables me, as an Ulsterman of planter stock living in Wales, to shout for the men in green in Cardiff every other year.

  6. Os bydd ‘na refferendwm yn 2017 ynglyn ag aelodaeth y Deyrnas Gyfunol o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd (ac mae’r refferendwm ei hunan yn ddibynnol ar lywodraeth Toriaidd yn cael ei ethol i senedd San Steffan yn yr etholiad cyffredinol nesaf), mae’n eithaf tebyg bydd mwyafrif llethol o etholwyr yn Lloegr yn pleidleisio dros ymadael a’r U.E. ta beth pleidleisith mwyafrif etholwyr Cymru, Yr Alban a Gogledd Iwerddon.
    I fi, mae’r rhagolwg o fod yn dal yn gyfansoddiadol-glwm i ryw ‘Narnia lloegraidd post-imperialaidd’ mor agos at galonnau etholwyr UKIP, yn achosi iselder ysbryd a gweud y lleiaf.
    Ffantasi llwyr yw’r syniad nesaf, dw i’n barod i gyfaddef, ond gadewch imi freuddwydio am eiliad o Gymru a’r Alban yn ymadael a’r D.G. – nid er mwyn bod yn wledydd annibynnol ar ben eu hunain, ond i fod yn ranbarthau ymreoledig o Weriniaeth Iwerddon, sydd eisoes yn aelod o’r U.E. – ac un ffantasi fach bellach, sef y tair cenedl yn treiglo dros gyfnod i fod yn ‘Confederatio Celtica’ sy’n aelod llawn o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd.
    Dw i’n teimlo’n well yn barod – nawr te, ble roiais i’r botrel o win coch – EWROPEAIDD – bendigedig ‘na?

  7. Sycophantic tripe.
    English bashing British politics again.
    No wonder we turn to the alternative media.
    In a toss up I would rather believe Putin that the British establishment.
    If you need to know why there is such a (hushed up( call for English home rule –read this dross.
    Independent England would demand an independent press.

  8. It may be doubted whether the status of Wales would be affected by an ‘out’ referendum on the EU. But David Marquand is surely right that it could well have a decisive influence on attitudes in Scotland, for the reasons he gives. He weakens his argument, perhaps, by lumping the countries together. A vote to leave the EU is, in effect, a vote to dissolve the Union with Scotland, though perhaps the Little Englanders won’t care about that. A Scots departure could have a traumatic effect on the Ulster Protestants since there would be no Britain to be the focus of their loyalism but it is hard to see what constitutional change could happen in Northern Ireland.

  9. CC@ Dwi ddim yn siwr os bydde syniad pur dda i ymuno ag Iwerddon, ond wrth i Gymru a’r Alban gydweithio ‘falle bydde’n bosib rhyddhau Rheged nôl o Loegr unwaith eto. A paid â chofio am Gernyw fechan ‘te 😉

  10. It worries me to see Gerald Holtham using silly terms such as “Little Englanders”… I thought someone like him was supposed to be above all that. The mask is beginning to slip a little me thinks

  11. When Thatcher came to power she was angry when the civil servants told her they were managing England’s decline. She resolved to turn that around but, in truth, was still only managing the decline. This was pointed out by her own civil servants in a recent BBC documentary on her. It is still the crux of the problem that England has with Europe.

    Some 10 years ago a Conservative MP made the papers saying “what are we doing being ruled by these Europeans? We should be ruling them!”

    Both of these back-up this article.

    Harold Wilson’s Government of 1964 has been shown, by recent releases of Government papers, of having been trying to get the UK in the USA, because De Gaulle kept black-balling them. Both Labour and Conservative at the time knew that the UK was in decline because of being effectively bankrupt after two wars and the Ponzi scheme that the Empire was (invading a country to pay for controlling all the rest).

    If you think that the USA is a better alternative to the EU bear in mind that you can leave the EU but once in the USA there is no exit allowed at all.

    If England forces us out of the EU it will only be a decade or two before they want to get back in. In 1964 there was still some Empire left. The Commonwealth means almost nothing and is not going to be a replacement for the EU.

    The anti-EU position is completely hypocritical. What does it say of people who oppose a co-operative union (EU) and prefer an oppressive one (UK)?

  12. What drivel gwyn spouts. He obviously knows absolutely nothing about the commonwealth. So here are some real facts and why britain united had a special place in it. The commonwealth is not the empire. It is the very successful club of 53 nations who continue to value british traditions and values aling with their own disctinct cultures. If they did not why stay. A couple of countries who were never in the empire have now joined and why. Because the commonwealth has a combined gdp bigger than china and it has all the worlds resources and twenty of the worlds fastest growing eonomies. It also has the biggest population of youth under 25 and is strongly linked by british law, language, culture. Britain should leave the over legislated soul crushing eu as soon as possible and get fully behind the commonwealth who after all account for most of our export business. There are just two things standing in the way of a prosperous europe and thats the eu and the euro. A strengthend commonwealth would become a real force for good in the world a force that could effectively challenge the likes of china, the usa and religeous fanatasism. Every year on march 10th i raise my commonwealth flag along with thousands of others including governments, educational establishments and businesses. The flag raising ceremony started a couple of years ago and has grown and is still growing at enourmous rates. Just have a look at the wonderful work the commonwealth is now doing around the world and you will change your mind. If our padt for good or bad is to be of any real value we should treasure and build on its real legacy the commonwealth its britains natural home. Gwyn is typical of the devisive haters of anything he percieves as bad from an obvious twisted historical perspective. Talk to many people from the commonwealth and not one condemns the british empire, indeed you will find to your profound shock that they value it greatly as the best force, despite any wrong doings of our fathers that evercame to their country. And just to finish we did not invade these countries with arms we went their trading and still are.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy