Home Politics Brexit identity politics and English nationalism will destroy the UK

Brexit identity politics and English nationalism will destroy the UK


The UK stock market is emblematic of the country’s decline. The FTSE 100 finished last week lower than at the end of the last century. Value investors think it is one of the cheapest markets in the world. Sceptics think the reasons for that dismal performance haven’t changed and that Brexit, deal or no deal, will accelerate Britain’s slide.

There are so many extraordinary features of the current malaise. Tabloid – and Tory MP – jingoism over deployment of warships in the English Channel reminds me of the headlines during the Falklands war. Commandos are to be authorised to abseil from helicopters on to French fishing vessels.

The late Helmut Kohl, former Chancellor of Germany, said a long time ago that the European project was a matter of “war and peace in the 21st century”. The UK is today threatening military action against NATO allies.

I doubt whether many ministers, Boris Johnson included, believe in Brexit – at least in terms of economic benefits. They know that Brexit has delivered the largest Tory majority in 30 years. The key belief is that Brexit is what enough voters want, so democracy demands its delivery.

Social status

Evolutionary psychologists argue that anxiety over loss of social status is the fuel that drives populism. Identity politics allows Trump to convince white working class Americans that liberal elites disparage them. In the UK, working class northerners join forces with posh, nativist, southerners against sneering Londoners and evil Brussels.

The important insight is that Donald Trump and Johnson were early adopters of a winning political strategy that recognised, exploited and widened these divisions. The departure of Trump and the delivery of Brexit are but the next steps along a descending road with no end in sight.

Europe is an anti-nationalist project. Brexit is the expression of pure English nativism (sorry leave-voting Wales, you are the useful idiots in this narrative). Look at the clips of the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, punching the air proclaiming Britain to be the best country in the world, “better than the French, better than the Belgians”, in the wake of the UK’s approval of Pfizer’s vaccine. The EU is no home for nationalists. Sinn Féin have known that for decades.

Brexit is the logical outcome of resurgent English nationalism. I can easily see how that links to status anxiety. There is also a straight line to authoritarianism, another stubborn psychological affliction.

Nationalists hate the EU. And it is hatred now: do not underestimate how things have evolved – worsened – in Britain since the referendum. Hatred that leads to you pushing for the certainty of full tariffs now rather than the possibility of them in the future.

Logic explains why nationalists pushed the Brexit agenda for four decades. Nativists don’t belong in a bloc that pursues “ever closer union”. Follow that logic through. If English nationalists don’t belong in the EU, they don’t belong in any kind of political union. That includes the UK. English nationalism – the new raison d’être of the ruling Tory party – dictates that the Union is over. The fact that Scotland also wants its independence merely adds to the argument. Wales and Northern Ireland should take notice.

The status of England itself may be up for grabs, such is the divide. Particularly the one between London and the rest of the country. Coronavirus restrictions have descended into a battle between London and the regions. The Home Secretary makes speeches disparaging ‘North Londoners’. Johnson’s political base, solid as a rock, is everywhere apart from London.

Northern Ireland, one foot in the EU and the other in the UK, is in an unsustainable place. The demise of the UK is an obvious vulnerability. Even if English nationalism takes an unexpected turn and self-immolates, being a bit in the UK and a bit somewhere else cannot last for long. Great turbulence is coming Ireland’s way, deal or no deal.

Economics is secondary to the politics of all this. But there are economic consequences. One easy bet is that Ireland will have to absorb the consequences of which political union the North ultimately decides to be part of.

The immediate consequence of Brexit will be congestion at the ports. The lorry queues will be long or very long. That will only last a few uncomfortable months – business will get used to the bureaucracy and government will deliver the necessary IT systems after the usual glitches.

All that longer term stuff about jobs and the economy will be less visible than short term shortages caused by lorries stuck in Calais. The only people who will really care about higher unemployment will be the families of the 300,000 workers (an official estimate) who will lose their jobs in the event of no deal – on top of the many more jobs lost whatever kind of Brexit.

Nobody lives the counterfactual. People like me can witter on about how much better would the economy have been, how many more jobs, more money for the NHS, had Britain followed a different path. But all that doesn’t count if the driver of policy is nationalism. But policy eventually matters, whether it’s driven by political ideology or economic pragmatism. Policy will always have consequences. Economic prosperity is not pre-ordained.



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