Brexit is the result of an English delusion, a crisis of identity resulting from a failure to come to terms with the loss of empire and the end of its own exceptionalism, argues Cambridge University professor Nicholas Boyle
There is a great lie peddled about the referendum: that it expressed the will of the British people. The pattern of voting showed up a colossal divergence between England, with its Welsh appendage, on the one hand, and Scotland and Northern Ireland on the other.
This was far more significant than any division between ‘metropolitan elites’ and ‘those left behind by globalisation’. Are there no elites in Edinburgh or Belfast? Is no one left behind in the Scottish or Irish hinterlands? Even if such a division is present across the UK, and indeed the whole of the Western world, and it plainly is, why only in England did it express itself as so powerful a revulsion from the EU?
To explain the referendum result as a ‘howl of pain at austerity’ is a pious flight from reality. It is to ignore, to cover over again, the wound, festering below the threshold of public consciousness for two generations, which the referendum opened up to the air.
Those who voted Leave in the referendum were not voting about globalisation or stagnating living standards or austerity and declining welfare payments, they were voting about the EU, and it is condescension to pretend otherwise. But they were not being asked by the Leave campaign to express a preference for a particular rationally argued and practically feasible economic and political alternative to membership of the EU – that is evident, for none was offered before the referendum and none has emerged since. They were being asked to express an emotion about membership, and the English, but not the Irish or Scots, felt so urgent a need to express it that they threw reason and practicality to the winds.
The emotion central to the Leave campaign was the fear of what is alien, and this trumped the Remainers’ Project Fear-of-wholly-foreseeable-damage. The true Project Fear was the Leave party’s unrelenting presentation of the EU as a lethal threat to national identity, indeed as the stranger and enemy who had already stolen it: give us back our country, they said, our sovereignty, our £350m a week, let us control our borders, let our population not be swamped by immigrants or our high streets by Polish shops – and to vote against the EU was to vote to recover what we had lost. The voting pattern, however, revealed that appeal to that emotion, and that vision of the EU, worked only in England.
Europhobia was shown by the referendum to be a specifically English psychosis, the narcissistic outcome of a specifically English crisis of identity. That crisis has had two phases, roughly two centuries apart.
In the first phase, in the eighteenth century, the English gave up their Englishness in order to become British, the rulers of the British Empire; in the second phase, in the middle of the twentieth century, they lost even that surrogate for identity and have been wandering ever since through the imperial debris that litters their homeland, unable to say who they are.
England sank its identity in the unions with Scotland, in 1707, and with Ireland, in 1800, which gave rise respectively to Britain and to the United Kingdom. From then on the English had no need of a separate identity, for as metropolitans, first of the United Kingdom and then of the British empire, they dealt with no one on equal terms. They were characterless, because they never met anybody who could impose a character on them: they were masters of the seas, they could travel round the world without setting foot outside imperial territory, and economically the empire was, potentially at least, self-sufficient.
While Ireland, Wales, and Scotland became, for the English, slightly comic regions of ‘Britain’, ‘England’ became for them the sentimental ideal of ‘home’, the image of the green and pleasant mother-country that concealed the brutal realities of empire from its agents and possessed nothing so sordid as distinct political or economic interests of its own.
The destruction by the USA of the British empire, after its finest hour in 1940, was a traumatic blow to the psyche of two English generations, from which they have never recovered, largely because they have never recognised it.
The psychoanalysts, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, famously attributed various collective psychological traits of post-war Germany to an ‘inability to mourn’, an inability to recognize how much emotion they had invested in the love of their führer, to mourn his passing, and so to escape from his influence.
Similarly, we could say the English have been unable to recognise how much of their society and its norms was constructed during the imperial period and in order to sustain empire, and have therefore been unable to mourn the empire’s passing or to escape from the compulsion to recreate it.
Over three centuries the needs of empire shaped England’s systems of government, national and local, its Church, its schools and universities, the traditions of its armed and police forces, its youth movements, its sports, its BBC, its literature, and its cuisine.
The end of empire meant the end of all this. And because England has been unable to acknowledge that loss, it has also been unable to acknowledge the end of English exceptionalism, the end of the characterlessness the English had enjoyed as rulers of the world – with no need of distinct features to mark them off from their equals since they had no equals, embodying, as they did, the decency, reasonableness and good sense by which they assumed the rest of the world privately measured its lesser achievements and to which they assumed it aspired.
The trauma of lost exceptionalism, the psychic legacy of empire, haunts the English to the present day, in the illusion that their country needs to find itself a global role. Of course it is an illusion: do roughly comparable countries such as Germany or Italy or Japan have such a need?
Putin’s Russia does, but Russia suffers from the same trauma of imperial amputation, and there are traces of it too in the French defence of worldwide francophonie. The traumatic loss is all but explicitly acknowledged in the repeated demand that around the world ‘Britain’ should ‘punch above its weight’ – why not be content with your size and weight, live within your means, and cultivate your garden, rather than make yourself ridiculous like little Vladimir fanatically developing his biceps in the corner of the gym?
The psychosis, the willed triumph of illusion over reality revealed by the referendum result, is most damagingly still at work in the determination of the English to cling on to their old exceptional status as anonymous masters of the United Kingdom and of the other nations with which they have to share the Atlantic Archipelago.
For the English, the United Kingdom occupies the psychic space once filled by the empire: it is the last guarantor of their characterlessness, it is the phantom which in the English mind substitutes for the England which the English will not acknowledge is their only home. They will not acknowledge it lest they become just another nation like everybody else, with a specific, limited identity, a specific history, neither specially honourable nor specially dishonourable, with limited weight, limited resources, and limited importance in the world now that their empire is no more.
That is the terrifying truth that membership of the EU presents to the English and from which for centuries the empire insulated them: that they have to live in the world on an equal footing with other people. From that truth they seek shelter in the thought that really they belong not to England at all but to something more imposing, or at least different: the UK, or, less accurately, ‘Britain’, within which they can cocoon the non-identity they took on in 1707 as the imperial adventure was beginning.
Hence the paradox that the political party that exists to express fear of the EU represents itself as an Independence Party for the United Kingdom, but its entire affective vocabulary, its cultural, historical, and mythical points of reference are English, and it has virtually no following in Scotland or Northern Ireland: in the 2015 general election UKIP won 14% of the vote in England, but only 2.6% in Northern Ireland and 1.6% in Scotland.
Like the Conservatives under Theresa May’s Leaver administration, UKIP is a party of English nationalism that dare not speak its name. To acknowledge that it exists to minister to a specifically English anxiety would be to break England out of the UK on which the English depend to protect themselves from reality – the reality that a nation with three-quarters of one per cent of the world’s population cannot claim significant, let alone exceptional, global status, and cannot survive on its own.
The Scots and the Irish are ‘divisive nationalists’, according to May, for wanting a say in negotiations with the EU, but she does not notice the English nationalism in her claim to speak for the Scots and Irish against their will, or in her imposition of the English nationalists’ vision of the EU on the Scots and Irish, whom the voting pattern in the referendum showed not to share it. (Wales, much earlier and more completely subjugated by England, and never a kingdom in its own right, has always ultimately been willing to accept the role of the afterthought that follows the conjunction in ‘England-and-Wales’.)
In Ireland, the EU, the essential framework for the Good Friday agreement of 1998, appears as the guardian of nationhood, the guarantor of the peaceful coexistence of the island’s two fractions: in Tyrone, Fermanagh, or Armagh, when you cross into the Republic at the end of your lane, it is the EU, not London, that tells you you are still in Ireland.
Similarly, in Scotland, to vote for the EU was to vote for the distinctness of Scotland as a legitimate fellow-occupant of the island of Great Britain and for its equality with England as a fellow-member, alongside Germany and Malta, France and Cyprus, of a larger union than that centred on London.
Only the English could not see the EU in these terms: as the protector of the identity of relatively small nations in a world of conflicting giants. Because only the English could not see themselves as a nation at all.
Hag-ridden by their unassimilated imperial past, by their failure of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the English refuse to think of themselves as a nation in the same sense as Scotland or Ireland and have constructed a constitution for their United Kingdom which denies the obvious. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have their variously titled national assemblies, but England has none – not out of self-effacing modesty nor out of an altruistic desire to spare taxpayers the cost of supporting another stratum of politicians, but in order to claim for itself the exceptional position of anonymous master of its now diminutive empire.
The absence of a separate English parliament reduces the nations granted devolved assemblies to the marginal status the English gave them in the days of glory, as those slightly comical regional variations on a Britishness of which England – invisible and characterless in itself – was therefore alone representative. The decision of June 23, then, was not a decision taken by ‘the British people’ because ‘the British people’ do not exist: ‘the people’ is not a meaningful political concept and ‘Britain’ is a figment invented by the English to disguise their oppressive, indeed colonial, relation to the other nations inhabiting Great Britain and Ireland.
But because the English are still wedded to the lack of identity they enjoyed in the imperial era, and so, like other psychotics, have no sense of equality with others, or responsibility towards them, the most important issue of all was not raised in the campaign that preceded the vote: did the UK have a duty to remain? Did voters have a duty to consider the effect of their actions on their neighbours, as they might if they were deciding to plant a hedge of leylandii on their boundary or to stop contributing to the maintenance of a shared access road?
Like other small and medium-sized actors on the world stage, the European states are not sovereign independent agents. Their attempts to define themselves as such have, in the era before the EU, always led to violence and war.
By their submission to jointly authorised supranational institutions they have found a way of growing together which has given them peace and prosperity and has been an example to the world. The European project is not complete and is not intended to be: the union is only to be ‘ever closer’; there is no specified political or institutional goal, let alone a conspiracy to set up a ‘super-state’. (As a proportion of GDP, the European budget would have to be nearly 50 times larger than it is for the Union to qualify as a state in the same sense as its members.)
England has never wanted to join in the process of growing together, not because it rejects the goal of a ‘super-state’, which exists only in England’s fearful imagination, but because it rejects the idea of collaborating with equals – it doesn’t want to be just another member of a team, for then it would have to recognise that it has after all an identity of its own.
The referendum vote does not deserve to be respected because, as an outgrowth of English narcissism, it is itself disrespectful of others, of our allies, partners, neighbours, friends, and, in many cases, even relatives. Like resentful ruffians uprooting the new trees in the park and trashing the new play area, 17 million English, the lager louts of Europe, voted for Brexit in an act of geopolitical vandalism.
Two pillars of the unwritten British constitution collapsed on June 23. The sovereignty of the Westminster parliament was seriously challenged, and possibly overturned, by a referendum that should never have been called. And the attempt of the Unions of 1707 and 1800 to create a single British nation to rule a global empire was finally shown up as a self-deceptive device by the English to deny the Scots and the Irish a will of their own.
Any recovery from this collective mental breakdown will involve treating both these symptoms, in the light of their deep historical causes. Specifically, the role of parliaments in the United Kingdom will have to be reconstructed so as to give England at last the distinctive adult political identity it has shunned for 300 years.
The slogan ‘English votes for English laws’ was a first sign that resurgent Scottish self-confidence was provoking the English to emerge from narcissism into a recognition that the world – indeed, the island of Great Britain – contains people other than themselves. However, not until there is a separate English Parliament, giving expression to that separate English identity, will the delusions that led England to Brexit finally be dissipated by contact with reality. And perhaps then, with their psychosis healed, the English will apply to rejoin the EU.
Nicholas Boyle is Emeritus Schröder Professor of German, University of Cambridge, and author of Who are we now? (1998: University of Notre Dame Press)