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Paul Vallely: A Holy Week question about Brexit

18 April 2019

Does it express a revived English nationalism, asks Paul Vallely


HOLY WEEK might not seem a time to be thinking still of Brexit. But something has been haunting me. The fervour for leaving the European Union has been widely interpreted as another expression of the aggressive populist nationalism that is sweeping the Western world — from the self-professed “illiberal” Viktor Orbán, in Hungary, to the volatile tub-thumper Donald Trump in the United States. But perhaps it is something more.

John Denham, the former Labour minister, now a politics professor at the University of Winchester, gave a lecture last month, which sees Brexit — with its talk about sovereignty, borders, and Taking Back Control — as an expression of a revived English nationalism.

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all got devolved parliaments. England alone continued as a synonym for a generic “Britain”. Scotland and Ireland both voted Remain. But England, minus its cosmopolitan cities, voted Leave. Professor Denham maps a wide range of indicators — on income, obesity, foodbanks, poor public transport, and social mobility — that closely correspond to Leave-vote areas in an England that is deprived, distrustful, and fears that its national identity has been destroyed.

The alienation of these left-behinds has been manipulated by small-state hard-right ideologues — and those who made big money from financial deregulation and think that they can make more outside EU rules. They have whipped up a jingoistic nostalgia for the days when Britain was great and ruled the waves.

We just had a grim reminder of the dark side of that with the centenary of the 1919 massacre at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Then, 50 British riflemen were ordered to open fire on a peaceful protest against imperial rule. They shot at the dense crowd until they ran out of bullets. Hundreds of protesters and picnickers in the park were brutally slain. The general in command said that he had “shot to save the British Raj — to preserve India for the Empire”. Back home, the British public was so grateful that they raised £26,000 — worth £1 million today — to thank him for his service to the empire on which the sun would never set. This is where the politics of identity can lead.

If we are all to begin to think of ourselves as English rather than British or European, or — to turn Theresa May’s contemptuous phrase on its head — citizens of everywhere, we might conjure an alternative Englishness. The advert for Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe shows the strong face of a black woman imposed on the flag of St George. In the production, all the parts are played by women whose colour speaks of Africa, India, the Caribbean: a living legacy of empire.

In the play, John of Gaunt delivers the famous patriotic speech that begins “This royal throne of kings, sceptred isle”. Far from being a rallying reminder of our right to conquer and rule, it is a lament for an England divided under a feeble ruler. At the end, Gaunt delivers his peroration: “That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” — and the Globe audience roars its recognition of our current chaos in the ancient words.

Our task now is to turn that negative into some kind of positive. Perhaps it is a subject for Holy Week, after all.

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