Curse of the Lit­tle Eng­lan­ders

The New European - - Agenda - Bon­nie Greer

One of the many things about be­ing an im­mi­grant, a for­eigner, is the abil­ity to see an­other layer of the host na­tion. Some­times th­ese rev­e­la­tions come in quick flashes that hap­pen be­neath con­scious­ness, things that are nec­es­sary to put away be­cause their rev­e­la­tion, their bring­ing up into the light can be dan­ger­ous.

I have al­ways been fas­ci­nated by the stub­born strand of ir­ra­tional­ity that is the be­drock of Brexit. It seems to go against the no­tion of ‘com­mon sense Bri­tain’, that na­tional qual­ity that is rightly lauded all over the world. Every­one knows, of course, that the na­tion is wildly ro­man­tic, the prin­ci­pal rea­son why it is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to the French, for ex­am­ple, who are not.

For those of us born in Amer­ica, Bri­tain is the is­land that we es­caped; a fog-en­shrouded scrap of land bor­der­ing the North Sea where drag­ons and spir­its and the lack of free­dom from the royal hand abound. I have al­ways been told that the North was a place, for ex­am­ple, grounded in re­al­ity. Hard, straight­for­ward, un­sen­ti­men­tal.

This is true, but I can­not put out of my mind the love that the peo­ple of

York­shire, for ex­am­ple, have for their land­scape. To walk with a per­son from York­shire through the coun­try­side, no mat­ter what class, or what work they do, is to come very close to un­der­stand­ing some­thing wild.

A friend of mine, a very busy pub­lisher, lives in the coun­try­side near York, on a farm with horses, chick­ens, pigs, chil­dren and his wife, who teaches their kids at home. He talks about York­shire and this mys­ti­cal place in his mind and his heart called ‘Eng­land’.

I watch a lot of doc­u­men­taries on tele­vi­sion. Th­ese are largely about the Sec­ond World War, the ‘finest hour’ and the ‘Bull­dog’ Churchill. You can tell when a na­tion has run out of sto­ries to tell about it­self, run out of the kind of fod­der that keeps it go­ing, keeps it be­ing, when all it can talk about is war.

Trump has found the car­ni­val of ‘Make Amer­ica Great Again’ as he tours The Trump ar­chi­pel­ago, that small strip of states through which he cap­tured the White House by a few thou­sand votes. Then there is Vik­tor Or­ban in Hun­gary, Mat­teo Salvini in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France; so much of their time spent weav­ing a na­tional story built out of myth and long­ing. And th­ese sto­ries and myths are dan­ger­ous to in­ves­ti­gate; to touch. We im­mi­grants know that more than any­one for the very rea­son that our ex­is­tence pushes up against this dream.

We are the con­tra­dic­tions; the ter­ror. And yet we still see.

Then come the brave na­tives to speak out. Or those who have had enough and feel a duty to warn.

Paul Dacre has stepped down as ed­i­tor of the Daily Mail, that pal­adin of Mid­dle Eng­land, and Ge­ordie Greig, pre­vi­ously ed­i­tor of the Mail on Sun­day, has taken his place. What is fas­ci­nat­ing about this is that Greig is hardly a Brex­iter.

Some say that ‘Brex­iter’ and ‘Brex­i­teer’ are two dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple. Greig may turn out to be a Brex­iter, get­ting on with de­liv­er­ing ‘the will of the peo­ple’. Trudg­ing up­hill with his sack full of dilem­mas, while look­ing side­ways in hor­ror at those ‘Brex­i­teers’, the ones like Nigel Farage and Boris John­son, charg­ing head­long, with swords wav­ing, into the void.

Greig has pub­lished his reg­u­lar colum­nist Pe­ter Oborne’s mus­ing on whether Brexit is ac­tu­ally a form of English na­tion­al­ism. Oborne asks the ques­tion which out­siders must be ask­ing: what is at the heart of the ir­ra­tional­ity of Brexit? What drives it?

All of us who cam­paign for Re­main and the Peo­ple’s Vote know that there is an in­sur­mount­able stone wall that is even­tu­ally reached, a bridge-too-far: a chasm. This is of­ten called ‘the will of the peo­ple’ or ‘democ­racy’, but this is only the name that this ‘thing’ is given.

Oborne knows what the ‘thing’ is, and he is alarmed.

He quotes John Red­wood, re­cently ask­ing, in the House Of Com­mons: “Who in this Govern­ment does speak for Eng­land? I come into the cham­ber and hear de­bates about the Scot­tish prob­lem and the Ir­ish bor­der, but we must not for­get Eng­land, our home base for most of us on this side of the House. Eng­land ex­pects; Eng­land wants bet­ter.”

As Oborne writes: “Does this mean the rest of Bri­tain can go hang?” That is ex­actly what English na­tion­al­ism means. It is the base note of the song; the se­cret sauce of the dish. If we look away from this, we can­not un­der­stand an im­por­tant com­po­nent of Brexit, the grim Brex­iters and gung-ho Brex­i­teers.

The na­tion­al­ists are in two camps. I have had Giles Fraser, the priest, jour­nal­ist and broad­caster, urg­ing me to go and lis­ten to what ‘the peo­ple’ have to say about Brexit. This im­plies that Re­main peo­ple are not or­di­nary peo­ple; or that a kind of lis­ten­ing tour/sa­fari into ‘Brex­it­land’ can bring us to our senses. This in­sults both sides of the ques­tion, but Brex­iters are of­ten caught up in con­tra­dic­tion; for ex­am­ple, they want ‘free trade’ but are will­ing to throw the na­tion on the mer­cies of some­one op­posed to that con­cept: the pres­i­dent of the United States. But myths can do that: a myths about Eng­land, its ex­cep­tion­al­ism, even on the soil that it shares with other peo­ples.

Oborne’s alarm is that of those of us who can stand out­side and watch this pageant. Watch its fly­ing flags and slo­gans, and scores of hy­po­thet­i­cal Stephen Christo­pher Yax­leyLen­nons who re­name them­selves ‘Tommy Robin­son’ and en­ter the fray that dare not speak its name. What you want – if you sup­port Labour like I do, for ex­am­ple – is to name this. Nail it. But it, too, is caught up in the ro­mance of Eng­land, just by an­other name.

Mean­while, there is Wales, which voted Leave, but is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly aware that it may suf­fer even more than it is suf­fer­ing now. There are Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land, who voted Re­main. The peo­ple of North­ern Ire­land un­der­stand that the Good Fri­day Agree­ment is, above all, a truce. Even if the DUP do not. Even if the DUP do not ad­mit that the Agree­ment was made be­cause some­one else was in­volved be­sides Eng­land. That Eng­land was the un­re­li­able one, The Enemy. And now Eng­land is pulling that pil­lar away. And for what?

Oborne points out that the full name of the Con­ser­va­tive Party is the Con­ser­va­tive and Union­ist Party. And yet, in their zeal, in their toxic ro­man­ti­cism, many Brex­iters and Brex­i­teers are will­ing to break it up. If Theresa May was a per­son of courage she would say this. But she can­not. Be­cause above all, she aims to re­main prime min­is­ter.

How ironic that those of us who want to stay in the Euro­pean Union are also the ones who up­hold the in­tegrity of the na­tions of the Union. And their right to dis­sent. To stand apart. To live in this cen­tury. Not in some myth­i­cal past.

Photo: Getty Im­ages

THE FI­NAL FRON­TIER: The chalky cliffs of Beachy Head

Photo: Getty Im­ages

SPEAK­ING FOR ENG­LAND?: Con­ser­va­tive MP John Red­wood

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