Belfast Telegraph

Brexiteers who rejoiced at the triggering of Article 50 may find little cause for celebration

English nationalism is driving the push to leave the EU and could lead to the end of the UK, says Alban Maginness

As the dreary trench warfare between the DUP and Sinn Fein continues at Stormont, the unstoppable juggernaut of Brexit rolls on with all its threats and dangers. Those who rejoiced last week at the triggering of Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon may soon realise there is little to celebrate. The dream of freedom from Europe will inevitably give way to the nightmare of the real world.

The European Union was created by men and women who had personally witnessed the appalling savagery and destruction of the Second World War on the continent of Europe.

Far-thinking people such as French civil servant Jean Monnet devised a scheme that would prevent war ever happening again between France and Germany and other mainland European countries that had suffered so grievously in two world wars during the first half of the 20th century. This was at the very heart of the European project.

Britain, which had never been occupied by any other European power, saw itself resuming its pre-war role as an imperial power and disdained involvement in the new concept of a European Coal and Steel Community that bound countries closely together so as to make them interdependent on each other and to prevent the development of separate war industries.

Other visionary European leaders, principally Chancellor Adenauer and President De Gaulle, saw the immense value of a united Europe and worked tirelessly to bring about a closer association that later evolved into the European Union, which sadly we are now being forced to leave.

De Gaulle saw European unity as being from “the Atlantic to the Urals”, wisely envisioning the inclusion of the Russians in such a grand scheme for peace and economic prosperity. Unfortunately this was not to be and today we pay a serious price for that exclusion.

De Gaulle in the 1960s doubted what he dubbed the Anglo-Saxons’ commitment to the European ideal and therefore vetoed the UK becoming a member of the EEC.

Given Brexit and more ominously the politics behind it, how prophetic he was. Even after 40 years of membership, the English have lamentably failed to understand or to have any real empathy with the ideal of Europe.

Many people here do not really care that much if the English wish to exclude themselves from the European Union, but they resent the fact we are thereby not allowed to continue with our own membership of Europe because of the resurgence of aggressive English nationalism.

A cross-community majority of people here voted to remain in the EU. This cross-community majority reflects the fact that the EU was good for, and to, people here.

Good in terms of investment, trade and direct grant aid for our industry, agriculture and our voluntary sector.

The peace funds were an act of political solidarity by Brussels to help us to work through and heal our differences. 

The EU wanted to help us prosper economically and especially wanted to help us grow in peaceful cooperation with one another, reflecting very much the conflict resolution impulse that underscores  the European ideal.

The political dynamic of the Brexit movement in the UK is clearly linked to the rise of nationalism in England. The parallel rise of Scottish nationalism means that there will be an inevitable collision if there is no compromise on the post-Brexit settlement.

The predominant mood in England is a ‘little Englander’ mentality, bordering on the xenophobic. This looks back nostalgically to a time of imperial greatness.

Even though that greatness is gone, there is still a basic hankering back to that time.

Free from the constraints of being in the European Union, the English expect that time to reappear. That it won’t reappear does not matter because reality has been distorted by chauvinistic myth.

Central to this is the fact that the Conservative Party, having outflanked the ultra nationalist Ukip, has in reality become the English National Party. The Conservative Party hardly exists outside England. It is weak in Wales and poor in Scotland.

Given its profound weakness outside England and its now vocal anti-Europeanism, is it any wonder that the United Kingdom itself as a structure is now under threat?

Brexit has starkly split the UK into Scotland and England, with us watching on as a nervous observer.

Now the very concept of Britishness, a political construct which emanates from the reign of James I — following the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603 — is in danger of being made redundant.

If the Union is broken by the imposition of a hard Brexit on a reluctant Scotland, what then will Britishness mean? And in those circumstances, what impact will all of this have on us in Northern Ireland?

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