Belfast Telegraph

Arthur Aughey: It is facile, from an Irish perspective, to dismiss Brexiteers as nostalgically minded Little Englanders ... in fact, it is Remainers who seem obsessed with the past

We should be careful not to simplify events, or reduce a major moment of political history to a psychodrama, argues Ulster University academic Arthur Aughey

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings in the Channel 4 drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings in the Channel 4 drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War

The young, efficient House of Commons researchers provide useful - and free - resources for anyone with a professional, or even non-professional, interest in the workings of parliament. The other day, following the Christmas and New Year recess, I received again in my inbox their regular Brexit Digest email. It was titled Deja Vu and informed me: "So, we're back where we began, with debates on Section 13(1)(B) of the Withdrawal Act - ie debating the Meaningful Vote (again)."

If that implied a mood of Brexit Groundhog Day, even among highly-motivated employees at Westminster, then it is not surprising that a similar fatigue has affected the public.

After New Year, politics appears back to business as usual. Those headline phrases, inferring that nothing has changed, appeared to be confirmed by insider commentary. William Hague wrote of an "equilibrium of complacency" among MPs, confident not only that the Prime Minister's Withdrawal Agreement would be defeated, but also that their preferred options, from "no deal" to a second referendum, would succeed. He thought this was a recipe for deadlock.

Jacob Rees-Mogg likened the Government's behaviour to a miniature carousel that one of his children received at Christmas: "It happily goes round and round", but it was only in Mary Poppins-like fantasy that a horse succeeds in riding free. It is only in fantasy, he wrote, that Mrs May will succeed in getting off the circular trap she has negotiated for the country.

Yet, ever hopeful, the message from Number 10 continues to be that a last-minute offer from the EU will be a game-changer. The official position of the Labour Opposition remains as vague as ever. So, no change there.

However, one sentence in recent Press commentary did strike me as significant. It read: "We don't know how this ends." A truism - it wasn't what was written, but who wrote it that made me take notice.

The author was Matthew Elliott. Until Monday evening, his name may not have been familiar to many Belfast Telegraph readers. After Channel 4's dramatisation of Brexit: The Uncivil War, they will recognise him as chief executive of Vote Leave and one of the key figures who delivered the EU referendum victory.

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That Elliott is uncertain about how Brexit ends is a stark confirmation of the state we are in. At this moment, to use a term disparaged during the referendum campaign in 2016, the "expert" is as knowledgeable as the average reader of this newspaper.

If nothing has changed, it may be honest just to write nothing at all. Further Brexit speculation may be as welcome to the public as another dish of Christmas leftovers.

Of course, I do have something to say. What I have to say does not concern what will happen. That is anyone's guess. What I have to say concerns an interpretation of why things have happened. Brexit: The Uncivil War provides an opportunity to say it.

With proper allowances for artistic licence, personal preconception as well as the dramatic necessity of substituting individuals for complex political beliefs, screenwriter James Graham did an excellent job. Having immersed myself in the literature at the time (I was working on a book on the Conservative Party and Graham really only tells a Conservative story), I found the account broadly convincing in tone, emphasis and character. Graham captures well the truth that Vote Leave was a very un-conservative and very un-traditional enterprise.

Benedict Cumberbatch's superb embodiment of Dominic Cummings' anarchic spirit of creative destruction, as well as his contempt for the Establishment, was spot on. Nor was Cummings unusual in the ranks of Tory advisors.

Steve Hilton, former director of strategy for David Cameron and convinced Brexiteer, shared a similar view. Though Hilton was not directly involved in the referendum, both he and Cummings provided very good reasons to be wary of the Vote Leave campaign, despite its successful marginalisation of figures like Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks.

Maybe, as recent polls suggest, some of those who voted Leave in 2016 now doubt the wisdom of acting on the promises of that anarchic spirit.

If what struck me about Elliott's words was uncertainty, then what struck me about the dialogue in Brexit: The Uncivil War was absence. No one talked about Empire. No one mentioned the Second World War. Why are those absences striking?

They are striking because an influential narrative of Brexit holds that support for Leave is informed by imperialist nostalgia and by tales of the last war, from Dunkirk to D-Day - and the common factor linking them is English nationalism.

Nowhere is this narrative more influential than in Ireland and not only in nationalist Ireland. For example, Fintan O'Toole's Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain is a brilliant exploration of the Brexit psyche and, as one would expect, it is written beautifully as well. Nevertheless, the power of O'Toole's prose can skew the complexity of the subject.

Let's take English nationalism first. Yes, it is true that the more people self-identified as English, the more likely they were to vote Leave. Yes, it is true that the English are more likely to define that self-identification in relation to Europe (rather, the EU) as the research of the Australian-based scholar, Ben Wellings, demonstrates.

Yet, it is a caricature to confine English national identity to its reactionary form - two World Wars and one World Cup, booze-fuelled (either on lager or gin and tonic), xenophobic variety.

In the last 15 years, there has been much academic research on Englishness, English nationhood, or English nationalism (the terms vary). What emerges from that work is, however one describes, the diverse character of the subject, from Blue Labour on the Left to elements of the far-Right. It is far from self-evidently the ideological vessel for Brexit and Englishness involves a democratic claim with the UK as much as a nationalistic assertion against the EU.

Moreover, the "it's English nationalism, stupid" explanation repeats ironically the old dictionary exclusion: "For Wales, see England."

On the Second World War, yes, who can doubt the importance of it in British public life? Yes, it may have been a factor encouraging some to think that Britain "can stand alone". Yet during the referendum campaign, it was David Cameron who raised the prospect of peace being at risk in Europe after Brexit.

It was one of the expressed concerns of the Remain campaign that, far from being obsessed by the Dunkirk spirit, the electorate had forgotten the experience of war in Europe.

In fact, anti-German rhetoric, especially the association with Nazism of Berlin's influence in the EU, was likely to be heard in Athens and not in London. Furthermore, disaffection with German influence was not confined to Brexiteers.

Even those on the pro-EU Left denounced what was called German financial "ordoliberalism", which had promoted austerity and unemployment after 2018.

On Empire, yes, there was promotion of cultural "kith and kin" affinities with the old Commonwealth, as well as ideas for the development of post-EU trading arrangements, collectively known (rather possessively) as the Anglosphere.

So, yes, one can argue that "the imperial imagination" was alive and well and looking nostalgically to the past. Yet this was not the main motivation.

In short, "take back control" was the message and the pitch was to the future, not the past. Inverting the argument of the 1975 referendum, it was proclaimed that the EU was now the past, what the Conservative MP Sir John Hayes called "a 1950s structural solution to a 1930s problem". The future was elsewhere.

It was argued that those who were now nostalgically minded were not Leavers, but Remainers. For example, attending the memorial service for Geoffrey (Lord) Howe, the influential journalist Charles Moore could write that he felt about Howe's Europeanism as he once did about those who had supported the Corn Laws: "a romantic admiration for those who honourably failed to see the way the world was going".

To point these things out, of course, is not to endorse them. It is to argue that one should be careful not to simplify events, or to reduce a major moment of political history to a psychodrama.

O'Toole's analysis is more than either of those things, but lends itself to either, or to both. The great (English) Catholic apologist G K Chesterton put it this way: we may find people "wrong in what they thought they were, but we cannot find them wrong in what they thought they thought".

Perhaps that is an opening, not to agree with Brexit or to sympathise with its advocates, but to be aware of one's own assumptions.

  • Arthur Aughey is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Ulster University and author of The Politics of Englishness and The Conservative Party and the Nation: Union, England and Europe, both published by Manchester University Press

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