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POST TIME: 18 February, 2019 00:00 00 AM
Brexit has been driven by England’s nostalgia for an imagined past
Michael Goldfarb

Brexit has been driven by England’s nostalgia for an imagined past

Only 53 shopping days until Brexit. This week, leading supermarkets warned of major disruption to food supplies if Britain crashes out with no deal on March 29. The UK imports one-third of its food from the EU. In my household, we’ve begun laying in supplies of Italian extra virgin olive oil. As the deadline approaches, Second World War nostalgia is more rampant than usual. Recently, the head of the Europe-wide Airbus consortium, Tom Enders, a German, wrote a public letter hinting that if Britain leaves with no deal, the company would have to shut down its UK operations, which employ 12,000 people.

Conservative MP Mark Francois went on television and tore up a copy of Mr Enders’ letter, saying: “My father was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to any bullying from a German and neither will his son.”

Harking back to the war is a distinctive cultural feature of life in this country. Actually, acute national nostalgia is a major syndrome of Englishness. War films are always on TV. In documentary after documentary and book after book, the danger and the glory of the war years are painstakingly recounted. Having spent too much time in hotel rooms around Europe while on assignment, I can say with certainty that no other EU country is as obsessed with this era. In fact, the rest of the UK is not as obsessed with it as the English.

And that’s the point. Brexit is essentially a vote about England, not Britain. The energy for Brexit was entirely generated by English politicians from within the Conservative Party.

It was campaigned for by newspapers whose circulation is almost entirely within England.

Scotland voted by a margin of almost two to one to remain in the EU. In Northern Ireland, whose border with the Republic of Ireland has become the sticking point in negotiating Brexit, the vote was 55 per cent in favour of staying within the EU. Wales came out for Brexit but only contributed 855,000 votes to the cause. In England, 15.2 million people were behind it.

A constituency by constituency map of the country gives the clearest picture. In England, remain was the choice of the big, cosmopolitan cities. Leave was the choice of England, a physical place and a myth that its people want to be real.

Nearly 50 years ago, I did a junior year abroad at a university in a country called England. My friends identified as English, not “British”. Fifteen years later, the country I moved back to – as it turns out, permanently – was called Britain. We are “Brits”, my friends would say.

What had changed? Hard to say for sure, but in the interim, the country had voted to join what was then the European Economic Community. Travel to the continent had become commonplace. People were flocking to Spain on package holidays and for their retirement.

The change was disorienting to me and disconcerting to many English people. The idea that travel broadens the mind is overstated. For many people, it simply confirms prejudices about foreigners.

A fundamental truth of geopolitics, however, is underscored by the European Union: while all men are created equal, all nations are not.

Within the United Kingdom of Great Britain – born of the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 and arguably the first and most enduring federation of nations – England, with 10 times the population of Scotland, has always been the dominant country. For its natives, Englishness and Britishness, are almost interchangeable. Within the EU, Great Britain is just one of the Big Three, along with France and Germany. For English nostalgists, that doesn’t seem right. Who won the war, after all?

Although the hard right of the Tory party has been anti-EU since Margaret Thatcher’s time, the current crisis comes out of something else. Over the last quarter of a century, what it means to be a nation in a globalised world has been challenged. The UK has not been immune. The smaller nations in the UK have experienced a revival of national sensibility.

The writer is the host of the FRDH, First Rough Draft of History podcast