“How Britain Ends”: is nationalism threatening the future of the United Kingdom?

The stalemate on the negotiation for the formation of a government in Northern Ireland, the resignation of the Scottish government of Nicola Sturgeon after the harsh confrontations between London and Edinburgh in recent months and the turn hypothesized by Rishi Sunak on a possible British withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) point convergently in the same direction: the rekindling of British nationalism after the completion of Brexit. At the root of which there is precisely the British desire to consolidate, in the name of the Global Britain project and the exit from the EU, the internal empire of England on the Celtic nations that make up the United Kingdom.

The disruptive force of British nationalism is out of time in several respects, first of all the attempt to separate the fate of decline of London from that of the rest of Europe, and engine of the future vision of the United Kingdom at the same time. It is written Global Britain, it reads Global England: the England that with the vote of the deindustrialized areas of the North, of the areas just below Hadrian’s Wall, of the lands of miners and workers who have become unemployed pushes Brexit and the dream of the Conservative Party leadership to make it the take-off point for a country increasingly centered on London. Financial capital, “pirate ship” moving in the rough sea of globalization, “Singapore on the Thames” of financial deregulation.

Gavin Esler, author of How Britain Ends and chancellor of the University of Kent, has long pointed to British nationalism as a threat to the very unity of the British state, especially if frustrated post-Brexit hopes fuel wall-to-wall attitudes with Belfast, Edinburgh and, to a lesser extent, Wales’ capital Cardiff. In 2015, calling for the 2016 Brexit referendum, “David Cameron acknowledged that 3.8 million people voted for Ukip, which was the British nationalist party, and that something had to be done about it,” Esler said in an interview with GQ. Cameron has tried unsuccessfully to ride the tiger and Esler acknowledges, looking back at the referendum vote that “British voters have every right to feel irritated. And instead of doing something for them, what has happened is that, particularly under Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have co-opted British nationalism.”

The Tories have long ridden the idea of a new exceptionalism. And in Johnson’s narrative first and then Sunak the idea returns that Brexit, conceived by the British and voted for by the British, is the first stage of a return of the imperial narrative. Therefore, of a global projection of a United Kingdom no longer a satellite of the European Empire of the United States but capable of autonomous projection as a world power. Hence the financial protagonism of London after Brexit, the constant tug-of-war with Brussels, the hard fist against local nationalisms, moved to the progressive camp and on the economic Left in response to the Tories, and their demands, the alliance in Ulster with the Protestant and reactionary Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and crutch of the May government in 2017-2019, the missionary vocation in foreign policy. This last point is very verifiable in the narrative followed by Johnson, Liz Truss and Sunak in the year of war in Ukraine, in which the reference to the nineteenth-century “Great Game” has dusted off what on these columns we have called the “ghost of the empire“.

The consequence of all this? The multiplication of centrifugal thrusts in all fields. The end of “Britishness” in favor of the dynamism of localisms in the Celtic nations and the increasingly hypertrophied English nationalism, well verifiable in the concentration of offices in the thirteen years of Tory governments. In perspective, thanks to the disappearance of the unitary figure of Queen Elizabeth II and the dilemmas on the future of the Monarchy, the very disunity of the British nation no longer appears only a chimera, but a perspective that cannot be excluded in average historical terms, perhaps already in a generation. And if so, English nationalism, neo-imperial in its narrative, would appear as the first proponent of the detachment of His Majesty’s domains.