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Brexit Britain Is Facing a Deep Crisis of Self-Confidence
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The UK has long been divided by class, region and race, but these divisions have been masked by political and economic success. This has meant the English, as the dominant nation in the UK, are not good at coping with a sense of failure and a loss of self-confidence.

The current focus is on parliamentary turmoil and the acceptance or rejection of Theresa May’s muted version of Brexit but, whatever happens in the coming weeks, there will be no resolution of the overall crisis. On the contrary, the divisions exacerbated by Brexit will only get deeper and more toxic, dominating the national agenda to the exclusion of everything else.

The nature of English nationalism – deeply ingrained but so self-confident its norms were assumed by most English people to be part of the natural order of things – is changing. George Bernard Shaw said “a healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man is of his bones”. Smaller nations like the Irish and the Poles, with a history of defeat and occupation, have grim experience of having to nurse back to health the fractured bones of their nation but for the English worrying about their national identity and the future status is a new and unnerving experience.

The sense of English superiority was real but relaxed and often expressed in self-mockery. I remember my late brother-in-law Michael Flanders, part of the Flanders and Swann duo in the 1950s and 1960s, singing a song entitled Patriotic Prejudice, one version of which ran:

“The English, the English, the English are best,
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.
The Germans are German, the Russians are red,
The French and Italians eat garlic in bed.
The English are moral, the English are good,
And clever and modest and misunderstood.”

Many pro-Brexit supporters do not seem to have advanced far beyond this benign picture of the national character. But these days their tone is defensive and self-assertive. Immigrants are to be schooled in British values – whatever those may be – the very thing Shaw saw as a symptom of unhealthy nationalism.

Analysis of the forces that led to Brexit usually looks at issues over too short a time span. The English may once have been confident of their own nationality but this does not mean they were as tolerant of others as they sometimes like to suppose. Punch cartoons in the 19th century showed the Irish as murderous sub-humans. The Aliens Act of 1905, brought in by a Conservative government with an eye to winning votes in a general election the following year, aimed to exclude Jews fleeing Russian pogroms. A century later, the Conservative Party spent years trying to trump Tony Blair’s ability to win successive elections by experimenting with different types of dog-whistle anti-immigrant rhetoric, often combined with demonisation of the EU.

Conservative politicians such as David Cameron, whose career was to be destroyed by the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum, were highlighting the migrant threat a year before the vote, warning of “a swarm of people, coming from the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain”. This showed real chutzpah, or cheek, since Cameron played a central role in launching the Nato war to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011 that turned Libya into a land of warlords and predatory militias, opening the way for migrants from North Africa to try to reach Europe from Libya in overcrowded boats and dinghies, often dying in the attempt.

A further feature of English nationalism will make it difficult to manoeuvre during the coming years of preoccupation with European relations. Small nations get used to inferior status and playing a weaker hand against opponents who hold most of the cards. British diplomats understand this, but a large part of public opinion in Britain, as in other former imperial nations, sees compromise as a sign of inexplicable weakness of will or as a treacherous stab in the back.

This lethal inability to calculate the real balance of power in the EU or anywhere else is not confined to an ill-informed public which has been spoon-fed war-time triumphs. Covering wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the last 20 years, I noticed again and again how difficult British politicians found it to take on board what was really happening and distinguish winners from losers, obvious though this often was.

A further English weakness – and the switch from referring to the English rather than the British is deliberate – is that neither Leavers nor Remainers have ever thought through what self-determination really means and how it can best be achieved. This is a perfectly legitimate aim that has inspired national movements in much of the world but Remainers tend to deride it as spurious patriotic bombast tinged with racism, and Leavers speak of achieving real independence for Britain almost automatically once the shackles of the EU are removed. This is in keeping with the behaviour of every nationalist or liberation movement in history which has invariably blamed all the woes of its people on foreign rulers or domestic tyrants. This conveniently saves them the trouble of having to explain what they would do themselves.

Britain could achieve a greater degree of formal self-determination outside the EU, though everybody in the country would be considerably poorer. But it would not be as a free trading entrepot like Singapore or Dubai: political and economic isolation for any country usually leads to the state playing a greater role. This is already happening in a small way in Britain with the Department of Health arranging uninterrupted supplies of medicine in case Britain topples out of the EU next year without an agreement.

A contradictory aspect of the Brexiteer project is fanaticism about freeing Britain from EU courts and regulations. At the same time, Leavers are relaxed about British water companies and other essential utilities being owned by financiers in Sydney, Hong Kong and anywhere else in the world.


As Shaw pointed out, national self-confidence is not something that you notice until it is gone and it is then difficult to win back. The same is true of national unity: the obvious fallacy that the British as a whole chose to leave the EU, when the vote was so evenly divided, could only end in a self-destructive crisis. To expect such a revolutionary change to be carried out by a minority government was demented. Whatever happens in the coming months and years, the English nationality will have to mend a lot of broken bones.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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  1. The UK has long been divided by class, region and race, but these divisions have been masked by political and economic success. This has meant the English, as the dominant nation in the UK, are not good at coping with a sense of failure and a loss of self-confidence

    Long divided by race? The UK was virtually 100 per cent white until just 70 years ago, for goodness’ sake.
    ● Political success? Perhaps you mean the Establishment’s success in wrecking nascent nationalist parties.
    ● Economic success? Take a shufti at the United Kingdom Debt Clock.
    ● Not good at coping with failure? We’re the world’s best.

    • Agree: YetAnotherAnon
  2. plantman says:

    Typical, lame Cockburn apology for continuing on the same downward spiral. What a courageous advocate for national sovereignty and personal freedom. (Kidding, of course)

    Yes, Let’s erase all the borders so the bankers and corporatists can continue to call the shots and we can dispel any attachment to choosing our own leaders, making our own laws, controlling our own borders or deciding our own fate. I guess that would suit Cockburn just fine.

    Where do people like Cockburn come from? How does one explain his commitment to a corporate superstate that provides crumbs to its working people while allowing unelected bureaucrats to control the reins of power. Is that his idea of the way nations are supposed to work, by further supporting the power of the rich by transforming nation-states into giant free trade zones where the “free movement of capital” is the top priority??

    Judging by developments in Italy, Greece, France and England, I’d say people are pretty fed up with Cockburn’s world and are willing to put themselves on the firing line to turn things around.

    Cockburn might be ready to run up the white flag, but alot of us aren’t so eager.

    • Replies: @peterAUS
  3. anon[203] • Disclaimer says:

    Brexit Britain Is Facing a Deep Crisis of Self-Confidence

    what’s left there isn’t really Britain anyway

  4. peterAUS says:

    .. I’d say people are pretty fed up with Cockburn’s world and are willing to put themselves on the firing line to turn things around…..

    Not so sure about that will (firing line that is).

    More importantly, those who are willing to risk that move actually don’t have idea how to do that.
    Even worse, just a vague idea about what to do if they win.

    Not promising, because the other side knows both.

    As I said before, all that feels as peasant revolts in Europe.

  5. nickels says:

    Sounds like Cockburn is jumping on the Varoufakis and every other irrelevant lefty parade:

    “Globalism is killing us!!! What we need is MORE GLOBALISM!!!”

  6. L Garou says:

    If you like your Brexit vote, you can keep your Brexit vote!
    Just kidding, no you can’t..

  7. Nona says:

    Oh come on! The Brits have ALWAYS stood united, esp. against the Outsiders.

    Why don’t you tell the truth…be brave! The divisions in the UK, are because of the islamic INVADERS. THe islamics that the ELite brought in, TO DIVIDE its People.

    That is why there’s a division now!!!

  8. Anonymous[225] • Disclaimer says:

    Clueless Cockburn never once mentioned the zombie hordes of Fake Englishmen invading Londonistan at the behest of the EU. What did you think Brexit was about?

    • Replies: @byrresheim
  9. jim jones says:

    Us Brits are having a great time watching the political class tear themselves to bits over Brexit. If you piss off the British you will be sorry:

  10. @Anonymous

    At the behest of the EU?

    Surely you jest, sir.

    Britain started importing people a decade before anyone gave serious thought to the EU.

  11. Mr.White says:


    I’ve never been in Britain (in a dozen European countries, but never in Britain), but I’ve read some literature. Yes, most of its history, at least as formally UK since 1707, it has been a white country what this sentence could mean. The fact is, in despite of being white, Britain was deeply divided in races, yes it was, Irish, English rednecks or worse, Welsh miners, Scots, foreigners as Frenchs or Germans or Italians (check some interesting surnames, even Sephardic), not to say religion (Anglicans, Catholics, Jews, National Church of I don’t know where) and, of course, social classes, the true divide, making ethnic lines merely a folk art. To be all whites, they were pretty well divided, and the current arguments about whites and non-whites remembers me a lot very old ones about Anglicans and Catholics or English and non-English (Irish, for instance). It’s all the same shit with new stupidity.

    Seems to be now that all that serious divides among whites are no longer important, all whites and fiesta. Well, our French friends, the Yellow Sans Coulottes, are proving again that to be white seems to be not that important. Not being muslim. Or atheistic. Or stupid. It’s the economics, isn’t it? I’m rich, you are not.

    There is a country in Europe that “cleansed” itself from all impurities: Spain. Jews, out. Muslims, out. Protestants, out. All whites. All “old [true] christians”. When all the silver coming from the colonies went, it started on a series of Civil Wars from 1820 onwards, to finish with the worst one of all of them, paid and sponsored by the Nazis (who were fascinated by the cleanness of Imperial Spain), and you can bet that if Spain were not member of the EU we’d have another civil major trouble. Oh, yes, Yugoslavia also had, and indeed it was not as white-homogeneous as Spain is (or was).

    Seems to be that all of this has no importance at all. And, don’t lie ourselves, what Habsburg Spain did was highly praised by its European neighbours (change Catholics for Protestants in some places and so on), the Hugenot massacres in France are the very same mental illness. All whites. No muslims, no blacks, no asians. If any other country could not clean itself as Spain did it was simply it had no enough money in that social system. Inquisition never was a cheap thing, as it isn’t CIA or FBI or KGB or MI5 or Gestapo.

    • Replies: @anon
  12. anon[932] • Disclaimer says:

    When all the silver coming from the colonies went, it started on a series of Civil Wars from 1820 onwards, to finish with the worst one of all of them, paid and sponsored by the Nazis (who were fascinated by the cleanness of Imperial Spain)

    seems unlikely

    are you sure your real name isn’t “Mr. Jew”?

    • Replies: @Mr.White
  13. Mr.White says:

    I think I don’t understand what are you trying to say, but anyway, Jews are white, aren’t they? In fact, the vast majority of them in the world are from slavic ethnic stock, pure Europeans, not even a drop of Middle East blood, if this sentence makes any sense at all.

    But, this is all bullshit and you know perfectly. The kind of migration control Britain will have after Brexit is no control at all, illegal workers everywhere, hidden and worst payed than ever, but at least not Polish plumbers or Bulgarian accountants, but more easily manipulable people from what our Trump defined as shitty countries. And with the same pack, a lot of laboral laws that in comparison with those of the EU, the latter will appear as a social paradise. I hope you will appreciate the irony. Exactly, this is what Mr.Johnson and his friends are looking for.

    But don’t worry, Germany are happy, don’t believe they are worried about their loses in the British market. They can regain with advantage in Russia sooner than later, and now they have free hands. They even prefer a no deal, would you like a bet? See what they did to Greece, don’t expect anything better. On the contrary, expect something worse, by far.

  14. Michel Houellebecq

    It’s my belief that we in Europe have neither a common language, nor common values, nor common interests, that, in a word, Europe doesn’t exist, and that it will never constitute a people or support a possible democracy (see the etymology of the term), simply because it doesn’t want to constitute a people. In short, Europe is just a dumb idea that has gradually turned into a bad dream, from which we shall eventually wake up. And in his hopes for a “United States of Europe,” an obvious reference to the United States, Victor Hugo only gave further proof of his grandiloquence and his stupidity; it always does me a bit of good to criticize Victor Hugo.

    Logically enough, President Trump was pleased about Brexit. Logically enough, so was I; my sole regret was that the British had once again shown themselves to be more courageous than us in the face of empire. The British get on my nerves, but their courage cannot be denied.

  15. Britain could achieve a greater degree of formal self-determination outside the EU, though everybody in the country would be considerably poorer.

    Sorry, but this is propagandistic nonsense. Some may be poorer, some richer, but most will remain about the same. I miss the other Cockburn–the one who might have understood the ideal of self-determination. Another word for that is freedom.

  16. Anonymous [AKA "Phil D"] says:

    It’s hard to know where to begin with this. Indeed, it’s the kind of article which makes one despair of the modern Left.

    ‘divided by race’

    Britain was 99.99% white in 1948 and approximately 98% as late as 1980. It only changed because of mass immigration no one ever voted for.

    Indeed it is this mass importation of labour which has driven inequality to extreme levels and which, owing to the corrosive nature of ‘diversity’ on trust and mental well-being, is slowly collapsing democracy as well.

    And that’s before we get to all the other delights that it has brought: rape gangs, acid attacks, suicide bombers, police surveillance state, epic electoral corruption, rampant crime etc. etc.

    One can only assume that this man has a serious grudge against the English and as such is prepared to tell all manner of lies about them.

    • Replies: @eah
  17. eah says:

    A clue re why: here is the PM of GB — “leader”.

  18. eah says:

  19. Richard B says:

    It would have been easier on both writer and reader if Cockburn had simply written, “The host population of Britain is demented because they don’t want us to destroy them.”

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