Nicholas Boyle of Magdalene College and the University of Cambridge has written a particularly caustic evaluation of Greater England’s continued hegemony over the island of Britain and its overseas’ remnants of empire, including the north-east of Ireland, and how this historical legacy influenced attitudes in the lead-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum. From the New European:
“Europhobia was shown by the referendum to be a specifically English psychosis, the narcissistic outcome of a specifically English crisis of identity. That crisis has had two phases, roughly two centuries apart.
In the first phase, in the eighteenth century, the English gave up their Englishness in order to become British, the rulers of the British Empire; in the second phase, in the middle of the twentieth century, they lost even that surrogate for identity and have been wandering ever since through the imperial debris that litters their homeland, unable to say who they are.
England sank its identity in the unions with Scotland, in 1707, and with Ireland, in 1800, which gave rise respectively to Britain and to the United Kingdom. From then on the English had no need of a separate identity, for as metropolitans, first of the United Kingdom and then of the British empire, they dealt with no one on equal terms. They were characterless, because they never met anybody who could impose a character on them: they were masters of the seas, they could travel round the world without setting foot outside imperial territory, and economically the empire was, potentially at least, self-sufficient.
While Ireland, Wales, and Scotland became, for the English, slightly comic regions of ‘Britain’, ‘England’ became for them the sentimental ideal of ‘home’, the image of the green and pleasant mother-country that concealed the brutal realities of empire from its agents and possessed nothing so sordid as distinct political or economic interests of its own.
The destruction by the USA of the British empire, after its finest hour in 1940, was a traumatic blow to the psyche of two English generations, from which they have never recovered, largely because they have never recognised it.
The psychoanalysts, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, famously attributed various collective psychological traits of post-war Germany to an ‘inability to mourn’, an inability to recognize how much emotion they had invested in the love of their führer, to mourn his passing, and so to escape from his influence.
Similarly, we could say the English have been unable to recognise how much of their society and its norms was constructed during the imperial period and in order to sustain empire, and have therefore been unable to mourn the empire’s passing or to escape from the compulsion to recreate it.
…because England has been unable to acknowledge that loss, it has also been unable to acknowledge the end of English exceptionalism, the end of the characterlessness the English had enjoyed as rulers of the world – with no need of distinct features to mark them off from their equals since they had no equals, embodying, as they did, the decency, reasonableness and good sense by which they assumed the rest of the world privately measured its lesser achievements and to which they assumed it aspired.
The trauma of lost exceptionalism, the psychic legacy of empire, haunts the English to the present day, in the illusion that their country needs to find itself a global role.”
Also note this succinct point, which illustrates one of the reasons why the risible “Irexit” camp, which includes a fair number of domestic closet-unionists with a bad dose of empire nostalgia, will never gain a serious purchase in Irish politics:
“In Ireland, the EU, the essential framework for the Good Friday agreement of 1998, appears as the guardian of nationhood, the guarantor of the peaceful coexistence of the island’s two fractions: in Tyrone, Fermanagh, or Armagh, when you cross into the Republic at the end of your lane, it is the EU, not London, that tells you you are still in Ireland.”
With a “Brexit Border” of customs posts and “approved crossings” around the Six Counties becoming ever more likely, pro-European sentiment may well grow in this country, especially if EU-wide resentment at the highhandedness of the UK leads to a severe downturn in political and diplomatic relations between Brussels and London. England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity…