Current Affairs Politics

Brexit Britain. An Island Of Fruitcakes, Loonies And Poppies?

The British writer Michael Burleigh, the author of several acclaimed histories of Nazi Germany and the rise of totalitarian regimes in 20th century Europe, has penned a scathing article on Brexit for the current affairs site, Project Syndicate. In the lengthy opinion piece, the centre-right academic condemns the governing Conservative Party in London for its failure to recognise the potentially disastrous effects of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on the carefully brokered peace in the UK legacy colony on the island of Ireland.

Of all the Euroskeptic Conservative politicians I know, not one has ever mentioned Northern Ireland, let alone the sovereign country to the south of it. The only thing on the Brexiteers’ minds is the quest for parliamentary sovereignty and liberation from the supranational “superstate” in Brussels. This blinkered view may simply reflect ignorance.

Even an erstwhile “Remainer” like Karen Bradley, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, recently confessed that, “[…] when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.” In other words, until very recently, she has been incurious about one of the central issues of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history.

In addition to military decommissioning, the Good Friday Agreement brought together antagonistic communities by mandating smooth trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, under the aegis of the EU customs union. The fact that 55.8% of Northern Irish voters backed “Remain” in the 2016 referendum partly reflects this astonishing achievement.

Predominantly English Brexiteers have given no serious thought to the Irish question, nor even to the likelihood that crashing out of the EU might take the UK back to the dark ages. Many of them would rather lose Northern Ireland and Scotland than forgo Brexit.

Instead, they have been busy constructing a fanciful world of limitless possibility, based on a national mythology featuring Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, the British Raj, and standing “alone” in 1940. Psychologically, some of them seem to be reliving an imaginary war with our closest neighbors and trading partners.

Unfortunately, this summation of Brexiteer thinking is all too true. There are many Conservative Party backbenchers, and a handful of like-minded mavericks in the opposition Labour Party, who genuinely seem to believe that the best scenario for a post-EU UK is a period of prolonged diplomatic and economic “cold war” with its former partners. A “corrective” to decades of too close ties and links with the nation-states of mainland Europe. Meanwhile in the American sports magazine, Deadspin, the journalist Odrán Waldron notes the animosity in Britain towards the Irish soccer player James McClean, who competes for the local English team Stoke City FC. The reason for the antagonism? The refusal of the Derry-born sportsman to wear the Royal British Legion Poppy, an annual symbol of commemoration for veterans who served in the United Kingdom’s military and intelligence services during the 20th and 21st centuries. This includes all those who fought in Ireland during the UK’s failed campaign to defeat the 1916-23 independence revolution, as well as the much later 1966-2005 “Troubles” in the still occupied north-eastern corner of the island. Two historical associations which make the poppy a less than neutral symbol for Irish people.

…McClean explained that he could not wear a poppy because it was “used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945.” As a son of a city eternally scarred by the British Army’s 1972 massacre of fourteen civil rights marchers—including six from Creggan—in what became known as Bloody Sunday, he said that he could not show “disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles—and Bloody Sunday especially.”

In any normal society, this historically contextualized and reasonable explanation would be accepted; not personally wanting to pay tribute to a force that indiscriminately killed peaceful protesters in your hometown seems perfectly sensible, but, as Colin Kaepernick came to learn years after McClean, anyone who questions the institutional war machine is immediately marked an outcast.

It was expected that Stoke City fans would boo their own player and they did as he entered the field in the 82nd minute in Saturday’s game against rivals for promotion Middlesbrough.

McClean was heckled and harassed with anti-Irish songs with every touch of the ball…

After the final whistle, with McClean walking towards the tunnel to exit the pitch, Middlesbrough fans rushed the perimeter, having to be held back by stewards.

Underlying the howls of those who can’t handle Kaepernick’s or McClean’s statements is the idea of the ungrateful savage who should be happy to have a place in the empire: When a millionaire black man in America or a millionaire Irishman in Britain speak of the routine slaughter their people have suffered over generations, they are told to be happy that they are not among them. The thinking goes that Kaepernick should be appreciative that he was never enslaved or killed by a cop and McClean should feel indebted that he did not join the ghosts of the Creggan estate, and they should both shut up and smile.

A precedent for the treatment of soccer-playing northern Catholics in Britain was set with Neil Lennon…

The targeted abuse of Lennon has never subsided: fans of both Rangers and Heart of Midlothian, two clubs from Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively with largely British nationalist fan bases, have physically attacked him. Just last week, he was hit with a coin by a Hearts fan during the Edinburgh derby and “Hang Neil Lennon” was painted on a wall near Hearts’ stadium.

English soccer has always been a hotbed for an almost accepted level of British nationalism, one that inevitably manifests itself in anti-Irishness; not the kind of anti-Irishness some Irish-Americans believe exists and affects them, but real-life hatred of former and current (McClean’s Derry is still under British control after all) colonial subjects expressing themselves.

If this is Britain before Brexit what will it be like after it?

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33 comments on “Brexit Britain. An Island Of Fruitcakes, Loonies And Poppies?

  1. Regarding the Poppy. It is worth noting that it’s use was dying out untill Mrs. Thatcher revived it after the Falklands War when she went super jingoistic . Pressurising people to wear it dates from then .

  2. Seamus Mallon

    i lived in London during the Thatcher era and I dont remember this poppy madness.It seems to have arisen with the invasion of Iraq.

  3. Alan Gordon

    The mind set is fucked up. Not so long ago I was listening to some politicians give their opinions on the Irish border, “the remainers and papers make too big an issue over the border. It will be an easy matter to keep the violence to acceptable levels.” Aye, acceptable level to them would be easy, it won’t impact on them.

    • Wasn’t London bombed quite a few times during The Troubles? Wasn’t Mountbatten Prince Charles favorite tutor or something?

      Not saying your wrong that it’s sort of messed up Alan. But to me it reads more like a case of severe historically amnesia, than of simply “it won’t impact them”.

      • Alan Gordon

        You’re right Mountbatten was one of Prince Charles mentors, a special uncle. On levels of violence I was looking forward not historically. I was meaning or suggesting that if they can keep the violence within Ireland, that would be their acceptable level.

  4. Pat murphy

    Good article, says it all really. Maybe the fruit cakes that think there would be no problem keeping a lid on the trouble over the border should watch the programme that was on the tv tonight about 1984 in the north. Brings back memories. We weren’t even allowed to bury our dead in peace. Someone should maybe show this article to Mise Eirn’s daughter.

  5. ar an sliabh

    Waldron’s comparative really does not make any sense, as the similarity ends in certain people believing they should count themselves lucky not to have suffered the fate of their brethren, smile and shut up. Although still greatly deficient, African Americans and other races and ethnicities often find relief in the court system. At least a whole lot more than Irish find relief in NI’s court system for social injustices. Kaepernick’s protest, even despite being highly controversial in terms of how it was conducted, found a lot of positive resonance in the country, including in Waldron, obviously. Of course, one must add, it is HIS country, he’s an American. McClean on the other hand, is Irish and from an area occupied by the britz. england is NOT his country, no matter how hard the britz may stake their claim to NI being english. NI is part of Ireland, pure and simple, always has been, always will be, no matter how long it is occupied for. He is not just some Catholic soccer player in britain, he is of a completely different nationality (and most britz would agree). His statement was not a protest at all, it was a mere sensible explanation prompted by questioning and not a continuous effort to get a message into the public. Not anywhere near Kaepernick’s persistent campaign. I don’t think McClean would be alive had he repeatedly intentionally performed an act at the beginning of each game, that, in many people’s perception, would be insulting to the british national anthem and flag (what does that expectation say for the britz?). His explanation certainly did not garner him any positive resonance whatsoever. I don’t mean to diminish Kaepernick’s courage, I just want to point out his and McCleans situations are quite different, and the repercussions suffered by McClean for a mere statement are disproportionate to those suffered by Kaepernick for staging an entire campaign. Shows that even the polarised Americans have more civility than our neighbours.

  6. Maybe after Brexit a younger generation will decide the whole situation sucks and do major reforms for their country.

    But one serious question about this-a sincere one.

    How do you think some of these people would react if an English footballer refused to wear the Orange Poppy for some political reason not directly related to Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. Say he was an Englishman who was opposed to war like Falklands, Iraq, or some other military-misadventure that Britain was involved in, because he believed the war was morally wrong.

    How do you think the social opprobrium for that anti-war Englishman would compare to what’s been thrown at McClean?

    Reason I ask this is because of the comparison to Mr. Kaepernick. While I sympathize with the man’s right to protest, and think he has been wrong. If the British context was as similar to the American one as implied by some folks here, the answer would be that our anti-war English footballer, would be just as excoriated as McClean-possibly even more so. Would that be the case in the UK?

    Again totally sincere question. No desire to cut anyone down to size or anything.

    • Oops! That’s should be “think he has been wronged” NOT “think he has been wrong”.

    • I don’t think a British player would receive the same level of vitriol. The Irish angle makes it particularly acute. A subset of the British found it astonishing that the Irish do not automatically accept, respect or identify with British values or Britishness itself. Whether in Britain, Ireland or anywhere else in the world. It’s that old (and difficult to source) Churchill complaint: “We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English”.

      • That’s partly because Irish citizens have the same rights as British citizens. I think one result of Brexit and a border – wherever it is – will be pressure to end the CTA and treat Irish citizens the same way as citizens of other members of the EU.

        • Quite possibly. I know that several obscure Tory MPs have suggested that.

          • Though let’s keep in mind Wee Jim that this works both ways – for Irish citizens in Britain and for British citizens in the ROI.

            • True, but many – most? – British citizens in the RoI are entitled to Irish citizenship. I think that the mutual exchange of civic rights will probably go. At the extreme, de Valera’s fantasy of forced population exchanges could come true.

              • But wouldn’t forced population exchanges create a lot of bad blood down the road too?

              • “But wouldn’t forced population exchanges create a lot of bad blood down the road too?”
                Forced population exchanges would be the result of a lot of bad blood, Grace. I’m afraid it’s possible. Not probable, but possible.

          • Sorry, where would these forced population exchanges take place and who would be exchanged? Are you talking between the ROI and the UK or within NI or where?

            • Possibly within NI: more likely between Ireland and Great Britain.
              Most supporters of Brxit would happily dump NI, which would make an end to the CTA practicable and an end to the exchange of mutual rights between Ireland and GB, If a lot of British-identifying people leave a united Ireland there will be pressure to “retaliate” and it could easily build up from there.

          • I think that’s conflating two different things, isn’t it?

            One the end of the CTA due to Brexit and the second a UI. It is possible that a small number of British identifying unionists would feel the latter unendurable but I’m a bit dubious that it would be significant numbers. As to the first that seems a stretch. There’s plenty of Irish in Australia and Canada where there is no CTA and I don’t have any sense from them that they are under any pressure to leave, and even if we factor in ‘new’ immigration control approaches it would be I think unlikely that the UK government would feel any great need to push long term ROI citizens who were resident in the UK out. What would be in it for them?

            In any event a UI would be an agreed event – you say it yourself, the UK government wouldn’t weep at having to let NI go, so they’d presumably be up for a dispensation that was accommodating of everyone, and Dublin is not going down the UI path without significant residual NI/UK links of some sort or another be they representation (House of Lords or some such) etc.

            There’s a further point, the CTA is convenient to everyone. It suits London, it suits Dublin.

            • One major theme I see here, is a lot of disagreement about what exactly the British government and/or most Britons actually want both with regards to NI and more generally.

              Are they holding on to NI as some last outpost of “The British Empire” or is the only reason most of them give a rat’s behind about NI is because the DUP is providing the Conservatives with their threadbare majority in Parliament? Some go as far to say they’d be happy to let Scotland and Wales “go” as well as just be “Little England”. That seems to be at least one of the Prize Winning questions here.

              As for wanting to keep the CTA. It looks as if some of the skepticism there is coming from Brussels. One EU official said of letting the UK have a similar deal with the EU from outside it as Norway “What works for A Lamb will not work for A Lion”.

              It really, looks like some of the EU officials are afraid of being “had” by Britain. That the UK will manage to retain most of the benefits of EU membership without any of the responsibilities. Certainly much of this is driven by economic interest, but I suspect there’s a large element of face saving going on as well.

            • I don’t think that integrating NI into the EU will be peaceful, or even practicable. There’ll have to be a fudge to keep the peace. I don’t think anyone will put up guerrilla border posts, of course, but I do think that attempts to enforce EU regulations – especially new ones – will be difficult. The British government may well just dump NI anyway: every new regulation that applies there would meet the remark “You want it. You pay for it.” until ultimately they say “It’s all yours.”
              Long term ROI citizens will probably be safe enough – I hope so ! – but I think they have to be quieter and there will be growing hostility to new immigrants. If NI unionist are – or seem to be – threatened, then things will be different, no matter how un British – by contemporary standards – they actually are. The thing is, there is growing hostility to Europeans in England now. I hope I’m exaggerating it. Irish people aren’t yet seen as “properly foreign”, but they are increasingly being seen as European others.
              The CTA isn’t convenient to everyone. It isn’t convenient to xenophobic Little Englanders and they seem to growing in numbers and influence.

              • Of these Little Englanders you’ve met how would you describe them? Do you think they are a distinct group from those who may have some nostalgia for “The Empire”, or are some people carrying both thoughts in their heads? Where do they stand on issues like global warming, labor unions (for English people of course), The NHS, economic equality?

                Do they love Their Queen, along with William and Kate with their children (that nobody likes Prince Charles is a given!!)? Or might they be open to more radical reforms on how “Little England” is to be governed?

                What’s their mindset on issues like foreign policy and that whole “City of London” entity? Or are most of them not all that informed about politics either way?

      • Then that’s where the situation with nationalism in British football vs American Football, would be different. Because if an American Football player had done what Kaepernick was doing in protest of the Iraq War 2002-2012, the level of opprobrium against Kaepernick would have absolutely paled in comparison to that anti-war protester regardless of his color, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, class origins etc. Many people who sympathize with Kaepernick, would have absolutely nothing but pure sheer unadulterated contempt and venomous hatred for a Football player who did the same thing in opposition to the Iraq War. (They may also romanticize Muhammad Ali while viewing more diverse or mostly white groups of anti-war protesters from the Vietnam era as worthy of a bullet between the eyes.) They’d constantly infer that he was the kind of guy who’d spit on returning Vietnam Vets and such.

        And if it had been one of the women in the WNBA or NWSL (Women’s Professional Basketball and Soccer leagues), it would have been much worse than it would be for a man. They would have compared her to Jane Fonda or “Hanoi Jane”. There would have been statement about how she deserved to be gang raped by 100X Taliban soldier or 100X Viet Cong or whatever.

        There’s a subset of people in America who romanticize African American struggles (and music, and other things)-thus the greater sympathy for Kaepernick or Ali-while also believing a number of negative anti-black stereotypes or even carrying some antagonism in their hearts for black people in general. It’s odd but I’ve observed it all my life.

        A had a bit of a work situation with my beliefs, having been involved with protesting the Iraq War. I was working for a non-partisan non-profit that involved working with several subsets of the public. It was during The Great Recession so other jobs weren’t exactly a dime a dozen.

        We were encouraged but not officially required to say to any veterans especially Iraq ones, “Thank Your for your service.” I was happy in principal, to put my political history at the door and serve the mission of this organization. But “Thank You for Your Service” is not politically neutral to American anti-war activists-if you follow. We weren’t technically required to say it, but the social pressure was there. So I ended up saying to the veterans, “I’m glad you’re home safe!” or “Glad to see you home safe!”. I talked to a mentor of mine from the anti-war movement who was himself a VVAW (Vietnam Vets Against the War) man. I got some side-eye from colleagues. But when some of the supervisors brought me into a room and asked about it I said, “Well everyone says ‘Thank You for Your Service’. I think this sounds a lot more sincere.” Which was in fact a small slice of the truth. An older African American lady-who was fond of me despite thinking at that time I was more conservative than I actually am-said “Well sincerity is obviously one of your strong suits.” So they sort of let it slide, because they didn’t think it was political. But I did spend the rest of my time on this job hoping nobody higher on the food chain would notice it. And thankfully none did or seemed to.

        But if they knew it was political, I would have lost my job and gotten a poisoned recommendation for sure.

        • ar an sliabh

          The soldier (veteran) in America generally joins the service with the intent to serve the nation or out of being young and stupid and thinking this is a way to make a positive difference in the world. The soldier is not the one who abuses that intent. It is autocratic, reactionary politicians at the behest of greedy multi-billionaires that want to amass more money, that do. Nothing wrong with thanking their victims for their best intent. That is why I detest both Returds and Demorats. They are neither left or right, they are just about power and funneling tax payer money to their “donors”. They don’t care what front they have to build to gather support from the ignorant.

          • Honestly Ar An Sliabh, most of the folks I talked to on that job would hate being labeled “victims”, no matter what their opinion on the war happened to be.

            I can’t say anyone was offended by “I’m glad you’re home safe.”, however.

            And yes, “Thank you for your service.” is predicated on supporting the war, and assuming the veteran your thanking supports the war (which may or may not be the case).

            But hey. It doesn’t look, like your understanding of actual anti-war protestors in the country you once called home has evolved much beyond what most people who were raised in the US picked up from pop-culture. Indeed most of the protestors themselves were raised in that culture too, in case that never occurred to you before. And that includes both the “young folks” the “done-it-befores”, the ones who are war veterans themselves, and those who did hard time in prison to avoid Vietnam (sometimes despite other options for avoiding the draft).

            • ar an sliabh

              What people would like to be labeled and what they really are can be two different things. Saying, “Thank you for your service” to a WWII veteran does not express support for Bush Junior’s war, it expresses support for that person. It’s the person it’s all about in the end is it not? I know though how unbelievably particular Americans are about certain words or phrases. Jesus, lighten up already. Fair play to you though for sticking to your guns. I have encountered the reasonable anti-war folks who are basing their decisions on the facts surrounding the war they are concerned about. There are certainly a good number of those (people and wars). I have also encountered the fanatic, opposing any war, the necessity for maintaining a standing army, and believing any human conflict can be solved diplomatically or with enough appeasement. Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum (Vegetius) is the answer to that insanity. Yes, I was silly enough in my younger years to be a soldier in the U.S. Army and go to war. I believed in the stated principals of the country. I was active in opposing Bush Junior’s war (as a vet then) because the facts could not support it, and that was not popular at the time, as you know (I am sure you remember what they did to the Dixie Chicks). I learned then that that “free speech” thingie was nothing but a farce, along with many other “rights”. They seem to be dispensable on demand instead of “god-given”, “self-evident”, or “unalienable” (these words came from a slave holder, as you know, for more American hypocrisy). No “pop-culture” impressions here (although job-wise I got a pass for being a “dirty foreigner”). That is why the Nazi storm troopers recently appearing in American streets did not surprise me in the least (and they have the gall to dub themselves “AntiFa”). I came to the states as a young adult, and I am glad, as it prevented me from viewing the world through the American media’s skewed representation of reality. That experience and the current radical fanaticism and complete ignorance of the state of their nation, coupled with coming to terms with my Irish past, were key factors in deciding to say, “F. that, I will not live long enough for them to get their head out of their arse”, “I do not really belong here”, and go home (at least for most of the year).

      • ar an sliabh

        They simply hate us, mostly because we prevailed over all of their attempts to beat us into total submission. This is also, at least in my opinion, why they have difficulty in letting NI go. It would mean that they completely failed. It’s the last place they still exert true imperial dominion over, and the place they have occupied the longest. Yet the Irish are still Irish, even after over 800 years of strife and punishment, refuse to take their place (at the very bottom) in the english class system. They cannot accept that someone does not strive to be a part of their “great” empire, even less, abhors the thought. It’s that evangelistic thing that carried over to the Americans. Americans similarly have real problems accepting when someone says, “no thank you” to their way of life. That is why a british player’s opinion contrary to the empire’s position would be set aside, while an Irish player’s opinion causes direct affront. That is why the Irish language is so despised by the britz, it’s the ultimate expression of self-reliant identity, highlighting how different we really are from our age-old enemy.

    • ar an sliabh

      McClean’s position is not necessarily anti-war. He simply refuses to wear a symbol that honours those who fell killing his people, our people. That is why I and any other self-respecting Irish person will refuse to wear it. It also stands for those who murdered our children. The refusal is not some blue-eyed anti-war protest. Any Irish person appreciating the sacrifice of those who died for our nation’s freedom also knows that war is sometimes an inevitable, albeit ugly necessity. We might soon be called upon to raise its dark spectre yet again.

  7. The only way you will get a unified Ireland is via Brexit. As for poppies, in some ways they are used as a social cohesive.

  8. “Brexit Britain. An Island Of Fruitcakes, Loonies And Poppies?”

    Why, yes. Given both their past and more recent history, did you have another expectation?

  9. Eamon Dunphy once recalled that when he joined the south London football club Millwall, he was told by an insider that as an Irish Catholic he would get a hard time there because Millwall was owned and run by Freemasons. British soccer is steeped in Freemasonry – which may be why, as George Best, noted, the British media potray the pathetic antics of English footy hooligans as heroic, while hypocritically pretending to condemn them. The founding meeting of the Football Association was held in the Freemasons Arms hotel, and according to Stehpen Knight’s book on Freemasonry, ‘The Brotherhood’, the supporters association of West Ham United – a club notorious for the supposed fearsomeness of its hooligan “firm”, was at his time of writing (the mid 1980s) controlled by Freemasons.

    It’s also worth noting that McLean and Neil Lennon’s complaints about the tolerance of anti-Irish racism in British football have both been completely buried by a media normally so very keen to magnify every sporting “controversy”. This is a genuine controversy and no coporate media outlet will touch it with a barge pole

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