Britain was never a nation state. Brexit might make it one.

Freddy Foks
February 27, 2020
Online Only
"Boris Johnson Speech prep" by UK Prime Minister is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1928 the fervent imperialist MP and Secretary of State for the Colonies L.S. Amery surveyed the geopolitical scene. He argued that new communications technologies were bringing huge new territorial empires together. The United States of America had spread across a whole continent. Its economic might was plain for all to see. On the continent of Europe, politicians and intellectuals were planning a European union.

Britain in the 1930s, Amery argued, would face two options: to do nothing and slide towards a future in some hypothetical European Union or alternatively reinforce its economic connections with the Empire. He strongly suggested that Britain’s destiny lay with this latter course, especially by strengthening ties to Australia, Canada and New Zealand. To do nothing and ‘drift on’ in a position of ‘ever-increasing relative weakness… can mean nothing but the break-up of the Empire’. In this scenario, the UK would find its economy tied ever-closer to continental Europe, while Australia, Canada and New Zealand would be absorbed into the political and economic orbit of the USA. And so it came to pass.

As Amery recognised, in modern politics there is no retreat from the globe. And global politics would, he thought, tend more and more towards the geopolitics of very large populations. Free-market Brexiters, like the (recently ex-) MEP Daniel Hannan, pin their hopes on a future of free trade outside the EU. This policy might have made sense in Amery’s day: Britain could rely on strong economic and strategic bonds with Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand (what some, like Hannan, today call the Anglosphere). But the days of the Empire-Commonwealth are long gone. And new empires have arisen.

Even if British politicians think that they can compete globally without these imperial links and go it alone in a world of multi-lateral free trade, they must surely recognise that the 2010s was marked by a rapid retreat of the so-called ‘liberal international order’. The choice is not now between a Brussels trade bloc or frictionless global markets outside it, but trade within the orbit of one of the three blocs with enough clout and power to shape the flows of trade around them: the EU, the USA and China.

But trade is not merely a matter of peaceful commerce. Worries about Chinese telecommunications and nuclear reactors reveal the way that infrastructure, international relations and security overlap. Over the past five decades Britain has benefited enormously from straddling two constitutive international systems. In terms of commerce and domestic regulation: the EU has provided much of the regulatory backdrop. In terms of conventional military alliances and its nuclear arsenal, NATO has offered what the EU has resolutely failed to afford: a protective umbrella to western liberal democracies and the post-WW2 scramble for land and listening stations America instituted in the late 1940s and 1950s. Finally, Britain retains possession of a postcolonial archipelago of bases and signals intelligence stations that offer its state spying agency, GCHQ, and the intelligence agencies of the so-called ‘Five Eyes’, global coverage of surface transmissions of data.

These three nets of trade, security and intelligence have nested pretty neatly over the past few decades. Spy chiefs and senior civil servants baulked at the Human Rights agenda of the EU and they complained of the asymmetry of relations between states in possession of national intelligence apparatuses and a multinational union with no spying capacities. But there seem, in the public record at least, to have been few real conflicts of interest.

After Brexit, however, trade deals, decisions of war and peace, intelligence sharing and citizenship rights will be remade. One example of the possible tensions, rather than synergies, between trade and intelligence-gathering can be seen amidst the doubt cast recently at a US congressional commission on New Zealand’s continuing role in the ‘Five Eyes’ due to its increasingly close trade ties to China.

In domestic terms, the result of the EU referendum called into question UK’s constitution in three fundamental ways. Firstly, its territorial integrity was challenged when the SNP and Sinn Fein questioned the settlement of the Union after Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. Then, in the referendum’s immediate aftermath, David Cameron declared that he would step down, deferring a decision about a way forward. The 2017 election did nothing to change this; Theresa May was stuck with a minority government and reliant on an agreement with the DUP, whose position on the Northern Irish border proved to be a thorn in her side. Meanwhile, the opposition was crumbling. Labour MPs faced off against the Party leadership. Labour members then re-elected Jeremy Corbyn after a second, acrimonious internal campaign. The party remained undecided on the future direction of the country; its defeat in the recent election still leaves that question unanswered.

The referendum result had no way of working its way through the Parliamentary and party system until the 2019 election. The result has solved the crisis in the Conservative Party, for now. The Tories are embracing what is likely to be a harder Brexit than any could have imagined in 2016. To get there, Johnson did a deal with Nigel Farage and purged recalcitrant members, like the Eurosceptic Philip Hammond, who warned of his party’s transformation into “an extreme right-wing faction”. Brexit will be led from the hard right of British politics, with no meaningful opposition.

Meanwhile, the crisis of nationalism seems likely to be only just beginning. The Conservative Party’s decisive victory delivered a majority in Parliament for Brexit. But this electoral bloc sits on mostly English and Welsh votes. In Scotland the Tories hold only a handful of seats. The pressure for a new independence referendum there will be huge and with Sinn Fein now in an unprecedented position of power across the island of Ireland it is likely that they will push for a border poll sooner rather than later. The sacking of Julian Smith, perhaps the only competent minister in Johnson’s shambolic cabinet, presages ill for the people of Northern Ireland when tensions between sectarian groups are almost bound to become increasingly strained.

It is unlikely that Boris Johnson, or any other Conservative Prime Minister, will offer Sinn Fein or the SNP an inch. The Party now, more than ever, reflects an English nationalist base with rural voters in Wales and Scotland adding some electorally unnecessary ballast to the government’s majority. With the nuclear deterrent in Scotland and the Tories historically committed to strong, centralised and, often authoritarian, government from Westminster, the leadership will be tempted to adopt strong-man politics regarding the Scottish and Northern Irish questions over the coming years. ‘Unionist’ tub-thumping will surely play well with Johnson’s base. And nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland will sharpen their anti-Union rhetoric in response. Meanwhile, extremist loyalist groups in Northern Ireland are likely to become increasingly panicked by fears of republican resurgence and may look to members of the security services, the Army and the Tory right for support, as they have in the recent past.

To turn from this fragmented national scene back to the level of global trade and security, we have not, as a public, reckoned with the rise of China, and with Russia’s ambivalent position in the current conjuncture, stretched as it is between the EU and East Asia. The extent of public discussion about Britain’s future trade relationships has found its symbolic apotheosis in discussion about chlorinated chickens.

The kind of nationalism discussed by commentators has tended to be the nationalism of identity, not the nationalism of the economy or of foreign policy. The international dimension of Brexit has been discussed less as a matter of warfare and intelligence and more as part of a concerted anti-cosmopolitan politics of ethnonationalism, especially in its ‘populist’ inflection, infused with ‘dark money’.

Clearly, the reactionary reimagining of international politics as a concert of nations is not a revival of localism and democracy. Rather it is a global project that seeks to reorder the world. The bromide of nationalism does not mean a return to an era of Social Democracy, as Wolfgang Streeck’s disciples hope, or of patriotism and ethnic homogeny, as many of Nigel Farage’s followers wish. There is no return. There is no return for two main reasons. Firstly, ‘nations’ cannot exist in any meaningful sense outside the gravitational force of the three contemporary power blocs of the EU, China and the USA. Secondly, there is no return because Britain was never a nation state in the first place. It was not one before 1973. It will not become one again. The UK that leaves the EU will be a wholly new state, not a resurgent, re-found old one. And it will find itself immediately buffeted by forces that it has historically been insulated from, and which its military, financial and governmental elites have not had to face before. In Leo Amery’s day, Britain sucked wealth, status and global power from its position atop a vast, if declining, empire and its economy was encased after the Ottawa Conference of 1932 by protective tariffs. Then, from 1973, Britain’s economy was sheltered by membership of the EU. The institutions of the British state were first imperial, then European, never national.

The nationalism that drove Brexit and the desire for national sovereignty that underlies it rests, therefore, on a powerful myth. It is said that Britain bravely faced a sea of troubles half a century ago and survived. For the partisan true believers, history tells us that we can do so once more. In this fantasy, Britain possesses enough state capacity to strengthen itself as a nation state if only the bureaucrats and politicians could just be patriotic enough. For the right, the myth is a story of bullish determination and Blitz Spirit. For the left, it is a tale of the founding of the welfare state after victory in the ‘people’s war’.

But it was not the British Isles that fought the wars of Britain in the Twentieth Century. The British Empire mobilized against Nazi Germany and Japan. The Empire’s soldiers fought and died to defend the nerve-centre of its operations in the Western Hemisphere and its satellites across the world. And in 1948, at the founding of the NHS, Britain was in possession of a still vast empire, being drawn on by Labour politicians to pay down dollar debts to the Americans. The nostalgia of Brexit is a memory of nothing, a fantasy of a coherent nation bounded by the Atlantic, North Sea and the Channel, determined by its Anglo-Saxon destiny. It is a false memory of a nation that never existed.

The modern British state that existed until 2016 was forged in empire. After the panicked, violent retreat from its imperial mission in the 1960s many of Britain’s elites sought a new destiny in Europe in the hope of shoring up the nation’s political and economic power. Until then, migration to Australia, Canada and New Zealand was strongly encouraged with sponsored passage from Britain, framed in barely-cloaked racist terms. Meanwhile, the protective embrace of the Sterling Area pegged many of Britain’s former colonies to the pound, with their monetary policy directed from the Bank of England. The postwar Empire State, in short, strove to unite the free movement of goods, services, (white) people and capital. Joining the EEC in 1973 and its countervailing geopolitical order entailed, in brief, a profound shift in Britain’s social, economic and political constitution. The Supreme Court decision on Article 50 revealed quite how transformative Britain’s accession was; only an act of Parliament could legitimately pull it out.

Pundits often harp on the importance of empire in the imaginary of the Brexit-voting little Englander. But amongst many prominent remainers there is a barely concealed post-imperial melancholia, too: the EU afforded British elites a sense of purpose and a response to the slow, dimming drift from leading the world. Brexit puts paid to any of that. Now the nation’s elites will have to reckon with national rather than European governance and reckon with institutions built up over centuries that have never had to deal with solely domestic issues.

Until now the slow-motion chaos of Brexit has revealed the extent of British integration with the EU and has unveiled the stresses contorting the settlement of the Union as nationalist politicians take advantage of the referendum result. Some are still insisting that the project of disentanglement can be pursued simply with enough optimism of the will. But since 2016 the world outside the EU has changed. The liberal spirit of “making a go of it”, of export-led globalism has been utterly undermined. There is no welcoming ‘outside’ for Britain to turn towards. Brexit has been talked about as if it is an iceberg on the horizon. Arguably, the hull of the British constitution has already been holed well below the waterline. The referendum result did the damage. Now, the decisions will come fast and we have not been well-served by public debate.

With imperial options left long in the wake and the embrace of EU membership sliding past, new global imaginaries loom. The conservative historian and political commentator Niall Ferguson (paraphrasing Henry Kissinger) has drawn one possible future for the 2020s and 30s: the “new Greater Northern Hemisphere Co-Prosperity Zone” (G.N.H.C.P.Z.). This alliance of America, Russia and China will succeed, according to Ferguson, at the expense of the EU and the remaining BRICS (Brazil, India, South Africa). But Ferguson’s vision is, for now, only a template of an illiberal world order. Trump’s actions suggest he has not embraced Kissinger’s plan. The regime’s hostility towards China and cosy embrace of Modi’s India suggests that the G.N.H.C.P.Z. is still a germ of an idea rather than a reality. But if Trump can pull off a détente with Russia and pull back into a new pragmatic relationship with China, then Kissinger’s vision may be fulfilled.

When David Cameron left office he became, almost immediately and controversially, involved in leading a one billion pound China Investment Fund. Kissinger’s presence at No. 10 in the months after Brexit, and May and Johnson’s cringing supplication to Trump might suggest that membership of the incipient G.N.H.C.P.Z. represents Britain’s best option outside the EU. But the G.N.H.C.P.Z. remains the fever dream of the illiberal right. In fact, civil servants and politicians confront disunity, not unity between the non-EU power blocs. Chinese and American interests are organised in increasingly competing terms, weaponizing (in Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman’s view) the interdependence of markets to transform the geopolitical space around them: witness the debate over Huawei and 5G.

This is not, then, a world ready for Daniel Hannan’s Empire 2.0, or even Empire 3.0, based on the supposed cultural and racial supremacy of the settler states known as the ‘Angloworld’. We are witnessing an entirely new world order structured by newly emerging empires. China’s Belt and Road policy is already affecting the politics of southern Europe. What a prize to gain the ports and infrastructure of the UK, newly untethered, as it is, from its dominant trade partners and missing, in the crucial years of transition, much development funding, research expertise and security cooperation.

The British state’s imminent reassembly in the ferment of a New World Order is likely to reform all of its institutions almost entirely. Unmoored from its largest markets and from statutes and rights enshrined in its post-1973 constitution, the British state is about to be put on blocks, disassembled and dispersed to the lowest bidder in an auction house filled with unscrupulous new buyers. The election of 2019 may be seen in retrospect as the last chance to defend those institutions designed to ensure equality before the law, a minimum of social security and a commitment to human rights abroad; the final extinction of a recognisable tradition of progressive politics of state capture and welfare associated with the long twentieth century.  

Labour’s defeat and Johnson’s victory demands a recasting of British political rhetoric from discussions of the ‘economic bottom line’ amongst the left towards a more realistic reckoning with the nation’s fate. What shape this reckoning takes is anyone’s guess. What seems increasingly clear is that a new iron curtain looms in the wings of the world. Its length may run once again through Europe; Britain stands poised in its path.


All by
Freddy Foks